Words to remember the shuttle program by: We were lucky

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Published: March 6,2011

Tags: MBJ Columns, NASA, Ted Carter

The highlights of a new NASA internal safety study are sobering, but hardly breaking news to the Cape workers who begin occupying the bar stools at Neeka’s in Titusville by six every morning.

They go there for a beer and a shot as they come off the midnight shift at Kennedy Space Center 15 miles away. They’ve always been grateful for their jobs but could never shake the unease of being part of the Russian roulette that’s occurred at Cape Canaveral the last three decades.

“The shuttle’s too damned dangerous. That’s why they’re gonna let the Russians take over getting us into space,” they’d say without much prompting.

Now NASA is finally saying the same thing. Turns out it was all a NASA-made myth that the odds of a catastrophic accident were one in 100,000.

The truth is, NASA admits now that it’s getting out of the shuttle business, the odds were one in nine for the first nine missions. The odds didn’t get much better for the next 16 flights, improving to only one in 10, a new risk analysis shows.

Those one in 10 odds were in play that cold January morning in 1986 that the Challenger lifted off only to explode into pieces 30 seconds into its flight.

The official record says two fatal explosions — the Challenger and Columbia in 2003 on reentry. Lives: 14.

On the 88 shuttle missions flown between the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the chance a disaster would be averted stood at 7 percent, NASA concedes.

“We were lucky,” the space agency says.

That’s about the only explanation the crew at Neeka’s could give, as well.

They do the testing and the wiring and the blueprint reading and everything else that goes into readying the shuttles for flight.

They didn’t like the odds at all that day in July 2006 on which shuttle launches resumed after the Columbia disaster.  As launch hour approached, Neeka’s bartenders poured a bit more briskly and tried to wear reassuring smiles. The believers among the customers said a little prayer to themselves and the juke box went silent – the “Flirtin’ With Disaster” that was going on that day would be too real for the frivolity of a song.

It was the liftoff they worried about more than anything — those first 15 to 30 seconds of rumbling anxiety. A shuttle crew sits atop the equivalent of several tons of TNT. Their ship is thrust upward by engines generating the equivalent to the output of 23 Hoover Dams, the website Interspacenews.com says.

Meanwhile, the external fuel tanks (which ignited in the Challenger explosion) are situated right next to the solid rocket boosters, serving to multiply the worry factor.

Providence provided a safe launch and return for Columbia’s 2006 mission – and continued paychecks for the Cape’s midnight shift. They won’t be seeing too many more launches or paychecks  – Discovery’s liftoff late last month and three more to follow are it for the shuttle.

We’ll be going back into space sooner or later. When that happens, the flight crews deserve to know the true odds they face. If NASA or the private contractors sending them up won’t tell them, crew members need to find where the Cape’s midnight shifts goes to quench its thirst after work. It’ll be dark inside but they folks sitting on the stools can shed a lot of light.

MBJ staff writer Ted Carter grew up with rockets in his hometown of Titusville, Fla. He can be reached at ted.carter@msbusiness.com.

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