Shuttle 'experimental,' astronaut says
Famous Tech grad calls on NASA to change rules
by Mike Toner - April 18, 2003
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Reproduced by permission
Former astronaut John Young, who commanded the space shuttle
Columbia's maiden voyage, said Thursday that NASA must quickly
develop ways to repair damage to the shuttle heat shield system in
orbit and adopt "more conservative" flight rules for future
"The orbiter is not an operational vehicle and they need to stop
treating it like one," the 72-year-old space veteran said during a
visit to Georgia Tech, where he graduated in aerospace engineering
in 1952. "This is still an experimental vehicle. STS-107 [Columbia's
final flight] proved that pretty well."
Some of Young's concerns were echoed Thursday in Houston, where
the Columbia Accident Investigation Board warned that NASA
procedures may have contributed to the loss of the spacecraft and
its crew of seven on Feb. 1.
The board, headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman, said new safety
measures should be instituted before NASA allows the three remaining
shuttles to fly again.
The board urged the agency to develop a "comprehensive inspection
plan" for the complex sandwich of materials that make up the leading
edge of the spacecraft's wings. Damage there, either during launch
or in space, is believed to be a root cause of Columbia's fiery
disintegration over Texas.
Investigators also recommended that NASA quickly sign an
agreement with the Defense Department's National Imagery and Mapping
Agency for routine imaging of the shuttle in orbit. Although the
defense agency's powerful ground-based telescopes might have spotted
damage to the shuttle before re-entry, NASA failed to ask for an
The board said the need for both measures is so evident that work
on them did not need to wait for its investigation of the accident
to be wrapped up sometime this summer.
But Young, a veteran of six spaceflights who now serves as
associate director of the Johnson Space Center, said other changes
also are needed to build "more conservatism" into future shuttle
Specifically, he said, the agency needs to expand the role of the
International Space Station so that any damage to the thermal
protection system can be repaired before re-entry.
Young also said he would like to see NASA alter the trajectory
that the shuttle follows after launch, so that it could, in the
event of main engine malfunction during ascent, return to selected
airports on the East Coast.
Despite his concerns about safety, Young, one of 12 Americans who
have walked on the moon, is decidedly upbeat about the future of
human space flight. He told 250 Tech engineering students he fully
expects to see permanent bases on the moon and manned landings on
"We'll go back when the president says, 'Do it,' " he said.
"It will take a lot of money, but so what? We just spent $70 billion
on a war in Iraq."
But Young said it is unrealistic to think human activity in space
will take place without other losses, like that of Columbia, in the
future. He recalled that back in the early 1980s, when he was
training for the first shuttle flights, some NASA planners claimed
the shuttle would make space flight routine.
"They were telling us that we didn't need ejection seats because
it was going to be as safe as a DC-8," he said with a wry smile.
Young and other shuttle pilots were most concerned about the
shuttle's ascent into space. A special concern was the first two
minutes when it is attached to its two thundering solid rocket
boosters, the period at which the Challenger later exploded in
"After we got into orbit on that first flight, I figured we were
OK," he said. "We all thought the descent would be a piece of
For more than 100 shuttle missions, it was.
As Young sat in mission control on Feb. 1, Columbia -- the
orbiter he had first flown into space 22 years earlier -- began what
everyone expected to be another routine descent toward its landing
strip in Florida.
"I knew the instant we lost the trajectory, that we had lost the
vehicle," Young recalled. "It was a good vehicle."
This week, 10 weeks after the accident, NASA reported it was
winding down efforts to recover fragments of the orbiter that rained
down across East Texas. So far, search crews have recovered more
than 70,000 pieces of debris -- about one third of the spacecraft
that Young first flew.