Two NASA reports released late this week bring to mind the old adage “we don’t know what we don’t know.”
The first concerns the explosion of an Orbital Sciences, (now Orbital ATK ) Antares booster carrying a Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station on October 28th 2014. One year later, a NASA Independent Review Team has been unable to pin down the cause, which comes as no surprise given the fact that Orbital Sciences and engine supplier Aerojet were unable to agree either, with each blaming the other.
The NASA report actually adds to the confusion, suggesting that besides the two possible failure modes argued by the companies; either foreign object debris (FOD) entering the LOX turbopump and causing a bearing to fail, (the Aerojet suggestion) or simple failure to detect a bad bearing which was the result of a manufacturing error, (the Orbital argument), the bearing may have suffered from poor design in the first place.
Given that Aerojet paid Orbital ATK $50 million to settle any outstanding issues and take back title to the 10 remaining engines AJ-26/NK-33 engines which are now basically useless, the precise root cause will likely never be determined. On the bright side, the ten best Halloween costume contest winners at Aerojet may get to take home a unique, if somewhat unwieldy paperweight.
The second NASA report comes from the Office of Inspector General, and looks at the agency’s overall approach to astronaut health as it prepares for the “Journey to Mars.” It did not like what it found.
From the Executive Summary:
“Although NASA continues to improve its process for identifying and managing health and human performance risks associated with space flight, we believe that given the current state of knowledge, the Agency’s risk mitigation schedule is optimistic and NASA will not develop countermeasures for many deep space risks until the 2030s, at the earliest. One of the major factors limiting more timely development of countermeasures is uncertainty about the mass, volume, and weight requirements of deep space vehicles and habitats. Moreover, even as NASA gains additional knowledge about its vehicles and habitats and the effects of radiation and other space conditions on the human body, the Agency may be unable to develop countermeasures that will lower the risk to deep space travelers to a level commensurate with NASA standards for low Earth orbit missions. Accordingly, the astronauts chosen to make at least the initial forays into deep space may have to accept a higher level of risk than those who fly International Space Station missions. We also found that NASA cannot accurately report the true costs of developing countermeasures for the identified risks.”
The audit is fairly extensive, and covers a wide range of potential risks to astronaut health, with the general finding being that the agency’s approach is very much stovepiped, with little in the way of broad cross disciplinary work.
From a big picture perspective, one major issue NASA’s OIG completely overlooks, as does the agency itself, is the likely contribution to mitigating certain heath risks (vision, bone and muscle loss) which can be made by generating artificial gravity through rotating structures. And it is not as if doing so necessarily requires the type of large vessels portrayed in Interstellar, or The Martian. For the moment at least, it appears as though NASA is planning on sending its astronauts to a least Martian orbit sometime within the next 25 years without ever having conducted any serious experimentation on the issue.
There is enormous irony here where ISS is involved. One of the primary reasons for building ISS was to conduct long term research into the effect of zero-G on the human body. The partner nations have now cumulatively spent nearly $100 billion on that effort, and while there has been definite progress in certain areas such as the role of nutrition in bone loss, we still keep finding new issues, such as vision impairment. The bottom line is that while zero-G presents a manageable problem, you certainly wouldn’t want your starting quarterback to take a vacation in space the week before the Super Bowl, and you don’t want your best an brightest arriving on Mars in poor shape either.
So what to do?
Every trash laden cargo vessel departing ISS only to burn up in the atmosphere is 50% of a potential large scale artificial gravity experiment requiring two such vessels and a tether.