WASHINGTON, March 25 (UPI) -- The independent panel that oversees NASA safety issues recommended Tuesday that the agency develop a new crew escape system for the space shuttle.
The Aerospace Safety Review Panel called for a method for astronauts to escape from the shuttle at virtually every point in its flight -- something not possible in the existing vehicles.
"The risk of flying the shuttle is significant and inherent," said Sidney M. Gutierrez, a panel member and former astronaut who has studied crew escape options for the shuttle fleet.
Gutierrez suggested escape systems used in Air Force bombers nearly 50 years ago could have been adapted for shuttle flight. "If there is a logic that exists (for not developing an escape system), I don't understand it," he remarked to his colleagues.
Gutierrez said he reviewed NASA's own requirements set in place following the 1986 Challenger accident for crew safety. "I can't explain why NASA is flying something that is two orders of magnitude more dangerous than their own documents call for," he added.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, who was present at the panel meeting, asked for additional studies before choosing any specific way to escape the spaceships. He seemed skeptical that any method that might be devised could reduce the risk significantly of flying aboard the craft.
"The safest option I've heard is to stop flying," O'Keefe said. "Is the risk of space exploration something we want to examine, whether we think that is acceptable or not?"
However, the former astronaut was adamant about the need to add such a capability to the shuttle fleet soon. "You also have to have your eyes open," Gutierrez said. "The technology required for a crew escape system existed 40 years ago."
Bernard Harris, another panel member and former astronaut, said he agreed that development of new ways for astronauts to escape danger aboard the shuttle should be a renewed priority.
"If we don't develop this capability, then shame on us," Harris said.
O'Keefe explained that development of a new spaceplane might impact shuttle escape decisions in the future. If the plane is built, he said, it might allow a shift in astronauts away from flights aboard the shuttles, thus reducing crew size and allowing other means of escape devices to become more feasible than the full capability the safety panel was urging.
However, Gutierrez suggested the delays in implementing an escape capability was endemic to the space agency. "NASA's culture is 'get the crew back by getting the vehicle back,'" Gutierrez proposed. "But at a certain point, the (main) objective should be (to) get the crew back."
O'Keefe said the agency would be studying space shuttle escape options as part of its investigation into the Columbia accident. "We should look at this in a broader context," he said.
Harris suggested imposing such a major design change onto the remaining three shuttles would be a difficult prospect. "We know it is a challenge for the program to stop right now and look at this," he said.
"But a full crew escape system offers the opportunity to have your cake and eat it, too," Gutierrez added.