TWO OFFICIALS responsible for health and environmental conditions on the space station refused to approve the launch of the new crew, instead signing a dissent that warned about “the continued degradation” of the environmental monitoring and health maintenance systems and exercise equipment vital to the astronauts’ well-being. The new crew blasted off in a Soyuz capsule from Russia on Saturday and later docked with the space station.
Some NASA medical experts and scientists argued that the space station, which so far has cost more than $30 billion, should be temporarily abandoned, because the grounding of the space shuttle fleet after the Feb. 1 Columbia disaster has made it impossible to repair or replace failing equipment anytime soon. But NASA, the Russians and other partners are reluctant to leave the orbiting laboratory unoccupied and more vulnerable to mishaps.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said yesterday that, as he understood it, there is no immediate hazard to the crew, but that conditions could deteriorate in the next six months and force the crew to abandon ship.
“If there is any indication whatsoever that this [situation] is hazardous to their continued existence, or to their health longer term, the answer is: Get aboard the Soyuz, turn down the lights and leave,” he said in an interview.
NASA’s flight team is unable to assess the quality of air or water and the radiation levels aboard the space lab because of a growing array of hardware problems that have not been corrected and that may constitute the kind of subtle, creeping risk that NASA officials have vowed to avoid based on the harsh lessons learned from the Feb. 1 Columbia shuttle accident, according to documents, minutes and interviews obtained by The Washington Post.
The problems with monitoring environmental conditions aboard the space station have festered for more than a year, some NASA medical officials said. Space station astronauts have shown such symptoms as headaches, dizziness and “an inability to think clearly,” according to a medical official who asked not to be named. The onboard sensors designed to provide real-time analysis of the air, water and radiation levels have been broken for months, which has made it impossible to determine at any given time whether there is a buildup of trace amounts of dangerous chemical compounds that could sicken the astronauts, or worse.
Some of the medicines aboard the station are old and need to be replaced, while the equipment used to monitor the astronauts’ hearts and to treat them for irregular heart beats in the event of an emergency is malfunctioning and providing unreliable data, according to documents and interviews. In 2001, a health team listed 13 “hazard concerns” with the defibrillator, even when it is working, including “fire/explosion due to battery failure.”
The new crew — American commander C. Michael Foale and Russian astronaut Alexander Y. Kaleri — has just begun a planned 200-day tour aboard the 171-foot-long facility orbiting about 240 miles above Earth. European Space Agency astronaut Pedro Duque of Spain was also carried to orbit on Saturday. He will conduct experiments for 10 days before returning with the departing crew, Commander Yuri I. Malenchenko of Russia and American science officer Edward T. Lu.
Station astronauts have consistently said they prefer to keep the orbiting facility occupied during the shuttles’ grounding and that they accept the attendant risks and discomfort. Foale and Kaleri are seasoned veterans, Foale having survived a collision and Kaleri a fire during their tours aboard the Russian Mir space station.
HISTORY OF TENSION
There is a history of tension over health issues between conservative medical personnel, on one side, and engineers and astronauts eager to fly, on the other, NASA insiders say. However, in what some medical personnel described this week as a chilling echo of the decision-making leading up to the Columbia space shuttle disaster, arguments in favor of scrubbing the latest crew replacement mission and temporarily shuttering the space station were overruled by managers concerned with keeping the facility occupied.
Interviews and documents show that NASA has been divided over the issue of safety, with some scientists and flight surgeons arguing that it is too dangerous to maintain a crew under the current circumstances, while others express the fear that the facility could spin out of control and be lost unless astronauts are on board at all times to cope with potentially catastrophic problems.
The final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board sharply criticized senior managers for refusing to heed the repeated pleas of mid-level engineers to investigate and seek photographs of the damage to the left wing of the orbiting shuttle. The report also noted that shuttle managers came to accept recurring dangerous problems in their determination to meet launch schedules.
William H. Gerstenmaier, the space station program manager, told reporters last month that his team had studied the accident board’s recommendations for the shuttle program and intends to apply the panel’s message to the space station program, too.
Others have expressed fears that old customs and habits are hard to break. “Just like what happened prior to [the Columbia accident], we are going down the same path in taking risks with the space station crew for the same dysfunctional reasons,” a NASA physician said. “We’re basically one system failure away from demanning the space station.”
