Due to poor communications between U.S. and Russian astronauts, the International Space Station is a disaster waiting to happen, according to an ex-safety official at NASA. There have been three incidents so far that could have led to serious problems, all caused by miscommunication between U.S. and Russian engineers who are working in the station together.
Arthur Zygielbaum, who pointed out this problem, is one of the 9 safety experts who resigned from NASA last week. He says safety problems aboard the ISS are being brushed aside in the same way problems with foam insulation on the space shuttle were ignored by NASA. “We think we see a trend on the space station that is as significant as the foam,” he says. “We have had three incidences of miscommunications or different purposes between the Russians and the Americans that have endangered the space station.”
The space station’s altitude can be controlled either by firing rockets on a docked Russian cargo ship, called the Progress, or by using gyroscopes to twist the orbiting lab. He says, “Last week, the signal was sent too early to the Progress to fire the thrusters and the reaction wheels fought that move.” The gyroscopes ended up working against the rockets, endangering the control devices.
On an earlier shuttle mission, the Russians measured one way and the Americans another. As a result, the space station drifted out of control momentarily. In a third incident, a battery was brought to the station even though the Americans did not want it there. After the Columbia accident caused the U.S. space shuttle to be grounded, we’ve relied on the Russians to help us rotate crews and to send up supplies to the ISS. “We are walking on eggs (with the Russians) because of different philosophies,” Zygielbaum says, “and we don’t want to raise antagonism on either side.”
About his resignation from NASA, Zygielbaum says, “We decided the professional thing for us to do was to resign to give [NASA administrator Sean] O’Keefe the flexibility he needed to reconstitute the panel.” The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) was established by Congress after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) says the ASAP lacks influence with NASA. “Many of the cultural issues identified by the CAIB are in our annual reports” but were ignored, says Zygielbaum. “That underscores our lack of influence.” He admits the ASAP safety panel missed the importance of the falling foam insulation, “but so did every other advisory board?The foam has been falling off since the first flight.” He says the Senate committee report “basically said that we were culpable for the death of seven people (on Columbia). That is a hard thing to take.”
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