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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Published: Friday, 4/27/2001

The premature tourist

Earth calling NASA, over. Did you miss the USS Greeneville story or what?

On Monday the U. S. Navy reprimanded Cmdr. Scott Waddle, and ordered him to resign. He was skipper of the Greeneville, the American submarine that sank a Japanese trawler near Hawaii in February. It happened during an emergency surfacing drill staged for a civilian visitors whose presence onboard may have distracted the crew.

On Tuesday NASA and its partners in the International Space Station project approved a Russian Space Agency scheme to fly a visitor to the orbiting complex. Plans call for a Saturday launch of California millionaire Dennis Tito, who is paying the Russians up to $20 million for a week on board ISS.

Why not allow non-astronauts on the ISS, just as civilians like John Glenn were permitted on previous space shuttle flights?

After all, Mr. Glenn showed that healthy people in their late 70s can live safely in orbit. The grand vision for ISS does include missions with scientists, engineers, and other civilians. What the heck. Why not fly wealthy tourists who pay their way?

Just one reason, perhaps. Not now, not while ISS is a work in progress.

Unlike the Greeneville and other naval vessels that carry visitors, ISS is not a fully operational facility, with hardware thoroughly tested and a veteran crew that has proven itself in emergency situations. ISS is still under construction. Its equipment is largely untested in orbit. ISS's rookie crews are low on their learning curves. The risk of a serious accident is, indeed, at a peak now during this shakedown period for ISS.

Now is a bad time to host a space tourist, just in terms of ISS's still-experimental status. The unresolved concerns about visitors and safety from the Greenville incident make a bad situation worse.

There's an awfully fine line between a confident, “can-do “ attitude - essential for risky operations like space flight - and the arrogance that deludes humans into accepting excessive risk. Taxpayers have very little tolerance for unnecessary risk with their $60-billion investment in the ISS.

NASA has taken an unnecessary risk in accepting a space tourist, rather than standing firm against this Russian money-making scheme, or striking a bargain to keep Mr. Tito grounded.



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