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STS-5 launch
STS-5, launched in late 1982, was the first shuttle mission lacking the ejection seats that provided some means of escape for astronauts in the event of an accident. (credit: NASA)

STS-5 and the impact of Apollo-era decision-making

Some time between June 27 and November 11, 1982, the Apollo-era managers at NASA made a key decision: they ordered the removal the crew escape provisions from the Space Shuttle. Not that the shuttle crew escape provisions were any good—in fact, the crew escape system was never “crash dummy” tested as was done with the Apollo launch escape system (LES) and the modern automobile. Unlike the Apollo LES, two SR-71-style Blackbird ejection seats were basically just put into the Space Shuttle without “crash dummy” testing.

I think this early decision demonstrated a lack of both leadership and vision of the Apollo-era management (notice I did not call them “leaders”). This decision meant the Apollo-era management did not learn from Apollo 13 how to succeed or how to fail in the business of human space flight. This STS-5 decision would set the stage for the Challenger and Columbia disasters to come. There are also ethical implications of their decision that have caused a generation of NASA managers, astronauts, and engineers to follow the lower ethical standard path they chose.

STS-5 was an early mission of the shuttle program (the fifth), and the battle of Dunkirk an early battle in World War 2. Before I hone in on the STS-5 decision made by the Apollo old-timers, I’d like to go back to the battle of Dunkirk and look at two critical decisions, one made by the British and one made by the Germans, both which could have changed the course of the young war.

Early decision-making, including critical thinking, is not easy. In the Battle of Dunkirk, the old commanders on top on both sides no doubt relied on the experiences of the First World War. When wars begin, often it becomes quickly evident when weapons are no longer effective. The Monitor-versus-Merrimac US Civil War battle instantly made the wooden ship extinct worldwide so far as battleships go.

This decision meant the Apollo-era management did not learn from Apollo 13 how to succeed or how to fail in the business of human space flight. This STS-5 decision would set the stage for the Challenger and Columbia disasters to come.

In the Battle of Dunkirk, the British Fairey Battle light bomber and Bristol Blenheims instantly proved no match for the Germans. However, the Hurricanes performed quite well and at times were able to maintain air superiority over Dunkirk. But British Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding refused to commit ten more requested Hurricane fighter squadrons to the battle. His early critical decision probably changed the course of history and arguably could have prevented the immediate fall of France.

The Nazis, also relying too much upon their old generals, refused to listen to a young tactician named General Heinz Guderian, who became known as the “Father of the Panzers” and developer of the blitzkrieg. General Guderian remained loyal to Hitler through the war (probably due to their similar view of trench warfare), and had his blitzkrieg strategy been used, there might have been no retreat and escape from Dunkirk at all, with several hundred thousand more British and French troops being captured instead.

Of course, NASA was not fighting a war, and the Cold War seemed to be chilling out early in the shuttle program. I think there were several problems facing NASA’s Space Shuttle early-on decision making. The worst problem was that all of NASA’s direction in Apollo came from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. In other words, in NASA’s organizational youthfulness, NASA simply awaited orders. There were no leaders from within the organization, and no need for leaders. Second was that, as a young organization, NASA could not learn lessons from Apollo 13 just as an infant cannot be taught the lessons a teenager might learn. Third was the whole rush to go to the Moon culture that would continue. Whatever NASA was going to do with the shuttle, some deadline had to be met, and astronauts were test pilots willing to die to test the experimental rockets to meet the imaginary schedule pressure.

Thus, with STS-5 a critical decision needed to be made, although it appears nobody at NASA realized how critical the decision to be made was, just as with Dowding and the Nazi generals above Guderian. I have no doubt most folks at NASA will look at me with curiosity when I say the STS-5 decision was critical. Similarly, the critical decisions missed by the British and the Nazis in the Battle of Dunkirk are all but forgotten, with both sides claiming Dunkirk a great victory of a sort. Perhaps to keep the people upbeat, Winston Churchill claimed the battle of Dunkirk was “their finest hour”, though their finest hour was yet to come in the battle of Britain. The British and French failed in battle strategy leading to retreat from Dunkirk, although the retreat made the battle a bit of a successful failure, but not much of one.

The STS-5 decision was a critical Apollo-era management decision. I am not saying it was the Apollo management’s worst decision. The worst decision, according to one of the oldest, most fundamental military maxims, is to “never reinforce failure”. The decision to build another orbiter after the Challenger disaster is one that I think disobeys that military maxim. After all, the US military got out of the shuttle program after the Challenger disaster. It seems NASA should have gotten out at that time as well.

The STS-5 decision was needed to solve a problem that seemed simple enough. With the first four flights of the Space Shuttle, only two “test pilots” were on the rocket. With STS-5, NASA wanted to fly four astronauts. But only the pilot and co-pilot had ejection seats. What was NASA to do? The two choices seem rather obvious: you can add two more ejection seats, or remove the two existing ejection seats. The Apollo-era management chose to remove the two existing ejection seats.

