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Kelly Should Skip This Mission

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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.

Comments (46)

Sit this one out? This is the last or next to last shuttle mission. Aside from that, I think he is in the best position to decide to fly or not, and NASA to it's credit is backing him up. The comparision to a Cirrus private pilot is weak...

Posted by: Russell Farris | February 7, 2011 12:17 AM    Report this comment

This is another case of NASA caving in to politics - we're going to let Kelly fly to honor his wife Rep. Gabriel Giffords. I have the same sick feeling I had during the "Teacher In Space" program. Spaceflight is not a game, it's serious business, lives are at stake, and the utmost care should be provided at all times. Question: What if Gabrielle Giffords, God forbid, should take a turn for the worse, or even die, days before launch. Would Kelly still be considered "fit for flight"?

Posted by: Stuart Harnden | February 7, 2011 6:12 AM    Report this comment

Despite the weak analogy to the Cirrus checklist, I think Paul is spot on for this one. To think that Mark Kelly could be totally "there" for the intensive training over the next three months is naive. And heaven forbid if his wife does take a turn for the worse, then do we delay the shuttle launch for a few more months?

Posted by: Lindy Kirkland | February 7, 2011 6:27 AM    Report this comment

What drivel. Mark Kelly is a pro who understands the demands of the mission and his personal life.

Posted by: Brian Veazey | February 7, 2011 6:30 AM    Report this comment

If Kelly experiences the tiniest glitch on the mission, even something technical and totally unrelated to his wife's condition, we'll never hear the end of it. The talking-head "experts" would have a field day. I guarantee the news networks will cover this mission like never before, and will have psychologists explaining to us what "mental stresses" that Kelly is having to deal with.

It's his and NASA's call, but it would be better if he stepped aside ... for everyone.

Posted by: John Austin | February 7, 2011 6:34 AM    Report this comment

Quite often public relations, desire, and ego seem to result in childish decisions. Are these some factors common to SNAFU? Obviously, the crew preparations have not optimal. we love to ignore the gorilla/elephants and proceed. Wernher von Braun was correct in that engineered systems must be specified to be to handle monkey moments.

Posted by: Art Sebesta | February 7, 2011 6:38 AM    Report this comment

I think Paul is spot on for this one.<<

Just to keep things straight, I didn't write this one. For what it's worth, I think it's Kelly's decision to make after a come-to-Jesus chat with his management. I don't think NASA is caving to anything. Either decision would have been right and he chose to fly the mission. He's a trained professional and I and his crew expect him to do his job and have no reason to believe he won't.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 7, 2011 6:43 AM    Report this comment

So because he was understandbly upset shortly after his wife was shot and actually wept about it, how he feels a month later is irrelevant, despite the fact that his wife is not only still alive, not only recovering, but recovering remarkably, and despite the fact his decision to fly was not his alone but was made by people far more qualified than you... despite all that, you think it "smells"?

Do you really think that if his crewmates, flight surgeons or other colleagues (some of whom must know him better than you do) thought he should "sit this one out", they wouldn't say so? Even you call the screening rigourous.

Yet you "wonder" how the alternate commander "feels" about the decision, insinuating that there's something wrong with it but without actually quoting his opinion (but you think he "probably remembers where the switches are"). If he told you that he supports the decision, would that satisfy you or would you need some other way to plug the Cirrus gimmick?

And what the hell do you mean by Cronkite doing backflips in his grave over "contrived" media attention? Are you seriously suggesting this is a publicity stunt?

You were off base about that banner-towing aircraft's accident last year, but this time, you're not just way off-base, you're out of the stadium. Frankly, I seriously question your judgement and I strongly dispute the tagline about this being "aviation's most informed blog".

