CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 5 (UPI) -- Constant learning and a frank, open culture of management are keys to a successful U.S. return to human space exploration, a panel of experts and former astronauts said.
Not since the last space shuttle launch in 2011 has anyone gone into space from U.S. soil. Crewed missions to the International Space Station have been launching from Russia, but the Trump Administration has charged NASA with returning people to moon by 2024. Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin also is aiming for a crewed mission to the moon by then.
The 46th Space Congress, a Florida-based group that brings together government and private space interests annually, tackled the risks involved in human spaceflight on Tuesday in Florida by bringing in such experts as astronaut Fred Haise, best known for his flight on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970.
"I don't think the country as a whole is as ready as it was during the Apollo era," Haise told UPI in comments after the panel discussion. "The Cold War allowed us to focus on the moon missions, and we weren't entangled in Vietnam yet."
Bob Cabana, current administrator of Kennedy Space Center and panel moderator, said NASA's culture must stay focused on safety and openness to criticism. Those were two lessons learned after the shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 and the disintegration of shuttle Columbia in 2003.
"You have to constantly be thinking about what could fail," Cabana said. "I tell all our new hires it doesn't matter who you are. If you have a thought, you have to share it."
Panelist Wayne Hale, a former NASA engineer, flight director and space shuttle program manager, said he felt positive about where the space program is headed today.
"I think you're in a great place because you're bringing in a lot of talent from industry. But you need to keep reminding yourself of these lessons that we learned with blood," he said, adding, "If the money or support isn't there, then say, 'I'm sorry we can't.'"
Haise said he hopes new crewed missions to space take note of hard lessons learned during Apollo 13. He said it's crucial that new astronauts are fully trained to fly and have a fully trained backup crew.
Haise helped the three-man crew of Apollo 13 overcome the explosion of an oxygen tank that crippled the spacecraft 200,000 miles from Earth. The crew returned to earth safely in what NASA has since called a successful failure, documented in a 1995 movie starring Tom Hanks.
He said new crews from NASA, SpaceX or Blue Origin need a broad knowledge base of their spacecraft and its systems, so that solving problems in an emergency can happen quickly. And he said new missions sending people to space will have to be aware of the pressure and emotional strain on support crews as well as astronauts.
"We had one fellow cry, actually broke down and cried. He was working so many hours under pressure. It's the people involved day to day that you gotta worry about," Haise said.
Several panelists noted that discussing problems that arise in future missions will be critical and difficult for many employees unless they are encouraged and empowered to speak out.
Retired shuttle astronaut and International Space Station commander Frank Culbertson provided a cautionary tale for future crewed missions. He said he recalled being in the cabin of the shuttle Challenger on the night before it exploded just after launch, killing seven astronauts in 1986. He said he had a feeling that the temperature was too cold for the launch, and later investigations proved that was true.
"Maybe if I'd have been a little more adamant that this just isn't right, maybe things would have been done differently," Culbertson said.
Engineer Hale said going back to the moon will be dangerous despite advances in technology.
"At the end of the day, guess what folks. We flew the shuttle every day with a huge amount of risk," he said. "And guess what? You're going to fly to the moon with a huge amount of risk."