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13:52:05 GMT First Clear Indication of Off-Nominal Aero Increments
February 1, 2014 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Eleven years ago, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the skies of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. It was the result of an incident that had taken place at take-off fifteen days earlier that saw a large piece of foam being hit by the leading edge of the orbiter wing at roughly 970 feet per second (630 MPH or 1013 km/hr). It took some time to convince engineers that a foam impact could have had such monumental effect. For that reason, Scott Hubbard and the rest of the CAIB ordered a test at the Southwest Research Institute to recreate the conditions of the strike. The first test on June 16th did not yield much interesting insight. The results of the second impact test on July 7th did. A loud gasp could be heard from the crowd attending the test. Here is the leading edge of tested orbiter wing before and after the July 7th impact.
posted by IgorCarron (52 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The soft overcomes the hard; the weak overcomes the strong."
posted by symbioid at 7:47 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Wayne Hale, former STS Program Manager and long time NASA employee, has a great blog post talking about the testing that was performed. Basically he says that it was shocking that a lot of very intelligent people could not wrap their minds around the F=MA formula and believe that a piece of foam could bring down the shuttle.

It took the actual test and everyone seeing it to believe it.
posted by tgrundke at 7:58 AM on February 1 [3 favorites]


Every time I read this stuff my eyes still fill with tears. I go back to that morning, looking online to find out what had happened (and had anyone survived), seeing the doppler radar from over Texas, the obvious debris track, and just putting my hand over my mouth.

It's a bittersweet reminder that we're all still human, that these folks who should, of us all of us, be most acutely and ever aware that a 'small' mass at a high enough relative velocity still delivers high force, were all "but its foam!"

The Nova episode linked in the post is good. Watch it here.
posted by The Legit Republic of Blanketsburg at 8:01 AM on February 1 [4 favorites]


The first test was on a fiberglass panel and it was done as a test of the setup before trying it on the real reinforced carbon-carbon panels. There's a good video of the test and enhanced footage of the strike on Columbia here.
posted by ruthsarian at 8:14 AM on February 1


I remember that day vividly: it was the day my brother graduated from Air Force basic training, and my father and I were at the AFB in San Antonio. It was a truly sobering piece of news.

.
posted by gauche at 8:25 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


"Happy bidding!" - the final two words on an ebay auction for a piece of the shuttle. I couldn't believe the hubris, then I *could* believe it, then I felt sick.

IIRC the auctions made the national news that night. ebay promptly removed all of them.
posted by andreaazure at 8:46 AM on February 1


Wayne Hale, former STS Program Manager and long time NASA employee, has a great blog post talking about the testing that was performed. Basically he says that it was shocking that a lot of very intelligent people could not wrap their minds around the F=MA formula and believe that a piece of foam could bring down the shuttle.

There's having the energy to do X, and being able to deliver the energy to do X.

The issue is that nobody believed the foam would have the cohesiveness to actually deliver the energy. It was clear that a mass of that density, if it held together, could do so. But the foam had already proven to be friable -- it had shed from the ET ramp, after all -- so they thought that if it did hit the much tougher structures of the shuttle, it would just shatter and most of the kinetic energy wouldn't be delivered. And when you see the foam hit on the film, it very clearly shatters -- almost into a cloud.

Alas, the RCC panels weren't tough, they were brittle, and by the time the foam shattered, itwas able to deliver enough KE in a short enough time constant to break it. If it hadn't punched through, the airflow did the rest of the job and left the hole.

The real tragedy was that if the NASA mission director* and program manager had authorized more detailed looks, we would have seen the hole, and we might have saved the crew. It just so happened that another orbiter stack was close to flight, and could have been made ready for a rescue mission, without skipping safety checks, before Columbia ran out of consumables. They might have even been able to save the orbiter, if someone found a clever way to cover that hole -- though they would have probably just deorbited into the Pacific to make sure nobody was hit by anything.


* The flight directors (3 or 4, depending on how many MCC teams are assigned) run the flights, and they have absolute authority over the flight. External resources, however, are the responsibility of the Mission Director, who authorizes the flight, and the Program Director, who runs the entire spaceflight program.

In the Gemini/Apollo era, there was a DOD position in the MOCR for the liaison to the Department of Defense, since they controlled the Naval resources used to recover the spacecraft after splashdown. But that console was in the last row of MCC, and those were the consoles that were Mission, not Flight -- PAO (Public Affairs Office) DFO (Director of Flight Operation) HQ (NASA HQ rep) and DOD (Department of Defense. They reported to the Program and Mission director, and were there to advise and monitor, not to control. The controllers were in the front three rows, with FLIGHT in the center of row three, able to see everyone.

Ars Technica has two killer articles on the MOCR, one about the consoles and one about what is was like being at one of them, with Apollo EECOM Sy Liebergot
posted by eriko at 8:48 AM on February 1 [27 favorites]


Didn't they also not tell the astronauts what was going to happen? (Little scared to reread that in the article)
posted by discopolo at 8:48 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


I assume there are foam truthers out there.
posted by benzenedream at 8:51 AM on February 1


Shuttle Columbia Crew Not Told of Risks
posted by discopolo at 9:00 AM on February 1


I cried when I read this article:
http://www.spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts107/030221telemetry/

Specifically this:
"During that five-second period, two more right-firing thrusters ignited on command of Columbia's flight computers, joining the two already in operation to counteract an increasing aerodynamic drag on the left side of the vehicle."

Astronauts know they could die, pushing the limits is what makes us human.

The space shuttle, though a machine, yes, seems more human and innocent when I read that line. To me, the craft became less a vessel and more like a valiant servant, desperately trying to carry out her orders despite the impending doom.

