As a NASA aerospace engineer I was trained to look for warning signs of possible failure. We had indicating signs of failure before the Challenger and Columbia disasters…they were there but we ignored them. Notice I wrote “disasters” not accidents. Both were disasters because they were preventable and even survivable…they were not accidents. Instead of admitting that the space shuttle disasters were human failures, NASA management concluded that the space shuttle had to be decommissioned and that the shuttle funding be used to develop a safer system for getting humans into space.   However, NASA management is once again ignoring the warning signs that there shuttle replacement is not

On more than one occasion NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has stated that he is frustrated…and after taking the NASA top position said, “I really don’t care what signal it sends. I did not want this job.” (Ref http://www.spacenews.com/civil/bolden-talk-yields-insights-more-personal-than-political.html). I met Charlie when he first came to NASA JSC as an astronaut candidate. He is an A-number one nice guy and tries to please everyone and a NASA administrator can’t be that guy. At a recent telecom he again said that his goal was to have a human mission to Mars. I challenged him that goal is impossible with the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) vehicles. There are too many negative to proceed with the development of Apollo class heavy lift launch vehicles. The “Austere Human Missions to Mars” presented by NASA at the AIAA Space 2009 conference requires nearly 2000 T be delivered to LEO to support a four member crew Mars mission. It would require 15 launches of the upgraded SLS to support the four year Mars mission with a launch cost of a minimum $30 billion plus the cost of the payloads. If one launch vehicle or payload fails the entire mission could be lost. With no cargo return capability on the Orion crew module there is no commercial value for this Mars transportation system. Reusable launchers with payload return capability and space based transportation vehicles with cargo bays commercial applications are the only affordable and viable option for human Mars missions.

The SLS is a political vehicle designed to try to save an industry that supports NASA launch operations. The economic environment of the 21st century dictates that we abandon government operated launch vehicles. Like the U.S. auto industry…we change or we shut down.

Charlie…by resigning you sent the message that we are on the wrong path!

Don A. Nelson

Aerospace Consultant…Retired NASA Engineer