No time for NASA complacency on crew safety

The NASA authorization bill that passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last week is a brilliant compromise and could result in NASA moving forward to a future with sound earth and space science, an aeronautics program that will increase air travel safety and efficiency, and a human exploration effort that has a chance of allowing humans to venture beyond low earth orbit.

Beginning the development of a heavy lift rocket in FY2011 gets NASA moving in the right direction and goes a long way to preserving high-tech jobs. Heavy lift is a unique NASA requirement for exploration, astronomy and earth science, but could also enable capability that could help our country in national security.

However, the bill that was crafted has in it a politically derived heavy lift concept. In particular it misses the mark on crew safety. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board got it right when they recommended that NASA separate crew and cargo.

Now is not the time to get complacent about safety to satisfy a political expediency.

Putting crew on a large complex vehicle will not only be less safe than a simple standalone crew transport vehicle, but also result in a high life-cycle cost solution. That high cost will ensure that either we won't have the funds to build the follow-on exploration capabilities, or that the program will get cancelled and we will have this dialogue again in a few years of how to proceed with exploration.

The Congress and the administration should give NASA the high level requirements and let the rocket scientists at NASA do the trade studies and designs that will propel this nation forward, and ensure our leadership in space exploration.

John Grunsfeld, Baltimore

The writer is an astrophysicist and former NASA astronaut who flew five Space Shuttle missions

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