All space flight providers want to control costs. From the traditional government and commercial enterprises to the new entrants, all want to keep costs as low as reasonably possible. Gone a long time ago—and forever—are the days of unlimited resources to get the job done. Bottom lines matter, and matter a lot.
It has long been argued that one way to keep costs reasonable is to reuse launch hardware. Even when adding the required refurbishment/reflight checks, repairs, component replacements, etc., to the equation it can be shown on paper to save money in the long run. The Shuttle was sold to Congress in part on this philosophy. And being the first reusable spacecraft they could know no different.
Nor could NASA fully know the long-term implications of reusability.
An additional fact is this: Adding astronauts to the equation requires changing ‘reasonably’ to safely. No argument there, right? But what are the implications of this change? Simply put, based on Shuttle experience, it requires lots more of the checks, repairs, component replacements, etc., in an attempt to make the re-flight as technically close to the first as possible. The newer the hardware, the less risk of failure. No argument there either.
These costs are easy to understand and accept. What about the posting’s title? Hidden? I have alluded to it in earlier postings and it’s not just a financial issue. It can cost a lot more than money.
Here it is:
With the desire to refly hardware that has (theoretically) performed well before, a tendency to rely on past performance when approving current flight rationale is given more weight than it should.
That tendency can either be seen overtly, or it can be latent. If obvious, it can be dealt with through open discussion and full debate of the issue at hand. If hidden, it can fester, grow, become a ‘new normal’—or worse, lead to disaster.
Examples in the Shuttle program are numerous. From those we recognized and dealt with—wire chafing, flow liner cracks, hydrogen leaks—to those that dealt us the most severe of consequences—foam shedding, O-ring scorching—we were challenged by the need to re-fly hardware, all with the overarching tenet of doing so safely.
Tragically, we didn’t always balance that correctly.
I sincerely hope today’s and tomorrow’s astronaut launch providers succeed 100% of the time. Recognizing when a ‘new normal’ is kicking in is part of the success criteria.