Cosmic Downers

Astronaut's memoir reminds technology program managers that they can't ignore the human element.

News reports portrayed it as a letdown of cosmic proportions for two NASA astronauts: On top of the world and readier than ever to take a walk outside their space shuttle, they were stuck inside when the orbiter's hatch wouldn't open. It happened to Tom Jones and a colleague aboard the shuttle Columbia on Nov. 28, 1996. Perplexed flight managers called off two spacewalks that would have advanced development of the U.S.-led international space station. Columbia skulked home with a primary mission objective unfulfilled. Later, engineers dismantled the hatch handle and found an errant screw.

The incident tops the list of life's most embarrassing moments for Jones, but it wasn't the biggest disappointment of his 11 years in the government's astronaut corps. That distinction is reserved for what he calls "inexplicable" management decisions that damaged morale, ruined careers and made shuttle flying more risky. "They were the most talented people I'll ever work with," the four-flight veteran says of his fellow astronauts, "and yet they were treated in almost a medieval, feudal way."

Jones, who left the corps in 2001 to become a full-time author, co-wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to NASA (Alpha Books, 2002). He vents his frustrations about the thwarted spacewalks, NASA's management culture and the future of exploration in Skywalking: An Astronaut's Memoir (Collins, 2006).

Sprinkled among the recollections, diary excerpts and photographs of Jones' journey from Air Force pilot and CIA scientist to NASA mission specialist are the details of his firsthand exposure to some of the chronic organizational ills that contributed to shuttle catastrophes in 1986 and 2003, which claimed the lives of 14 astronauts.

The book offers the first insider's account of how politics in the astronaut office added risk to an early space station construction mission in 2001. It was Jones' last flight. The U.S. laboratory Destiny would be connected to the station and Jones and a crew mate, Mark Lee, would take three spacewalks to activate the science module. They had been training together for more than two years when Lee was replaced only nine months before the original launch date. In space program terms, it was a last-minute switch - usually avoided for safety reasons.

According to Jones, Johnson Space Center managers cited only vague dissatisfaction with Lee's performance and didn't comply with federal civil service procedures in documenting their concerns. Lee suspected it was punishment for a personal matter. Jones writes that officials made it clear that if he and the rest of the crew objected, they would be replaced, too. Managers "treated me fairly for the most part," Jones says. "In other cases, they disappointed me greatly."

The book devotes several chapters to the early days of the U.S. partnership with Russia in the international space station. Jones headed the space station operations branch of the astronaut office in 1997 and 1998. NASA was concluding a series of missions that sent American astronauts to live aboard the crumbling Russian space station Mir, and an American was training with cosmonauts in Russia for the first joint mission aboard the fledgling international outpost. Jones writes about Russia's inability to deliver training and flight hardware on time and on NASA's unwillingness to prod Russia to live up to its agreements. The book reveals how a lack of top-level support affected U.S. astronauts working in Russia.

Skywalking benefits from hindsight. Columbia disintegrated on the way home from space in February 2003. The accident resulted from a fuel tank debris problem that shuttle managers ignored. NASA has gotten a cultural makeover since then, and the shuttle's mission in July and August was successful in spite of related debris crises.

Once the shock of Columbia's demise wears off and managers have moved into bigger and better jobs, Jones expects the communications failures to reappear. "When they get into the management sphere," he says, "you don't hear bad messages, and then you ignore catastrophic consequences that could have been prevented."