Bent Out of Shape

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

Following the mysterious hydrogen leaks that grounded the shuttle fleet, AbuTaha convened a July 9 press conference (his first) in Washington, D.C. He blamed the fuel leaks on the punishing liftoff stresses,and advised reporters that the existing fleet of three shuttles had been prematurely aged by these forces, citing a weakened midfuselage section, damage to the wings, and buckling of struts within the orbiter. NASA had counted on a shuttle lifetime of 100 missions before it had to be junked. AbuTaha said that figure needed to be revised downward.

AbuTaha also challenged NASA to a public debate on the issue of shuttle safety, but the space agency refuses to pick up the gauntlet. "We're not going to take him up on that," says NASA's Mark Hess flatly.

AbuTaha fears that another shuttle tragedy could kill the U.S. manned space program. The prospect of a NASA budget squandered on shuttle program overruns, leaving nothing for the space station or Mars exploration, disturbs him.

"Today, engineers who made the mistake and did not unravel it, before and after Challenger, design our planes, bridges, power plants, and other systems," he says. "Senior experts who reviewed my paper tell me the matter must be debated nationally, among our scientists and engineers. Must we wait for another tragedy?"

NASA, however, remains convinced of the essential soundness of the shuttle. It intends to send ten missions aloft in 1991, and another ten in 1992, when the new shuttle Endeavor becomes operational. But the final arbiter will be the laws of physics. As Rogers Commission member Dr. Richard P. Feynman concluded in his appendix to the commission report: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

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