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2003-08-27

NASA Pushes Ahead With Nukes In Space While New Report Predicts More Space Shuttle Accidents Could Occur

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Karl Grossman, author of the "The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet" reviews NASA’s report on the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion and his concerns over NASA’s plans for nukes in space. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript A report on the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia predicted that NASA would suffer similar tragedies killing more astronauts if it did not transform its quote "broken safety culture."

The report focused on both the physical errors that caused Columbia to explode on its on Feb. 1 mission as well as the work culture at NASA.

The explosion that killed seven marked the second time in 20 years that a Space Shuttle blew up.

Investigators determined NASA’s engineering had grown careless, its safety system was flawed, and communication within the agency was muddled. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe was also cited for creating the problematic culture.

The review board determined the Space Shuttle’s problems stemmed from a problem during the liftoff when a 1.7 pound piece of foam insulation fell off hitting the shuttle’s wing at 500 miles per hour causing some damage.

The investigators found the culture at NASA where policies and managers were seldom critiqued led to the agency being unable to make possible fixes after the problem occurred on liftoff. Among other things it was reported the Agency never obtained pictures of the space shuttle Columbia in orbit that may have displayed the extent of the damage. Lower-level engineers requested such photo, but the requests were ignored or blocked.

The report read "Management decisions made during Columbia’s final flight reflect missed opportunities, blocked or ineffective communications channels, flawed analysis, and ineffective leadership." It went on to say "Perhaps most striking is the fact that management . . . displayed no interest in understanding a problem and its implications."

Unless fundamental changes are put forward the board warned "the scene is set for another accident." However the board did not call for the permanent end to space shuttle flights if NASA followed 15 recommendations.

The board did recommend the government should spend more money on NASA but one analyst told the New York Times, "The problem is, the program is worthless. It doesn’t involve anything worth dying for."

  • Karl Grossman, the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet and is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the telephone by Karl Grossman. He’s the author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet. He’s also a professor of journalism at the State University of New York, Old Westbury. Welcome to Democracy Now!

KARL GROSSMAN: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us your analysis of this report. You have been reporting on NASA for decades.

KARL GROSSMAN: Well, I’m heartened that we have another commission declaring that NASA is a bumbling bureaucracy out of control with very minimal concern for safety. One of the lines in the report is so telling— NASA’s organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as foam did.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that culture.

KARL GROSSMAN: It’s a culture in which criticism is not welcomed. I know this from whistle blowers, insiders in NASA who have come to me through the years. Whether it’s a low-level person or a mid-level person concerned about the foam striking the shuttle in this particular situation.
Or thousands, millions of concerns that NASA employees have. You don’t open your mouth. You don’t raise a concern. This is not an agency, as this commission report said, with checks and balances. Its report does not have an independent safety program, has not demonstrated the characteristics of a learning organization. That’s really important. They always talk about lessons learned. Apparently at NASA lessons are not learned.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you have most focused on, and that is nuclear material in space, and what that has to do with this report.

KARL GROSSMAN: My biggest concern since, well, it goes back to the 1980s. I broke the story in 1986 about the Challenger’s next mission to be a mission involving lofting plutonium into space. That would have been in May of '86 if it hadn't blown up in January of '86. And now NASA is involved in a great expansion, a sweeping expansion of its space nuclear program. This Sean O'Keefe calls it Project Prometheus—NASA’s good at these catchy names and titles. Three billion dollars is to be spent over the next five years on all kinds of space nuclear projects, including a nuclear-propelled rocket. This is a scheme which NASA spent billions on way back in the '50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. The major reason this was cancelled was out of concern for a nuclear rocket crashing back to earth. But Sean O'Keefe is gung-ho nuclear—in fact there’s a personal angle here.
In an interview with a nuclear energy trade publication, Sean O’Keefe talks about, at the dinner table at night being regaled by stories from his father who was in the nuclear Navy about the wonders of atomic propulsion at sea. Then he goes on, Sean O’Keefe saying that we’re going to bring nuclear power to a new dimension above all our heads. The L.A. Times quoted Sean O’Keefe as saying we’re talking about doing something again, this Project Prometheus, on a very aggressive schedule. Talking about getting missions up, nuclear-propelled rocket missions up by the end of the decade. So here you have this agency that can shoot right in space, being charged with negligence, serious negligence in connection with the death of the seven astronauts on Columbia. And it goes back, this history of ineptness, incompetence, and lack of concern for safety moving to all kinds of things nuclear in space. And we’re not volunteers. The astronauts were volunteers, we’re not. And to embark on this foolish atomic course endangering lots of life —- not to be anthropomorphic—-lots of life on earth, for this agency to do this is just horrific. And it just must be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: And how would you suggest that it be stopped?

KARL GROSSMAN: Well, I think critically it’s important that people know what’s going on. And there’s not a whisper, not a touch in the coverage this morning or last night about—and I think it’s very much connected because this is Sean O’Keefe’s big project, this project Prometheus. And I think people have to know and thank heavens for you, Amy, and for Democracy Now!, we’re getting the word across to good degree this morning. But I think people should write letters to the editor, people should shake up the media, or whatever the media is these days, in their areas and get some attention on this space nuclear program. Then there’s a very good organization that I would suggest people connect to and that is the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power In Space. You go to their website, it’s www.space4peace.org. I put together a number of videos on this issue of nukes in space and you can give a call to Enviro Video at 1-800-326-8846.

AMY GOODMAN: Karl Grossman.

KARL GROSSMAN: And churches and schools and people just have to know what NASA has been up to and what it plans to do now and how that will be endangering all our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Karl Grossman, thanks very much for being with us, author of The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program’s Nuclear Threat To Our Planet He’s a professor of journalism at the State University of New York, Old Westbury.


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