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Trailer Trash in Space?
Why the U.S. Needs to Check out of Mir

Although I hate to be caught saying this in public, Congress and the Inspector General's office are right in their comments on the current condition of Mir. The Soviet Space Station has had enough problems over the last few months to make it painfully obvious that it is beyond the acceptable limits of "reasonable risk" for space missions.

The problem is not that there is risk. Any aviation program has risks, and after all, this is a space program. Rockets, firepower, overcoming earth's gravity, ability to stay alive and healthy while in earth orbit, docking with other space vehicles--this isn't the stuff of Star Trek and movies, it's reality.

Admittedly, it's a dangerous reality. Then again, life is dangerous, and if you want danger--go step into your bathtub. Safety reports say it's one of the more dangerous things you can do. In fact, ask Senator John Glenn, early-era astronaut, who flew America's earliest and riskiest missions without a scratch---and who got hurt in the bathtub. Life does, indeed, have its little ironies.

But there's a difference between naturally-occuring ironies and deliberately high risk thinking and behavior. It's time for NASA to stop insisting that they are iron men and iron women, and that pushing the edge of the envelope is part of a mission profile. We've been there, done that, with the Challenger mission.

Wasn't that major mistake enough to teach common sense? Mir's main computers fail more than they work, and those computers are what keep life support systems going. Mir's had an onboard fire. Crew members have to use backup, hand-held oxgyen-generating units--and one astronaut has said that Mir crews actually experience grogginess and lack of critical thinking capability due to shortage of oxygen.

The Soviets, in a fine display of callousness, want to fine the last Mir crew for the docking accident. They, however, fired back that the station has been falling apart, that keeping it going has been a monumental effort, and that the incident happened because they're jerry-rigging hardware together due to lack of adequate support for the program.

The cosmonauts are right. Mir has become the space-age equivalent of trailer trash. Run-down and overseen by a landlord that has eschewed responsibility for upkeep and refused to pay the price of doing business in space, Mir is one small computer glitch away from disaster.

No matter how strong their desire to fly, U.S. astronauts are not Marines heading into a necessary battle, and NASA's irritatingly gung-ho manner is inappropriate in today's space program. The program managers are still, even after Challenger, flying as though each and every mission is flown because they have something to prove--that they can do it.

This is, frankly, adolescent thinking. At some point, this space program, and its leaders, should have moved on to a reasonable, seasoned, and more mature approach, one with the guts and flexibility to say "this isn't working out as planned, and we're changing our minds."

I'd like to see Mir get more money and attention from the Soviets. I'd like to see Mir stay operational. But achieving that is the Soviets' problem, not ours. After all, we've paid for the right to have astronauts aboard. And we've paid well, not only in dollars, but also in technical knowledge that we're giving away as part of our "partnership" in this achey, breakey program.

While Vice-President Gore is running around Russia, chit-chatting with their government and telling them to practice safe space, the launch pad crews at Kennedy Space Center, FL, will be moving toward next week's launch of Atlantis to Mir. This is a high-stress, high workload time, and I think that adding on the concern about astronauts' safety aboard Mir is asking far too much of the groundlings as well.

One thing I can personally tell you is that the launch teams at Kennedy Space Center are dedicated. They care, deeply. Although sometimes they're referred to as "the garage" because they "only" maintain and launch the vehicles, the truth is that KSC is the heart of the program. Houston, it's nice work to monitor the space flights, have the astronauts living there, and to be Mission control--real nice work, if you can get it. Cleaner work,too--no messy propellants around, no major controlled explosions that we call "liftoff."

In the NASA intramurals, Houston likes to take the lead in setting the "philosophy" for Shuttle flights. And I think that part of what Congress is concerned about has its roots in Houston-style thinking, which, in essence, is the old Lyndon Baines Johnson thinking.

Get a grip, NASA, space shuttles ain't beagles, and you shouldn't oughta be trying to lift 'em by their ears. No matter how good the photo opps.

Move the space program out of Texas "bigger and better" mythology, move on past adolescence into a more reasonable maturity. Bring Michael Foale home. Find something else for David Wolf (who, BTW, is a nice guy) to do. If he's so highly trained, it should be easy to find other work for him aboard our own Space Shuttles.

Don't let ego and glory send us sailing towards preventable tragedy.

Tell the Soviet paymasters to fix up the trailer, because our astronauts, and our national future in space, aren't trash.

This editorial reflects my opinion, and only my opinon.

Patricia Phillips, 9-19-97, copyright by author and Warm Springs Productions, Inc.

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