June 29, 1997
Mr. Frederick D. Gregory
Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance
Washington, DC 20564-0001
Thank you so much for the kind words in your letter of June 24, 1997 and the exceptionally nice Bohemian crystal bowl that accompanied it. I have placed it on my desk in a prominent place where I can enjoy its beauty as I am working. I do appreciate your thoughtfulness and the effort you made in sending me this most delightful award.
Since I do not get to see you or communicate with you on a regular basis anymore, I would like to take this opportunity to mention something that I believe is of serious importance to NASA, and the Human Spaceflight Safety and Mission Assurance Program. I am sure that the current crisis in the Mir program is probably foremost in your mind. I am extremely concerned about the safety risks associated with continued operation of the Phase I Shuttle/Mir Program. There already have been two incidents this year where the crew has been placed in a basic survival situation. The Mir station is clearly showing significant degradation as it continues to operate beyond its design lifetime. In addition, the decline in the basic infrastructure of the Russian Space Program been well documented in numerous publications, and even in public statements by some Russian space officials.
When NASA originally began the Shuttle/Mir Program, no rigorous safety analysis or risk analysis was accomplished. NASA decided based on the then understood historical performance of safe Mir operations to accept that record as a given. This was done by a subjective review process unlike the systematic safety and reliability analytical techniques utilized for U.S. human spaceflight. If you remember, at that time the Russians were not always forthright about their systems failures or some of the problems they had in the past. The decision was made at the highest levels of NASA, and the formal safety analysis that was established for the Phase I Program was only for the new joint operations activities, new experiments, and new procedures. The acceptance of the existing Mir safety record was driven by management judgment, and therefore for formal and structured documented risk baseline exists for the start of the program. It should be very clear to everyone that the risk level to human safety on the Mir Station has increased somewhat since the early management decisions and agreements were made.
The question becomes, what is the present risk to human safety in this program as the Mir ages and its systems continue to fail and degrade in capability, and as the Russian space program support infrastructure changes as well? What are the expectations for the risk levels to continue to change with time over the planned lifetime of Phase 1 Program? What is the current risk level as compared with the subjectively determined risk level at the start of the Program? NASA has participated in the Mir program with a lower standard as far as Safety and Mission Assurance assessment processes are concerned, and I believe that the risk levels for human safety to be somewhat higher as well. The most important and cogent question is whether the expected benefits of continued operation justify the increasing risk to human safety that are apparent with current operations on the Shuttle/Mir Phase 1 Program.