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Is a space accident waiting to happen?

Poor communication between Russians and Americans has put the space station at risk, says one of the nine members of a NASA safety panel who resigned Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A serious accident is waiting to happen on the international space station due to poor communications between American and Russian engineers, says one of the nine members of a NASA safety panel who resigned Tuesday.

There have been three separate incidents that could have led to accidents aboard the space station, and all were linked to a lack of coordination between the Russians and Americans who operate the orbiting lab, said Arthur Zygielbaum, a former member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Zygielbaum said safety flaws on the space station are being brushed aside in the same way that NASA ignored problems with foam insulation on the space shuttle. A suitcase-sized chunk of foam insulation that flew off a fuel tank during the launch of Columbia is blamed for breaking a heat shield and causing the loss of the space shuttle and seven astronauts.

“We think we see a trend on the space station that is as significant as the foam,” said Zygielbaum. “We have had three incidences of miscommunications or different purposes between the Russians and the Americans that have endangered the space station.”

Mass resignation 
Zygielbaum, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Nebraska and a 30-year veteran manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was one of nine members to resign Monday from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

He said the resignations came after the panel came under sharp criticism from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and from the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The board members unanimously voted last week to resign, he said, because it was felt NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe needed to reconstitute the ASAP so it was more independent and adequately funded.

“We decided the professional thing for us to do was to resign to give O’Keefe the flexibility he needed to reconstitute the panel,” Zygielbaum said.

O’Keefe said in a statement, “We need to take this opportunity to explore how the original concept for an Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel needs to evolve to best meet the future needs of the agency.”

Established after Apollo 1 fire
The ASAP was established by Congress after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report last month said the ASAP lacked influence in NASA’s top ranks. CAIB Chairman Ret. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. called for the safety panel to be reconstituted. A report from the Senate Appropriations Committee said the ASAP was “asleep” and failed to notice dangerous cultural issues in NASA that were spotted by the Columbia board.

“Many of the cultural issues identified by the CAIB are in our annual reports” but were ignored, said Zygielbaum. “That underscores our lack of influence.”

Zygielbaum said the Senate committee report “basically said that we were culpable for the death of seven people (on Columbia). That is a hard thing to take.”

He said the safety panel did miss the significance of foam insulation being shed during the launch of the space shuttle, “but so did every other advisory board. ... The foam has been falling off since the first flight.”

Could trend continue?
Now, he’s fearful that the tendency to not spot dangerous trends is continuing in the international space station.

Zygielbaum said there was confusion last week in signals between the Americans and Russians, causing a dangerous reaction on the space station.

He said the station’s attitude, or position in space, can be controlled either by firing rockets on a docked Russian cargo ship, called the Progress, or by using gyroscopes, or reaction control wheels, to twist the orbiting lab.

“Last week, the signal was sent too early to the Progress to fire the thrusters (rockets) and the reaction wheels fought that move,” Zygielbaum said. The gyroscopes, working against the rockets, were driven to their limit, seriously endangering the control devices.

As another example, Zygielbaum said that during an earlier shuttle mission to the space station, the Russians configured the lab’s attitude one way and the Americans tried to do something else. As a result, the station drifted out of control momentarily, he said.

A third incident, he said, involved a battery that was brought to the station even though the Americans did not want it on board.

“We are walking on eggs (with the Russians) because of different philosophies,” Zygielbaum said, “and we don’t want to raise antagonism on either side.”

It is recognized, he said, that the Russians “saved our bacon” when the Columbia accident caused the grounding of the American space shuttle fleet and Russian craft were required to rotate crews and send up supplies to the International Space Station.

However, said Zygielbaum, the Russians have a different system of safety oversight.

“Our safety organizations, even though they are weak, have more independence and authority than do the Russians,” he said.