Is It Worth the Risk?

The astronaut who commanded the first shuttle flight after Challenger explains his decision.

The crew of STS-26 (l. to r. Dave Hilmers, Rick Hauck, Dick Covey, George "Pinky" Nelson, and Mike Lounge) with President George H.W. Bush after the landing at Edwards AFB in California, October 3, 1988. (NASA)
Air & Space Magazine | Subscribe

I hope this thing doesn’t blow up!

I remember having that thought as my crew and I accelerated through Mach 16 aboard the shuttle Discovery, 60 miles above the Atlantic.

Dick Covey, Dave Hilmers, Pinky Nelson, Mike Lounge, and I were strapped into our seats, upside down, blasting downrange inside 150 tons of hardware. It was September 29, 1988—just 20 months after the loss of Challenger. Was I scared? Many years before, I’d flown a machine that had blown up underneath me. You bet I was scared. But I also knew that a certain amount of fear is good, maybe even necessary, for sharpening one’s awareness.

As a student at the Naval Test Pilot School in the early 1970s, I had a very disturbing dream one night. I dreamt that I was taking off in an A-4 Skyhawk. Right after takeoff the aircraft pitched up out of control, stalled, and plunged to Earth, where it exploded in a gigantic fireball. Even though I could see the billowing flames as if I were a bystander, I knew I was dead. And then I woke up, incredibly relieved to find myself safe in bed.

Lying there trying to get back to sleep, I remembered that I was on the flight schedule that morning—lined up to fly an A-4. I’ve never been a superstitious person, and I was determined to fly that flight. As I climbed into the cockpit I chuckled nervously to myself, eager to conquer the hobgoblins dancing around in my subconscious. Fortunately, the flight was routine—not a flicker of a problem.

The test flight I flew on July 23, 1973, on the other hand, didn’t have such a happy ending. The aircraft was an RA-5C Vigilante, a Navy photo reconnaissance craft capable of speeds up to Mach 2. The test objectives were simple: Verify the Vigi’s response to commands sent by an automated carrier landing system on the ground. Shortly after takeoff from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, I climbed to 1,200 feet and turned downwind to set myself up for a hands-off approach and landing. It was a hazy summer day with no definable horizon. Looking straight down, I could barely see the ripples on the surface of the Chesapeake Bay. Shortly after lowering the landing gear and flaps, I heard and felt an ominous thrunk. Several seconds later, my hair bristled as another shuddering sound shook the Vigi. Turning my attention back inside the cockpit, I saw a “RAMPS” warning light flash on, then off. This confused me: The light indicated that the engine inlets were somehow out of configuration, but at subsonic speed, the inlet ramps should not be moving at all. Then the left engine rpm gauge started unwinding rapidly, signaling a flameout.

Looking up, I saw that the Vigi’s nose had pitched down dangerously, to about 20 degrees below the horizon. The water was racing toward me, and the surface waves were now alarmingly well defined. I grabbed the ejection handle next to my left thigh and pulled. I was hurled upward by the rocket seat, and the next thing I knew, I was looking down at a fireball instead of water. I assumed the airplane had exploded on impact. Later, an investigation of the wreckage showed that the airplane had already been on fire when it hit the water. In other words, I had ejected after the fuel tank exploded.

Yes, as Discovery accelerated into orbit, I was scared.

The obvious question is: Why do people take such risks, willingly exposing themselves to clear, palpable danger? It isn’t just astronauts. You might ask the same question of firefighters, police officers, and combat troops. Most have doubts, and are well aware of the risks inherent in their jobs. In fact, intelligent people will leave these professions when they recognize that their personal risk/reward ratio has tilted too far in the “risky” direction.

I’m reminded of a story about a Navy pilot who reached that point while making a night carrier landing. Landing a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier at night and in instrument conditions is certainly the most demanding piloting task I ever had to cope with. By contrast, I had an easier time making my first dead-stick landing in a space shuttle: It was November 1984, and even though my heart was in my throat, the day was clear, the surface winds were benign, and the two-and-a-half-mile-long runway that I could see from 100 miles away didn’t move an inch. It was tough, but it wasn’t a night carrier landing.

Navy legend has it that on one inky night, approaching the ship, a pilot glanced out the left window and saw his wife and children sitting on the wing, staring at him with vacant eyes. Summoning all his courage, he focused intently on his instruments and brought his airplane down safely. Then he immediately strode down to his squadron commander’s cabin and handed in his wings. Rather than disparage the man as a quitter, I admire him for recognizing his limits. It’s very likely that many aviators have died because they didn’t have the courage to admit to themselves—and to their colleagues—that they had reached that personal boundary.

Back aboard Discovery, as the shuttle thundered into orbit, I was able to stop the awful speculation that would naturally spill out if I let it. At that point, we astronauts were along for the ride, with no real options other than to enjoy the thrill. I had launched twice before on the space shuttle, but was acutely aware of a key difference on this flight, mission STS-26. This time I couldn’t take comfort in the fact that NASA had never lost a crew to an inflight accident. Challenger was on all of our minds.

Still, I was convinced that this would be the safest shuttle flight ever, and had told my family so before the launch. NASA had spent the previous 20 months not only fixing the O-ring seal problem that had caused the Challenger accident, but studying in minute detail other shuttle systems to minimize the likelihood that another serious problem was lurking. The agency’s safety and quality control programs had been overhauled. Astronauts had been placed in management positions to ensure that throughout the decision process, the crew’s voice was heard.

For me anyway, there was a personal element to this sense of confidence. I was comforted knowing that my good friend Dick Truly had painstakingly overseen the Challenger reconstruction, and that Bob Crippen, who had commanded my first shuttle flight, was head of the review panel that had deemed our mission ready for flight just the day before. Tens of thousands of NASA and contractor employees had dedicated themselves to resurrecting the shuttle program. At the same time, I knew that there’s no such thing as perfection. Our safe return was not guaranteed.

That Discovery mission was designed to be as benign as possible. Get up and back safely, proving that NASA was back in the spaceflight business. And so we did.

Now, in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, we once again hear it debated: Is spaceflight worth the risk? I’ve been asked that several times since February 1 [2003, the day of the Columbia accident], but I think the question needs to be more precise. What risk are we talking about? As a taxpayer who shoulders part of the financial burden of this grand enterprise, you should certainly get a vote on how the money is spent. But are you questioning whether I should risk my own life? My family has a right to weigh in on that—after all, they have huge emotional, and even financial, stakes in my decision. But why should you get a vote? Please leave matters of risk up to the astronauts and their families. They’ve made their choice.

The families of the Columbia crew said it eloquently in a joint statement written under the most difficult of circumstances, days after their tragic loss:

“Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on—for the benefit of our children and yours.”

The authors of that statement are painfully aware that astronauts take risks. They also know the real rewards of participating in a great adventure, of advancing frontiers and serving one’s country in the company of extraordinary colleagues. Only by taking such risks is society rewarded with increased knowledge and a sense of forward motion. And that, in the end, is what makes the risk worthwhile.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus