June 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 2 
Integrated Defense Systems

Confidence in the system

Confidence in the system

Former astronaut says learning from mistakes will get Shuttle flying


When tragedy strikes, the best course of action is to learn from the experience and make improvements before trying again. As the STS-114 crew prepares to return the Space Shuttle to flight in July, they're taking to heart lessons learned from the Columbia accident in February 2003. Former mission specialist Mike Lounge said those lessons are similar to his experience on STS-26, the mission after the Challenger tragedy in 1986.

Lounge, a veteran of three space flights who's logged 482 hours in space, is now a Boeing Space Exploration Systems business development director within the NASA Systems unit of Integrated Defense Systems. Lounge, along with former pilot Dick Covey who works for Boeing Homeland Security, understands better than most what the STS-114 crew is experiencing asthey prepare for their upcoming flight.

"I think the [STS-114] crew will feel relief that their training is finally over," Lounge said. "I think they have confidence in the system, as we did, and they know the NASA team has done the right things to reduce risk—acknowledging it is never zero—and to accept that the return is worth the risk."

Lounge was in NASA's astronaut corps participating in a training session when he watched the Challenger tragedy unfold. "Many of us are pilots or engineers with a lot of experience around complicated machinery, so we knew theoretically that there could be problems with the Shuttle," he said. "It was one thing to know it in theory but quite another to witness it."

Failure of a pressure seal in the joint of the right solid rocket motor caused the Challenger accident. About a year later, every system on the Shuttle was recertified and the astronaut crew was selected to fly on the next mission.

The Space Shuttle takes about eight and a half minutes to reach orbit. "On my first flight, getting to orbit seemed to happen so quickly that suddenly I was floating out of my seat and looking out the window," Lounge said. "The difference on STS-26 was that those eight and a half minutes seemed more like 20 minutes as we monitored every single event."

During the mission, Lounge and the crew checked out the many modifications made to the vehicle, just as the STS-114 crew will. The crew also deployed a communication satellite six hours into the flight.

Reentry into the earth's atmosphere often is described as one of the most exciting aspects of any mission. For the STS-114 crew and others to follow, Lounge acknowledged that reentry will never be viewed the same after the Columbia accident.

Lounge is often asked if space travel is worth the risk. "It's hard to imagine what would be more important in terms of the long-term well being of our species than understanding where we are, where we can go and discovering our limits," he said. "Space travel stimulates technology and education, and motivates our society to achieve great things."


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