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Astronaut Memo Tells of Space Shuttle Dangers

March 9, 1986 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ NASA has long accepted risky conditions in the space shuttle program because of ″one driving reason″ - launch schedule pressures, the space agency’s chief astronaut said in a memo released Saturday.

″These accepted conditions could have been or are now potentially as catastrophic to the space shuttle program as the 51-L (Challenger) accident,″ astronaut John Young wrote to NASA colleagues in a March 4 memo.

Young cited what he called an ″awesome″ list of safety problems that still exist and date to October 1984.

″The list proves to me that there are some very lucky people around here,″ he wrote.

Describing booster rocket seal conditions on the Jan. 28 Challenger flight that exploded and killed its crew of seven, Young said, ″There is only one driving reason that such a potentially dangerous system would ever be allowed to fly - launch schedule pressure.″

Young attached a list of what he said were other potentially dangerous conditions ″that you can be sure were accepted for the very same reason.″

Young’s memo was released Saturday by NASA headquarters in Washington after The Houston Post published a copyright story on it Saturday.

In making the document public, NASA also released a brief statement from shuttle chief, Adm. Richard Truly. Truly said he concurred with the ″thrust″ of Young’s memo.

He said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will continue its ″detailed study of all systems to ensure flight safety.″

″We will not launch again until safety releated issues have been properly addressed throughout the total NASA system,″ Truly wrote.

Copies of the memo went to all astronauts; Truly; W.S. Abbey, the head of the flight crew operations; and other NASA officials.

Young attached an ″awesome″ list compiled Feb. 27 of ″systems safety- related items that ought to be fixed so we do not lose any more space shuttles and flight crews.″

″We have already ... launched with less than certain full reliability and full redundancy of the systems, including the flight crews, that we operate. We are under continuing pressure to launch without full-up avionics from computers to other sensors,″ he said.

Young said NASA should make flight safety first on its priority list.

″The enclosure (listing earlier problems) shows that these goals have always been opposite ones. It also shows overall Flight Safety does not win in these cases.″

″For starters, we should not allow any increase in the inherent risk of operating the space shuttle just to increase the launch rate, or reduce operating costs, or fly unsafe payloads,″ Young said in his memo.

The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff during record-cold temperatures at the Florida launch site.

He concluded by saying that the shuttle program and its astronauts cannot survive unless safety is the top priority.

″If management system is not big enough to stop the Space Shuttle Program whenever necessary to make flight safety corrections, it will not survive and neither will our three space shuttles or their flight crews,″ Young said.

The memo listed previous problems on shuttle flights and the possible effects:

October-December 1984 - Flapper valves on fittings between the shuttle and its huge liquid fuel tank were ″extremely sensitive.″ If any of the four flapper valves close, the memo said, ″the result is loss of vehicle and crew.″

August 1985 - The shuttle Discovery was launched at a time when there was moderate turbulence and rain on an emergency landing runway at the Kennedy Space Center. ″If the tile damage assessment was realistic, winds in storms plus tile damage drag might lose the vehicle and crew in an abort,″ the memo said.

October 1985 - A regulator on one of Challenger’s maneuvering jets locked up. ″The cause of the lockup was not known,″ according to the memo. NASA decided to fly anyway, relying on another backup regulator, which also ″indicated failed″ as it reached orbit, the memo said.

January 1986 - A delay in launching Columbia revealed a critical failure of a liquid oxygen prevalve, the memo said.

Meanwhile, astronaut Brewster Shaw has been serving as a liaison between the presdential commission investigating the Challenger explosion and the other astronauts. His duties include helping the commission with the investigation and relaying the concerns of other astronauts to the commission, commission spokesman Mark Weinberg said Saturday.