When you power up the avionics on later model Cirrus aircraft, a questionnaire pops up that asks the pilot probing questions about his or her fitness to fly. It was introduced in response to a flurry of Cirrus crashes in which the airplanes performed as designed but there were shortcomings in the left seat.
Although a lot of us dismissed the gimmicky nature of the screen display, I've seen it make pilots pause in a bit of self assessment before turning the key. Whether it's prevented a hung over, distracted or sick pilot from taking off and ultimately crashing we'll never know but the enforced introspection can't hurt and might even help.
Maybe NASA should consider a similar system for its space shuttle simulators (assuming the ancient computers can handle the graphics) given the remarkable decision to allow Mark Kelly in the left seat for the April 19 launch of Endeavor while his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, undergoes rehabilitation for a gunshot wound to the head suffered less than a month ago. Given the "right stuff" heritage of the astronaut corps, it's perhaps not surprising that Kelly, described by his boss, Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson as a "tough guy," was given the nod. But it was the justification for the decision that bugged me.
Both Kelly and NASA claim his presence will make the mission safer, that in spite of the whirlwind of events in the past few weeks this tough guy, who was three weeks ago weeping in the embrace of the President on national TV has shaken off the emotion, the stress and turmoil to the point where he is considered the best choice to ensure the safety of the mission and those on board the shuttle. Whitson says he's been training with the crew for 18 months and, despite a three-week break while he was at his wife's bedside, he'll catch up quickly because of his experience (it will be his fourth trip to space.)
It just doesn't pass the smell test in my opinion. For one thing, there is a capable and experienced backup available. I wonder how Rick Sturckow, who was named Kelly's backup with at least three months to train for the mission. feels about the safety of this decision. Sturckow has been on four shuttle missions, twice as commander, so he probably remembers where the switches are.
Human frailty is part of the cargo on every shuttle flight. Each crew member carries baggage into space, be it a relationship problem, a sick parent, a troubled child or even personal demons that make it through the rigorous screening. But the normal detritus of life never surfaces in the PR aura that surrounds a shuttle mission. STS-134 will be much different. Every move Kelly makes, every thought he expresses and every function of the mission will be scrutinized in the context of the circumstances on Earth. And that's if, God forbid, something terrible doesn't happen while he's up there.
And maybe that's what concerns me most. This will be one of the most intensely watched space missions since Apollo 13 and to contrive that kind of coverage would make Walter Cronkite do backflips in his grave.
There may be some good reasons that Kelly is the best choice for this mission but we haven't heard them yet. From here it looks like the safest thing for all involved would be for Kelly to sit this one out.