Getting back on the horse

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Tony Reichhardt talks to former astronaut George 'Pinky' Nelson about flying the shuttle after an accident, and the future for NASA.

Former astronaut George 'Pinky' Nelson Credit: © George Nelson / GN

Three-time shuttle astronaut George "Pinky" Nelson had the unique experience of flying the missions immediately before and after the 1986 Challenger accident, which saw a space shuttle dramatically break apart on lift-off. An astrophysicist by training, Nelson left NASA in 1989 and now directs the Science, Mathematics and Technology Education programme at Western Washington University in Bellingham. If Discovery launches on 13 July as planned, it will be on Nelson's 55th birthday.

What was different about the first flight after an accident from the crew's point of view? Did your perception of the risk change?

“The shuttle should have been put to bed ten years ago. Former astronaut George "Pinky" Nelson ”

No. Actually, the flight before Challenger was really ragged. We had five launch attempts on the pad, and all kinds of technical problems. You could see things weren't going real well at that point. But when you're in the cockpit, you just want to go fly. And the flight after Challenger, we certainly knew that bad things can happen, but I felt that they had looked at everything twice and it was going to be a pretty safe mission. I had full confidence that if something got us, it wasn't going to be the O-rings [which failed on Challenger].

So it's unlikely to be debris striking the wing this time, as it was on Columbia two years ago?

Yes, that was really a fluke. [While NASA knew that debris often falls during launch, this was a big piece that hit a particularly vulnerable spot.] But there's no excuse for flying either Challenger when they knew the O-rings were a problem or Columbia when they knew they were losing material off the external tank. I don't fault the engineers, I fault management. This problem of debris falling is a problem that got them once. If they don't think they've got the problem fixed, I would worry. But they feel like they do.

Do you think the shuttle programme is really fixed?

No. It should have been put to bed ten years ago. I mean, the shuttle's a marvellous machine, but it never worked out to be the operational spacecraft they hoped it would be, and they should have moved on.

Are you happy with NASA's plan to build another vehicle to send people to the Moon and Mars?

Yes. I don't think much of the space station, which has been NASA's focus for the past decade, and it will be nice to have another vehicle. I think the station's a marvellous engineering achievement, but it was sold as something else. There's no science being done on the space station. If anything, they should have built a platform around the Moon or some place interesting.

What about the current astronaut corps? There aren't many flight opportunities, but there are something like 100 active astronauts.

Not very active (laughs). That's something they really ought to think hard about. How many astronauts do they really need for what they're trying to do? They still have the skill mix for their initial fantasies about the shuttle and the space station. That's what NASA hired them for, but they know it's not true.

I feel sorry for those guys - the world's most talented people just going to meetings, sweating, living in the world's worst climate there in Houston. It doesn't seem right; they ought to at least move them to San Diego or something (laughs).

I don't know what I would do if I were in their shoes, although there are still interesting things to do from an astronaut's point of view. Building the space station's got to be a hoot, a great mission. And servicing the Hubble Space Telescope - I think NASA administrator Mike Griffin will make a good call on that.

What do you mean by 'a good call'?

I think if you're going to fly the shuttle at all, you ought to service the Hubble Space Telescope. It's got to be the number one priority. Here's something you can do to contribute to science. I had no respect for former administrator Sean O'Keefe's decision-making on that [when he scrapped the servicing mission]. He got burned by Columbia, and was trying to get rid of every mission he could. I don't think he realized NASA was an agency that actually did things.

Can NASA be revitalized?

I don't know. Right now NASA's getting by on inertia. There are NASA centres spread all over the country, and money's being spent, and the aerospace industry needs to employ people. That's what's driving it all. They have no mission like saving the world from Communism, or whatever else has driven the space programme in the past. I would like to see the Moon-Mars exploration programme happen. But we're spending a lot of money blowing up stucco in Iraq. It's hard to send aluminium into space when you're sending bricks and mortar 50 feet up.

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Reichhardt, T. Getting back on the horse. Nature (2005) doi:10.1038/news050704-12

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