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Why space program needs cooperation of all countries

By Robert Lackman | | Updated: 2018-01-11 11:14

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

Commander John Young, America’s most experienced astronaut, died at age 87 on Jan 7, 2018. He both walked on the moon and flew the first mission of the Space Shuttle. Young said about NASA's mission, "NASA is not about the 'Adventure of Human Space Exploration,' we are in the deadly serious business of saving the species. All Human Exploration's bottom line is about preserving our species over the long haul."

Matthew Husband, whose father flew as commander of Columbia space shuttle that Young first commanded, realized the danger of his dad’s profession on Feb 1, 2003.

His father died when the Columbia broke up during reentry in February 2003. Matthew didn’t realize his dad had a dangerous job. His father had tried to shield both his children from knowing how dangerous his job was.

He was told during his astronaut candidate interview that each shuttle launch had a 1 in 100 chance of killing its astronauts.

John Young’s fellow Gemini crewmate Gus Grissom and two other astronauts perished in the Apollo 1 fire caused by faulty wiring.

Young and Grissom both knew the wiring had troubles but were afraid to bring it up for fear of losing their jobs. After the Apollo 1 astronauts’ needless deaths, Young vowed to never again be silent about safety issues.

This dangerous nature of space travel makes me think the US law prohibiting NASA from cooperating with the Chinese space program is very short sighted.

Cooperation is needed now if our countries are to successfully work together later. Cooperation may someday be needed to rescue either of our countries space voyagers from deadly peril.

The folly of incompatible hardware from different organizations was demonstrated during the Apollo 13.

When the service module exploded as they were approaching the moon, the crew of three was forced to abandon the command module and use the lunar module as a lifeboat. They did make it home alive.

The astronauts, however, nearly died returning to earth because the carbon dioxide scrubbers for the command module were incompatible with the carbon dioxide scrubber sockets for the Lunar Excursion Module’s carbon dioxide scrubbers.

The two separate companies that had made the command module and lunar modules had not thought to cooperate on a common design for their carbon dioxide scrubbers. Fortunately, NASA engineers on the ground figured out how to give instructions to the astronauts enabling them to jury-rig a solution that allowed the lunar module to use the command module scrubbers.

If the two separate contractors who made the command and lunar modules had cooperated more, this near-fatal problem would not have occurred.

Software cooperation is even more complicated than hardware cooperation. One of my IBM mangers was in command of making sure that IBM’s space shuttle software modules worked together correctly. He was responsible for the software that controlled the space shuttle until 70 seconds before liftoff. Steve Szabo used a very expensive software technique called formal methods to prove there were no bugs in the software, since any software bug could blow up the space shuttle.

The official NASA investigation says a rescue of the Columbia astronauts from their damaged space was possible by a shuttle being prepared for launch in the next mission.

However, NASA ignored its engineers who feared the Columbia’s heat shield had been damaged by an impact by falling fuel tank insulation at lift off. The engineers arranged for a spy satellite to take pictures of the Columbia, but the managers called the military to cancel such a picture taking. Part of the NASA management’s reasoning was thinking if the heat shield was damaged the astronauts were as good as dead and no rescue was possible.

Maybe if US did not have a vehicle that could rescue the crippled Columbia, China or Russia could have been invited to rescue them. However, a lot of it depends upon previous experience of cooperation together. Astronauts may needlessly die if our respective countries cannot cooperate in an unforeseen emergency. Do I think that Rick Husband and the other 16 US astronauts who have died in the US space program were foolish to put themselves in such a great danger? I don’t think so. They died as heroes that took a calculated risk with their lives in order to serve the human race. From age 4, Husband wanted to be an astronaut. He knew the dangers of space, but thought being an astronaut was a way to serve mankind.

As China's space program develops, chances of accidents happening increase. All space programs need to be shielded from political pressure.

The first space voyager Yuri Gagarin reportedly made plans to confront Soviet Communist party secretary Brezhnev in person about the decision to launch the Soyuz mission prematurely that killed his fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Gagarin died in an airplane crash before any confrontation took place. There was pressure to launch early in order to celebrate international solidarity day.

The US ban on cooperation with China no doubt comes from political pressure.

As Nobel laureate Richard Feynman said, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Feynman is famous for blowing the whistle on NASA management who had had been trying to hide their guilt in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Feynman knew that the night before the launch the engineers had pleaded with NASA management not to launch the shuttle, predicting correctly that because of the unusually cold weather, the solid rocket O-rings would freeze, causing the space shuttle to explode. Because of the political pressure to stick to their aggressive launch schedule the engineers were ignored, and all died when the Challenger exploded. I have vivid memories of my shock when in January 1986 veteran IBMer Gordon Kerr walked by my office in Boca Raton, Florida, and popping his head in told me the Challenger had exploded. Like the astronauts Gordon had stared death in the face for the good of his country. In his case it was when he crossed the Atlantic in a troop ship convoy being hunted like sheep by German World War 2 U-boats.

Astronauts are taking calculated risks to serve the people. Someday, we made need our astronauts to rescue our world.

Since, as John Young eloquently articulated, the purpose of space exploration is to protect the human race, the least the human race can do is try to work together to make sure these brave people do not needlessly perish.

The author has taught at schools in Qingdao since leaving IBM in 1998.

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