I visited Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, last July, spending an afternoon at the tourist exhibits and launch pads. The original countdown for space shuttle mission STS-114 was underway, and we were taken by bus to see Discovery on launch pad 39B.
Though the pad obscured everything but the top of the shuttle's external tank and booster rockets, the sight of the spacecraft was the highlight of the trip. I think I started to cry a little. Science rocks.
Kennedy offers a lunch with an astronaut program and "astronaut encounter," two chances to meet a spaceman. Ours was three-timer Mike Mullane, and he gave two funny, innocuous speeches with lots of questions from kids, venturing carefully into the subject of the upcoming mission and concerns over safety. (I didn't have the nerve to pose the question I wanted to ask, fearing a beating from parents who didn't want to explain to their children the concept of the "50-mile-high club.")
Mullane's more blunt in an interview published Sunday by The Guardian:
It's the most dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown. It has no powered-flight escape system ... Basically the bail-out system we have on the shuttle is the same bail-out system a B-17 bomber pilot had in World War II.
He has a new memoir out tomorrow, Riding Rockets, and is scheduled to appear again at the center July 1-7. His comments make me wonder how much candor NASA will take from an astronaut before he stops being a tourist attraction.
Update: I sent Mullane an e-mail asking about the "deathtrap" headline, which seemed far more severe than any of his quotes in the article. He sent this response to NASA (and to me):
As you might have heard, my life story, Riding Rockets, has been published by Scribner and is now in book stores. I've been doing a lot of media interviews. Some of the things I say and what appears in print afterwards are sometimes considerably different. A case in point is this article in a UK newspaper, the Guardian.
First of all, I never interviewed with anybody from that newspaper. While some of the quotes from my book are accurate, the "Deathtrap" theme was grossly out of context and sensationalized. I've never called the shuttle a "Deathtrap." Basically, I've been saying what the current NASA Administrator has said in testimony to Congress. Something along the lines of, "The shuttle is a flawed system. It has no crew escape system." Griffin has gone on to say that he wants to fly the minimum number of missions and retire the shuttle so as to minimize the chances of losing another shuttle and crew. That's basically my theme in interviews. I have repeatedly said the lack of a powered-flight bailout system means that crews have no hope of escape in the event of a catastrophic failure. I guess somebody at the Guardian used that to say "Deathtrap." I just wanted you to be aware, in case somebody inquires about the article. Also, please forward it to anybody at NASA who might also need to be aware.