Posted by: Jeff Rankin-Lowe | February 7, 2011 6:53 AM    Report this comment

Mark & Scott are both inductees into Aviation Hall of Fame of NJ (NJAHOF) and, between them, have hundreds of carrier traps and SIX space flights! So, some of the readers feel more qualified to make the decision that Mark & NASA have carefully considered?? And one responder has referred to him as "you jerk"; thanks for that revelation. Steve Riethof, VP, NJAHOF

Posted by: Stephen Riethof | February 7, 2011 7:27 AM    Report this comment

I, too, think this will become a media circus. It would be interesting to know if any other shuttle commander ever had a three week interuption of training this close to the mission and was still selected to proceed.

Posted by: James Sanford | February 7, 2011 8:43 AM    Report this comment

"It just doesn't pass the smell test in my opinion."

Opinions not based on facts are what the smell is. Unless you know personally what is happening at NASA (the training reports, fitness reports, etc) then any opinion is naive at best. AFAIK anyone can follow a checklist and watch the shuttle automatically takeoff and land.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 7, 2011 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Being an old retired 121 driver, I know I know no comparison, however having sat in all seats in air carrier operations when I look back when ever there were difficulties with crew members there usually were other issues going on with said crew member or even with yours truly. In my humble opinion Commander Mark Kelly should sit this one out...

Posted by: Guy Paris | February 7, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Let's put things in perspective, shall we? Mr. Niles--not a trained psychologist as far as I know--bases his opinion on his "unease" with the state of mind of a man he's never met, much less spoken to. On the other hand, we know every pilot is bound to evaluate him/herself and the circumstances surrounding each flight before accepting the responsibility to fly, something Mark Kelly did accurately and safely for years as a naval aviator flying carrier missions. Further, NASA has nearly half a century of experience evaluating astronauts' knowledge, skills and health as regards their capability to handle a given mission.

Who's opinion matters here?

At any rate, if this is a media stunt, it's the right kind. The maniacal smile Jared Loughner conjured for his police mug shot tells me he craved attention more than anything else--the kind of attention gotten by influencing expensive decisions made by professionals based on data, logic and years of knowledge and experience. I'm glad to see he failed in at least this area...

Posted by: Mark Sletten | February 7, 2011 9:10 AM    Report this comment

Russ -- Your topic this week is pretty weak (pardon the pun). Is there nothing GA-related that could be written about. I'm not going to get into the whole "he said, she said" game, but I think the "talking heads" have got this one pretty much covered. How about something from the GA world? I thought I hit "AvWeb" on my browser, not "Fox News" or "CNN".

Avweb Editors -- To use a phrase where I come from, you might want to "Park the Truck" until Russ decides to check back into the same reality that we all share.

Posted by: R. Doe | February 7, 2011 9:12 AM    Report this comment

Jed, Stephen Riethof is correct to point out the rudeness. I've deleted that comment and you're welcome to repost it in more civil language.

Posted by: Russ Niles | February 7, 2011 9:14 AM    Report this comment

Just a small point regarding this uproar, Mark Kelly is the "Commander" of the MISSION not the PILOT of STS-134. Those duties fall to Col. Gregory Johnson (USAF Ret.). Col. Johnson was the pilot for Endeavor on STS-123 so he is aware of the responsibility.

Posted by: James Knudsen | February 7, 2011 9:18 AM    Report this comment

What would be a tragedy is if the emotional drivel that created this blog were widespread and denied Kelly the opportunity to fly the mission. Good pilots are logical and calculated, compartmentalizing non flight related matters for later.

Sure, if Kelly is crying all the time or otherwise showing signs of not keeping his $hit in a pile then by all means step aside.

However he isnt showing those signs. Crying in the Presidents arms was the exact time and place to "get it out".

And just because he isnt a basket case doesnt mean he isnt sensitive. It just means he is a Professional.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | February 7, 2011 9:55 AM    Report this comment

This flight will be a media circus regardless of who is aboard the shuttle. Personally I think the designation of "Commander," separate job from "Pilot," on shuttle missions has been confusing to the public. Are shuttle missions an exception to the rule of who is pilot in command? Sounds to me like the pilot is NOT in command.

