Citing a safer space shuttle, NASA is widening the astronaut ranks to include a senator and a schoolteacher, and hopes for even more diversity. But private experts criticize the change as reckless, given the innate dangers posed by the winged spaceships. And even NASA's top safety experts say the agency's public assertions of improved safety are exaggerated.
NASA officials acknowledge that space travel is dangerous, but they tend to play down the charges and internal disputes, saying that new shuttle crew members will face no undue risks and that, in any case, they will be fully informed of the hazards.NASA announced Jan. 16 that Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, would fly into orbit in October and that Barbara Morgan, a third-grade teacher in McCall, Idaho, would do so sometime later. It said the announcement signaled the start of a diversification of the astronaut corps, with educators at the head of the line. NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said the move was made possible by substantial safety improvements in the shuttle fleet.
But in interviews, NASA's own safety experts said the risk of catastrophe, while diminished, was still roughly 1 chance in 145 for each flight, the same as it was three years ago when NASA last comprehensively judged the danger. They added that Goldin's statement and recent NASA public estimates of shuttle risk were misleading.
And private experts said NASA seemed increasingly torn between technical rigor and political showmanship. The gap, they said, appeared to be like the one that existed before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven people on board.
NASA and its allies say the shuttles, after more than $5 billion in repairs and improvements, are more reliable than in Challenger's day, even if they are not nearly as safe as cars, trains or planes.
But despite statements by Goldin, a man known for bold acts and pronouncements, some NASA officials tended to play down talk of safety improvements.
"The probability of loss is about the same," said Frederick D. Gregory, a former astronaut who heads NASA's safety program. "It's the uncertainty that's getting narrower."
In other words, the complex gear is basically as dangerous as before, but experts understand the risk better, allowing them to refine estimates of its reliability.