Catastrophe almost struck the Worldwide Area Station final week when a Russian module unexpectedly fired its thrusters shortly after docking. A retired area engineer is now sounding the alarm, saying NASA’s security tradition is exhibiting indicators of decay and that an impartial investigation is critical.
James Oberg will not be one to carry again.
The retired “rocket scientist” and mission controller labored at NASA from 1975 to 1997, the place he served as an skilled on orbital rendezvous. His expansive information of the Russian and Chinese language area applications has led him to testify earlier than Congress on a number of events, and his 2002 guide, Star-Crossed Orbits, uncovered the shortcomings that existed within the U.S.-Russian relationship whereas the ISS was underneath improvement.
Naturally, the current incident with the ISS caught Oberg’s consideration, prompting him to jot down a guest post for IEEE Spectrum.
“Whereas the proximate explanation for the incident remains to be being unravelled, there are worrisome indicators that NASA could also be repeating among the lapses that result in the lack of the Challenger and Columbia area shuttles and their crews,” he wrote. “And since political pressures appear to be driving a lot of the issue, solely an impartial investigation with critical political heft can reverse any erosion in security tradition.”
Certainly, it’s arguably probably the most critical incident to have occurred on the Worldwide Area Station. On July 29, Russia’s Nauka module efficiently docked on the orbital outpost, and for some time all appeared properly. As cosmonauts labored to combine the newly arrived module, nonetheless, Nauka’s thrusters started to fireplace, inflicting the area station to roll backwards at a charge of 0.5 levels per second. Nobody knew this was occurring till an on-duty flight controller at NASA seen the station’s altering orientation. Thrusters on the ISS labored to counter the sudden propulsion, and eventually, after Nauka’s thrusters instantly stopped, management was restored.
NASA insists that astronauts aboard the ISS have been by no means in any hazard, however as Oberg writes: “How shut the station had come to catastrophe is an open query, and the flight director humorously alluded to it in a later tweet that he’d by no means been so joyful as when he noticed on exterior TV cameras that the photo voltaic arrays and radiators have been nonetheless standing straight in place.” Oberg is discovering no humor in any of this, particularly when contemplating that this incident resulted within the first-ever declaration of a “spacecraft emergency” within the station’s historical past.
The ISS appears to be okay, however stresses attributable to the sudden rotation might have affected the modules, help girders, photo voltaic arrays, radiator panels, and robotic arms. Nonetheless, the precise particulars of what occurred that day will not be but totally identified. The media has “depicted groups of specialists manually directing on-board techniques into motion, however the precise actions taken in response nonetheless stay unclear—and possibly have been largely if not totally automated,” Oberg writes. That NASA initially reported a spin of 45 levels and never the precise spin of 540 levels will not be a superb look, he argues.
As Oberg additionally factors out, the area company, as an alternative of talking critically concerning the incident, is as an alternative reminding everybody of the awesomeness that’s the working relationship between NASA and Roscosmos. The emphasis on sustaining a superb relationship with Moscow—so, politics—seems to be getting in the way in which of security. However what’s additionally getting in the way in which of security, he says, is, paradoxically sufficient, a dearth of great incidents in current historical past.
“The bureaucratic intuition to attenuate the described potential severity of the occasion wants cold-blooded evaluation,” Oberg writes. “Sadly, from previous expertise, this mindset of complacency and hoping for one of the best is the results of pure human psychological drift that comes when there are lengthy durations of obvious normalcy.” To which he provides: “The NASA staff has skilled that very same sluggish cultural rot of assuming security a number of instances over the previous a long time, with hideous penalties.”
Oberg mentioned a complacent tradition existed at NASA within the years main as much as the 1986 Challenger catastrophe, a time when he labored at Mission Management. Crew members had “seen and begun voicing issues over rising carelessness and even humorous reactions to occasional ‘silly errors,’ with out impact,” writes Oberg. An analogous “psychological drift” took maintain within the late 1990s throughout joint U.S.-Russian operations on Mir and through early ISS flights, he says.
NASA headquarters, or another increased workplace, ought to intervene to “reverse the obvious new cultural drift,” Oberg writes. He is asking for an impartial investigation into the incident to find out the precise trigger and to show the decision-making that came about at NASA that allowed Nauka to dock—a module that Russia was unable to disarm within the occasion of an emergency.
Like NASA, Roscosmos has additionally downplayed the incident. Sergei Krikalev, the director of crewed area applications at Roscosmos, mentioned an investigation shall be launched to evaluate the bodily influence of the mishap on the ISS, however the extent of this investigation will not be identified. It seems that each NASA and Roscosmos are hoping to brush this incident underneath the carpet, however as Oberg factors out, it ought to function a a lot wanted wake-up name.