Posted by: Mac Hayes | February 7, 2011 10:03 AM    Report this comment

Many times every day, pilots fly, or command all types of airplanes, airships, what have you, and Im sure many of us have serious issues with family, job, or various life problems to deal with. If we all "sit it out" Good chance the majority of flights of any type would not happen. Get a grip folks.

Posted by: charles heathco | February 7, 2011 10:26 AM    Report this comment

These people are at a level of professionalism that most of us will never understand. I believe his personal life will not be a distraction.

Posted by: John Parish | February 7, 2011 11:49 AM    Report this comment

Well, as they say "Opinions are like anus, everybody's got one", especially bloggers on a deadline. From every objective measure, Russ has exactly the same inside information about this decision that Arianna Huffington and Glen Beck are privvy to. I don't give them any credence either. I won't say Russ screwed the pooch on this one, but he definitely stepped in the pooch's contribution to the Green Initiative.

Not knowing any more than Russ (but probably not any less) I'll depend on the far-more-valuable opinions of the NASA pros on this one. Despite how it may feel at times, Russ should be very grateful that his job performance is not as closely scrutinized, analyzed, and circumscribed as Cmdr. Kelly's.

Perhaps Russ should apply his "smell test" to his armchair.

Posted by: Chip Davis | February 7, 2011 11:49 AM    Report this comment

Chip Davis said: "I'll depend on the far-more-valuable opinions of the NASA pros on this one"

Those "NASA pros" are the same people who made the launch and re-entry calls on Challenger and Columbia. They have been known to get it wrong before.

Posted by: Adam Hunt | February 7, 2011 12:08 PM    Report this comment

Incredible, that NASA will allow Kelly to be the 'decider' on flying this mission. NASA has ample experienced commanders that are able to pick up this trip. Kelly will without a doubt, be distracted by his constant concern for his wife, as well as being a distraction to the mission himself. This is a case of PC gone wild, and loads up the mission with additional risks.

Posted by: David Coriaty | February 7, 2011 12:44 PM    Report this comment

Who the hell are you to post a blog criticizing Commander Kelly's decision? In this age of endless opinions about every topic under the sun, why do we need to hear yours? Anyone that has commanded a crew, especially a closely-knit crew, will quickly consider them family. So Kelly has chosen one family that is about to embark on a dangerous, historic mission over another that is sure to be in very good hands. For me, the decision is understandable. But my opinion, as well as the opinions of everyone else (especially a blogger) is meaningless.

Posted by: Stuart Ball | February 7, 2011 12:52 PM    Report this comment

As you can see from most of the posting, there are lots of us questioning your right to criticize. Commander Kelly is the best judge of go or no-go, and he feels comfortable with his decision so but out.

Posted by: Warren Levin | February 7, 2011 1:22 PM    Report this comment

I won't question Kelly's fitness to fly -- that's not my call. I won't question the wisdom of his decision -- that's not my call either. I will say that, personally, I disagree with his priorities. If it were my wife in rehab following traumatic brain injury, I would want to be right there by her side, for as long as the recuperation took. Even if it meant missing out on the ride of a lifetime. But then again, it's not my decision, just my opinion.

Posted by: Dr. H. Paul Shuch | February 7, 2011 2:14 PM    Report this comment

It ultimately is NASA's administrator's responsibility to determine if Kelly is fit or not. I only hope that they are making the right decision for the right reasons (safety). Regardless of the direction taken, if anything goes wrong the press is going to have a field day. If Kelly goes and there is a problem - "he was too stressed and distracted". If he doesn't go then it will be "his replacement wasn't ready". Either way, if anything goes wrong, NASA is damned.

Posted by: Rick Bennett | February 7, 2011 3:58 PM    Report this comment

Obviously, Mark Kelly is a professional pilot. I'm sure he will do the IMSAFE checklist (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Eating) and make an informed and professional decision. The only factor here that he must consider is Stress. Only he can decide if he's under too much stress for the mission to be flown.

