Bent Out of Shape

The Space Shuttle Is Still a Death Machine, Warns Engineer Ali AbuTaha

But AbuTaha can't be dismissed as a crank. The 47-year-old naturalized Jordanian-American is a twenty-year veteran of the aerospace industry. An engineering graduate of George Washington University, he worked on satellite and antenna projects at the international communications satellite firm COMSAT, in Washington, D.C., for ten years. He put in stints at Aegis Inc., also in Washington, D.C., and at Comtech Labs in Smithtown, New York. Since 1983 he's worked as a free-lance consultant. Despite NASA's scoffing, AbuTaha's shuttle theories have been hailed by others: he was cited by the Giraffe Society, an organization based north of Seattle, in Langley, Washington, formed to laud and publicize the work of whistle blowers. And in 1988, the Challenger Society, which was organized to commemorate the fallen astronauts, named him its man of the year.

"Ali AbuTaha is an engineer with an obsession. He's sort of an idealist who likes to tilt at windmills," says Dr. Yale Jay Lubkin, a retired army colonel who earned his doctorate in applied mathematics and now serves as an assistant editor for Defense Science magazine. An acerbic critic of U.S. military and space policy, Lubkin has defended AbuTaha's theories in several articles, the most recent published by his magazine in April. In Lubkin's eyes, AbuTaha's major fault is that he was naive to believe NASA would admit to wasting two and a half years and spending millions to fix a part that wasn't broken.

"NASA is an organization of true believers and consummate bureaucrats," Lubkin insists. "Their philosophy is pure C.Y.A.," he once wrote of the agency. C.Y.A. stands for "cover your ass."

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists space policy project describes himself as an "agnostic" with regard to AbuTaha. "I haven't taken the several weeks I need to form an opinion," says Pike. "It's sort of like the Kennedy assassination - very big and very complicated. There is one official version of events and many unofficial versions of reality. It's a little difficult to sift through all the information on your own. AbuTaha is clearly a person of some standing in the scientific community. He's sufficiently reasonable that you have to listen to his theories, if not necessarily believe them."

That NASA might have overlooked a design error in the building of the shuttle is not impossible. And AbuTaha doesn't pretend to have mastered every one of the shuttle's systems, its myriad pumps, computers, and engines or the libraries of computations that go into constructing and flying it. He is the first to concede that the shuttle is the most complicated machine ever devised by man, composed of more than 60,000 parts built by thousands of contractors. Of those, 4686 parts are deemed of "Criticality 1," meaning if they fail, the mission could also fail.

The vastness of the shuttle prevents any single mind from understanding it completely; a seemingly innocuous change in one section can precipitate mammoth - even deadly - changes elsewhere in the craft. This is how the ghost may have invaded the machine.

The space shuttle was conceived back in 1969, the same year Ali AbuTaha joined the satellite firm COMSAT. With the moon landing imminent, it was a halcyon era for space exploration.

In February of that year, newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon formed a space task force to set goals for NASA for the Seventies and beyond. The committee, chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew, endorsed an aggressive program of exploration that would have culminated with the landing of an American astronaut on Mars as early as the mid-Eighties.

Logistically, such a Mars mission would make Project Apollo look like a drive to the 7-Eleven: because of the distance and the physics of interplanetary travel, the crew would spend two to three years away from Earth. In order to hold the necessary fuel, oxygen, water, and supplies, the ship would dwarf the Apollo spacecraft. Agnew's task force envisioned that the Mars ship would be assembled by an orbiting space station crew, with a fleet of reusable craft ferrying men and supplies between Earth and the construction site.

Nixon abandoned the idea of a manned Mars mission as soon as he found out the cost - $100 billion for one round trip. (President Bush has recently revived the idea, but has allotted a 30-year timetable for the task.) But NASA salvaged the reusable space shuttle idea by selling it to Congress as a space delivery van/tow truck/mobile laboratory that would "take the astronomical costs out of astronautics." The original plan called for the shuttle to fly more than 400 missions during the Eighties. To date it has flown fewer than 40.

The shuttle design that NASA devised is a strange hybrid: part airplane and part rocket, part reusable and part throwaway. The orbiter carries astronauts and satellite payloads into orbit, gliding back to Earth after its mission. The solid-fuel boosters supply 80 percent of the thrust at liftoff. After consuming their fuel two minutes into the launch, the boosters separate from the assembly and parachute into the ocean, where they are recovered and eventually reused.

The only disposable part of the shuttle is the fuel tank, which supplies liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to the orbiter's main engines. The shuttle can't reach orbit velocity unless these engines perform properly, so NASA tests them by revving them to full throttle during the final 6.5 seconds before liftoff. (It takes about one second for the engines to reach 100-percent thrust.) The shuttle stays put on the launch pad because it's fastened to the pad by restraining bolts attached to the skirts of the solid-fuel boosters. If NASA's diagnostic computers detect anything amiss in this 6.5-second interval, the orbiter's main engines are shut down and the liftoff aborted. Once launch control is satisfied that the liquid fuel engines are A-OK - and only then - the solid-fuel boosters (which can't be turned off once ignited) are fired, the restraining bolts exploded, and the vehicle soars heavenward.

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