During a key readiness review meeting on Sept. 10 in one of the low-slung buildings at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, scientists and space medicine experts briefed colleagues and supervisors in the Space and Life Sciences Directorate on the troubling array of safety problems that led them to recommend against sending a new crew to the space station. According to the official minutes of the meeting, Jeffrey R. Davis, NASA’s director of space and life sciences, at one point asked: “How much risk have we already accrued, and how much more can we handle?”
Nigel J. Packham, a NASA environmental factors specialist, said at the meeting that while controls were in place to respond to large releases of gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, “no capability exists” to monitor trace contaminant accumulations that over time could pose serious risks to the astronauts working and living in close quarters, according to the minutes. There are more than 200 hazardous materials and chemicals aboard the space station that must be tracked and accounted for to protect the astronauts.
Some scientists had reluctantly supported the previous mission to the space station, launched on April 25, because of promises by managers that the faulty equipment would be repaired or replaced, according to documents and sources. But nothing had been done before Saturday’s launch.
“The question was posed as to why the ISS [international space station] crew remains on-orbit, as well as why a continued launch date is still set for [the Soyuz capsule] to launch a new crew to ISS,” the minutes stated.
Davis asked those who raised the concern “if they were telling him that the crew needed to come home today.”
“The consensus was that no one wanted to leave the ISS unmanned,” the minutes said. However, Nitza Cintron, NASA’s chief of space medicine, said that “she felt uncomfortable with the potential of surmounting risks with no monitoring capabilities,” the minutes reported.
Cintron and William A. Langdoc, chief of NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office, refused to authorize the mission and two weeks ago signed a dissent to the “flight readiness certificate.” They declared that “the continued degradation in the environmental monitoring system, exercise countermeasures system, and the health maintenance system, coupled with a planned increment duration of greater than 6 months and extremely limited resupply, all combine to increase the risk to the crew to the point where initiation of [the mission] is not recommended.”
In an interview this week, Langdoc said: “There has been a lack of insight into the trace contaminants on board the station, and as a result there has been a very extensive review to try to gain some insight.” He added: “Those problems are being diligently pursued so that we can get some data. . . . The concerns are the concern of not knowing. It’s not that we know of some specific threat or problem. It’s what we don’t know that concerns us.”
Davis and nine other NASA officials signed certificates of flight readiness that included waivers for the problems outlined at the Sept. 10 meeting.
One of the documents states that “all open issues can be mitigated” with planned actions. The two-man crew scheduled to return from the space station on Monday will bring along a “solid sorbent air sampler” that will show NASA scientists the composition of the air aboard the station during one 24-hour period. NASA officials have promised to send up, through a Russian Progress supply craft, a replacement device for monitoring radiation levels, and said they intend to work out the problems with the exercise equipment and the defibrillator.
But the results of the air sampling will not be known until December. Many of the other fixes depend on finding replacement parts for equipment that are no longer manufactured, and on the Russians meeting or stepping up the scheduled launches of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.
O’Keefe said he was told of the debate on Oct. 15, the day before he left for Kazakhstan for the launch of the new crew. He subsequently asked for one more review of the concerns both by officials in Washington and by space station managers in Houston. He was told the crew was kept informed, he said, and “everybody who needed to participate, everybody who wanted to participate, did or was invited to.”
O’Keefe said it was his impression that the two dissenters are now “quite comfortable’ with the way the concerns are being handled and had joined in the consensus on Friday after that final review and additional assurances that the remedies will be aggressively pursued.
He called the internal debate “a healthy expression of the fact that we’re learning something here.” He added that “this is the audible sound of minds creaking open.” However, he said yesterday that he was unaware that there is no current ability to monitor the space station’s air quality for dangerous trace contaminants.
The ambitious and controversial space station project, in partnership with more than a dozen countries, has long been mired in cost overruns and delays. President Ronald Reagan proposed it in 1985, but its first component was not launched until 1998. The design for the orbiting facility has been repeatedly reworked. The planned size and capability had been reduced again before the Columbia accident as the administration struggled to control the latest increase in cost.
When the shuttles were grounded after the Columbia accident, the facility lost its major supply line and left NASA heavily dependent on the Russians and other partners to keep the space station operating. The Russian spacecraft, however, can transport only a small fraction of the cargo and equipment that the shuttles can. As a result, construction of the incomplete space station is at a standstill, and the customary three-person crews have been replaced with caretaker crews of two, who now spend much of their time doing maintenance and a minimal amount doing scientific research.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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