Posted by: Manuel Erickson | February 7, 2011 4:38 PM    Report this comment

I find our concerns and our similarities fascinating. Comments are voiced here as never before. Now, I am certain we know that we must "proceed forward" in our particular harmony and not only trust in the future (it's really a pretty good shot - these people are truly magic) but add our support, best wishes, hope and love. Do It

Posted by: Art Sebesta | February 7, 2011 7:43 PM    Report this comment

My first comment was non-committal on the subject at hand. IMNSHO, I believe that Kelly and Giffords have led not-that-close lives, both having busy professional careers that have involved fairly long separations. Especially since Giffords is recuperating so nicely, I don't see that Kelly will be under greater stress than his own job demands.

Posted by: Mac Hayes | February 8, 2011 3:33 AM    Report this comment

Congratulations to him for being selected as the last mission commander of the shuttle program. It does not matter if the events outside of NASA had no impact on the decision making process or not. But they will be, in my mind, forever remembered as such.

Posted by: Dirk Diggler | February 8, 2011 9:25 AM    Report this comment

I am usually in line with Niles, but not this time. The history of the mission is important and like most professionals and pilots in particular, one just puts those things in life that caust stress in their respective box during show time. Failure to compartmentize would be the downfall of us all. Between Kelly's self eval and those with multi PHDs surrounding him, he knows if he is up to the "last" mission of that Shuttle better than I...

Posted by: Chuck West | February 9, 2011 1:18 AM    Report this comment

He knows better than anyone if he's ready. Maintain an even strain!

Posted by: J. L. Lee | February 9, 2011 5:17 AM    Report this comment

A friend of mine had an unknown stranger run out in front of his airplane, engine running. This man said since the weather was bad (about 1.5 miles and 1000 overcast) he wasn't going to let him take off. My friend has 4000 hours and an instrument rating. This unknown stranger was not qualified and uninformed - and should have probably been arrested for interfering with a flight crew! I see the same second-guessing here. The reason they call it a "personal evaluation checklist" is that its exactly that. I've got my own, etched in stone, go - no go list with appropriate personal minimums. This was established by working with highly qualified pilots and instructors - not the armchair quarterbacks. Kelly worked with his professionals, decided to make the go decision and I support that. (I do think the last several editorials have been a little weak - just my opinion)

Posted by: Josh Johnson | February 9, 2011 7:13 AM    Report this comment

This blog reminds me of Entertainment Tonight or one of the other trivial programs clogging the broadband.

Posted by: Sandy Pollack | February 9, 2011 8:03 AM    Report this comment

Use a Cirrus to compare with a Spaceshuttle mission might not be a good comparison but I agree that NASA should've have protocols to deal with the situation to minimize the "personal" emotion ( I can do it~) involve and maximize the safety concerns. No matter how professional or expereinces Kelly has, every mission is different. Looking back the accidents and analize them, you will find most of them were under the control of most experienced and honored pilots, with numbers of unlikely "odds" happened all together. NASA should've learned better from anyone else. Should Kelly sit this out? My personal "emotonal" response is "yes". But this should not be an issue of democracy of following the majorities. NASA should've have the system to deal with this before publics have doubts about this issue.

Posted by: Eric Teng | February 9, 2011 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Russ is right and there is more to this than what meets eye with this flawed decision. First off no pilot should be dispatched in Kelly’s situation. • Management should have interceded and not scheduled him. • Most pilots overestimate their abilities. • At some point either in training or during the flight he will be distracted. • Who wants to fly with anyone with such a macho attitude? • The “professional decision” would have been not to fly. • If required who will make life essentials decisions for Gabby? This is a risk that doesn’t have to be taken.

Posted by: D Olson | February 9, 2011 9:52 AM    Report this comment

I just want to correct a couple of inaccuracies I keep seeing.

First, Kelly was scheduled as the commander 18 months ago. He has been training for this flight since then. A new commander would only have a few months to train with the primary flight crew. That should be taken into account.

The review has to do with Kelly's "continued" capability to lead this mission.