If there are no longer ejection seats, then the vehicle needs to be declared “operational”, and the astronauts no longer referred to as “test pilots”. In right stuff irrational exuberance, thinking failure not an option, the Apollo-era management steered a new course for NASA. If not already over with the launch of STS-1, NASA officially ended the “right stuff era” with the launch of STS-5 and entered a new era of “right stuff irrational exuberance”. That is the era NASA is currently in, and will remain until the shuttle is retired.

Both the ethics and the Apollo 13 unlearned lesson of the STS-5 Apollo-era management decision should not be ignored. Regarding the ethics, consider that NASA, in the early 1960s, “crash dummy” tested the LES long before such tests were adopted by automakers. But with the STS-5 decision, NASA effectively removed the crash dummy test even as the automakers added the crash dummy test and the seat belt, the shoulder belt, and the air bag innovations. At one time the leader in test safety, NASA now took one step back while the automakers took two steps forwards.

I must confess I feel like an oxymoron when I drive to work in my car strapped in by my seat belt knowing there is an air bag in the steering wheel, when the space shuttle launches human beings on a rocket with no launch escape system by an agency that does not seem to know the reason for its own success and failures.

Also unlearned—not forgotten—was the reason for Apollo 13 success. The independent, redundant lunar module allowed the Apollo 13 crew to escape, even with all of the mistakes and blunders made by management. And, according to NASA, more people watched the Apollo 13 splashdown worldwide than the first Apollo lunar landing. No doubt if the Challenger or Columbia crews had the equivalent escape system and had survived, the world would have cheered NASA. NASA is indeed an organization that does not seem to know what it takes to succeed.

Above my desk is a fairly recent “NASA Values” chart. The chart begins by stating, “We are dedicated to the values of safety.” In a day and age when we have infant car seats and laws regarding how to put infants into car seats and how to install infant car seats into cars; with seat belt laws, air bags, front impact, side impact, and rollover crash dummy tests of automobiles, I must confess I feel like an oxymoron when I drive to work in my car strapped in by my seat belt knowing there is an air bag in the steering wheel, when the space shuttle launches human beings on a rocket with no launch escape system by an agency that does not seem to know the reason for its own success and failures.

Thus, in the spirit of oxymoronism, I think it is pretty ugly that the same difference, or should I say indifference, has left my agency in the fine mess it is in today. But in the spirit of “pessimistic optimism”, I end this article with my own perhaps “obscured vision” for American human space flight, and leave that vision open to debate.

Benchmark the transportation industry leaders in safety technology, test, and design. Once upon a time the leader, NASA has fallen behind the automakers regarding crash dummy testing. Terms such as survival artists, thrill seekers, bold adventurers, brave explorers, risk takers, daredevils, escape artists, test pilots, and guinea pigs must be replaced by modern safety processes and destructive testing processes. NASA should attempt to become once again the premier industry leader in safe passenger travel.

Become the world-class premier leader in passenger safety technology, test, and design. Develop new technologies and approaches regarding safe passenger travel. Attempt to develop complete, independent, redundant, low-cost system level capabilities similar to what the US Navy has accomplished in its submarine survival, escape, and rescue program, and similar to the independent redundancy that saved Apollo 13.

Crash dummy test the proposed vehicles to develop statistical confidence in design. Incorporate the technology of safe passenger travel into the next LEO human transport. Continuously improve and crash dummy test new models frequently like the automakers do.

Attempt to manufacture proposed designs using off-the-shelf hardware and mature propulsion systems. Nanotechnology and other technologies need development, but the only technology that can make a major contribution to NASA returning to success, and then on to significance, is the safety category. Otherwise existing proven and developed technologies must be used to control vehicle production cost.

Attempt to end the expensive continuing Apollo-era tradition of pre-flight review with this new vehicle. You cannot inspect quality and safety into a product—the Shuttle has proven it is too late. Build and crash dummy test safety into the design to begin with. Assure crash dummy and destructive testing up-front, with low-cost independent redundancy, and acceptable production costs including elimination of EVA, cargo, etc. This should eliminate the need for and old-fashioned, out-of-date Apollo tradition of excessive pre-flight reviews.

Inspire and transfer the various safety technologies back to the mass-transportation industries. Provide the leadership to continuously lower accident, injury, and fatality rates back on Earth. Maybe this will inspire the coal mining industry, which did not learn its own Apollo 13 equivalent “success” lesson when nine coal miners were rescued in Pennsylvania in 2002. Perhaps there is no better “Jean-Paul Sartre” justification for human spaceflight.

Implement contingency planning and recovery planning to allow continuous, uninterrupted business and access to LEO. Incorporate the unlearned lessons of Apollo 13, Challenger, Columbia, 9/11, and Katrina, to have contingency plans and recovery plans for disaster and other unusual circumstances to allow uninterrupted American human spaceflight. Cease reliance upon Russia for contingency planning regarding American passenger access to and from space.