Also, NASA has lots of reviews in place to ensure that all crew members are fit to fly. Those reviews will continue, and if they determine during training that Kelly's fitness level is not up to standard then they will replace him.

The terrible tragedies of Columbia and Challenger were not caused by problems with the flight crew. Those individuals were making the appropriate decisions. The responsibility of those missions lie with managers and leaders on the ground.

Posted by: Bryan Steele | February 9, 2011 1:03 PM    Report this comment

Russ Niles should address a subject on which he can have some influence, and keep his opinion as to whether Kelly should fly or not fly to himself.

This happens much too often - a "journalist" publicly expresses his opinion in the hopes that it will whip up controversy, resulting in getting the crowd (AVWEB readers) all worked up over something that really doesn't concern them.

A better use of AVWEB's time would be perhaps to figure out a way to get the cost of flying down, encouraging more to enter the field.

Neither NASA, Kelly or Rep. Giffords care what AVWEB or it's readers think, and the expression of opinions on that subject is simply a waste of time.

Posted by: John Leonard | February 10, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

While I tend to disagree with Russ's opinion, what impresses me most about these responses to his blog is the frequent suggestion that he has no right to his opinion on this matter, and the emotional vitriol with which that suggestion is made. Reminds me of a recent editorial I read somewhere - "The 'Meaning' of Aviation..."

Posted by: John Johnson | February 10, 2011 9:41 AM    Report this comment

Hey.......his wife is doing well and he has a very important job to do....I would bet that she would say go ahead.......I think he should fly the mission....she is in good hands.

Posted by: Don Wilfong | February 10, 2011 10:29 AM    Report this comment

Russ, you are practicing journalistic (and I'm stretching to use that term) theatrics.

Let's move on to a more productive discussion.

Posted by: L. E. Smith | February 10, 2011 11:00 AM    Report this comment

Neither NASA, Kelly or Rep. Giffords care what AVWEB or it's readers think, and the expression of opinions on that subject is simply a waste of time.<<

'scuse me, but following the Challenger disaster, we learned painfully that NASA had a flawed decisionmaking culture that was contributory to the accident. As taxpayers and countrymen, we have a dog in this fight and is thus more than reasonable to express an opinion on it. NASA may do with it what it will, but it is not beyond reproach. We shouldn't be expected to sit down and shut up.

These blogs are meant to discuss flying topics of the day. This is one of those.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 10, 2011 1:17 PM    Report this comment

There are good arguements on both sides of this issue. However,the rancorous ad hominem attacks by some posters (you know who you are)are adolescent if not infantile and add nothing to the debate one way or the other.

Posted by: Dennis McNish | February 10, 2011 5:29 PM    Report this comment

Crikey! There is a some disrespectful stuff being thrown around! I am not from the US but I feel moved to defend both NASA and Mr Kelly. All this stuff people would never say face to face - dear oh dear.

I think this is definitely a worthwhile topic for discussion because we are constantly exhorted to consider the HF implications before deciding to commit aviation. This situation has an hilariously extreme get-there-itis aspect to it. Hmmm. Fly one of the last shuttle missions or stay home? I'll get back to you.

On first blush it seems troubling to me too. But NASA is pretty much humanfactors.com so I am really pleased that they are giving this guy the chance to make up his own mind. And he is clearly a fine individual. This is a guy who could reverse park that shuttle out the front of my place while ordering takeout on his cell phone. "Don't forget the curry-puffs, Kelly!" If he and NASA have this attitude, I am not going to second guess them.

I wonder if that thing has one of those reversing beepers?

Posted by: john hogan | February 11, 2011 1:53 AM    Report this comment

I can hardly imagine that Mr. Kelly has not been double evaluated by nasa doctors on many occasions. I would Bet that every training session is evaluated by doctors. Most likely with Mr. Kelly involved at some point. If anyone involved with these decisions had doubt about his ability to command this mission. He would have been replaced already.

Posted by: Daniel Cheney | February 11, 2011 3:10 PM    Report this comment

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