So yeah, I cried for the innocent space shuttle carrying out her orders like a good little spacecraft should.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:04 AM on February 1 [34 favorites]


@ruthsarian thanks, I was looking for the video, I had been looking for it for a long time.
posted by IgorCarron at 9:15 AM on February 1


From the ABC New article above:

"After one of the MMTs (Mission Management Team) when possible damage to the orbiter was discussed, he (Flight Director Jon Harpold) gave me his opinion: 'You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged it's probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don't you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?"

A bleak assessment. Orbiting in space until your oxygen ran out. The dilemma for mission managers is that they simply didn't know if the space shuttle was damaged.

The doomed astronauts were not told of the risk.

posted by discopolo at 9:16 AM on February 1


Annika, I thought I was the only freak who cried over the autopilot trying harder and harder to keep the ship on course in the face of increasing damage, without the astronauts even being aware. One indicator light, hard to notice, that turned on whenever the RCS jet fired. Finally the light stayed on.
posted by jjwiseman at 9:24 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


> if the NASA mission director* and program
> manager had authorized more detailed
> looks, we would have seen the hole ...

I've always wondered if anyone did look, and think 'Maybe we're just seeing a dark smudge on the wing leading edge, maybe it'll be okay' -- reluctance to disclose how good the spy telescopes are is normal behavior.

Fifty years from now, maybe, we'll know. History has this huge lag time.
posted by hank at 9:24 AM on February 1


@discopolo

MCC told Rick Husband of the hit, he, in turn, told the rest of the crew. What I am really pointing out here is that lots of engineers thought it was no big deal. Those whose job it was to assess the problem relied on a flawed modeling which itself had used very small objects in their databases of tests. Some people initiated requests for imagery outside the agency from the spysats but that request got cancelled by management because the flawed models did not point to a major impact. I was on the telcom loop between MCC and the orbiter for the main part of the fifteen days and never sensed that there was any issue of the kind that eventually unraveled. Titles like "Shuttle Columbia Crew Not Told of Risks" is bad journalism at best.
posted by IgorCarron at 9:26 AM on February 1 [11 favorites]


"Can you feel it, we're almost home..."

It took some time to convince engineers that a foam impact could have had such monumental effect.

And I have to believe they were full of shit, unless they are talking about engineers who had zero familiarity with the space shuttle. It was just more of the same complacency that led to the loss of the Challenger.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:34 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


The standard deviations from normal inside NASA are glaringly responsible for both shuttle tragedies.

Anyone who researches the RCA for both catastrophic failures will quickly arrive to that conclusion.

Basically the shuttle was doomed from the start, it could have been made safe, wasn't, and NASA totally borked safety design HARD. It's awful actually.

Fortunately they decomm'ed the program before they killed more astronauts. The entire shuttle program provides ample proof that NASA was on track to lose more shuttles, it was as if they were actively unwilling to learn the lesson.

In a way that makes me really sad because the shuttle program was probably this biggest most awesome thing in world for me at 8 years old, and to see how badly the program was managed wounds a pretty sacred little part of my childhood memories.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:47 AM on February 1 [10 favorites]


Compare/contrast Reagan's Challenger speech (WARNING: Comic Sans) to Dubya's Columbia speech (WARNING: Comic Sans). As lousy as his policies were, you can see when Reagan was called "the Great Communicator" and how much the quality of public discourse has plummeted in just twenty years.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:47 AM on February 1 [6 favorites]


(Metafilter had a live thread as the event unfolded, for the curious.)
posted by mwhybark at 9:53 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


(Metafilter had a live thread as the event unfolded, for the curious.)

Somewhat surprising how quickly the cause was reported by CNN.
posted by tommasz at 10:12 AM on February 1


They had an astronaut on StarTalk last year, and they asked him if astronauts were issued a "suicide" pill. He said that even if they were, he was going to ride the rocket to the end anyway. He was so adamant about his preference to live longer, despite the odds, that I imagine most astronauts feel the same.
posted by Brocktoon at 10:20 AM on February 1


You know, guys. I'm not going to hang around in this thread. I'm old, I'm tired. I'm going to go play Kerbal Space Program -- a Duna window is open -- and I'm going to think of better days for NASA, and hope for better days to come.

Spaceflight is hard. Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying to you. Anyone building a booster now has the absolutely enormous books of lessons compiled by NASA and Roscosmos, but it is still incredibly hard -- and some of those lesson pages are stained with tears.
posted by eriko at 10:21 AM on February 1 [29 favorites]


Eleven years later, I still don't understand how people can expect "safety" and "sitting on the top of/next to millions of pounds of explosive fuel, flying into space at 20,000 miles an hour, and then hitting the atmosphere at same on the way home" to be compatible. Given the magnitude of what we were doing, I'd say 2 lost out of 135 missions is pretty good. Especially when you consider that the Shuttle was a compromised design from the beginning with a lot more points of failure than a simple capsule.

Both the Challenger and Columbia incidents are great examples of the shortcuts people's brains make to make it possible for them to keep complex stuff in their heads. RCC is "strong," foam is "weak," so the second can't damage the first. Great first approximation. Not so great an approximation in the midst of a rocket launch.
posted by wierdo at 10:25 AM on February 1 [2 favorites]


This is my birthday, so I certainly remember it, and also where I was. I was part of a bowling league back then at a now torn down bowling alley. The man running the facility let us know what was going on and activated the TV mode of a set of these really old score monitors over head. So the footage we saw was grainy, but what it showed was not hard to grasp.

Sad day...
posted by JoeXIII007 at 10:54 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Weirdo: the levels of engineering required to build and maintain the shuttle program generated mountains of factual, data driven, reality-based evidence that were ignored by NASA executives. Morton Thiokol (they refurbished the booster between launches) had provided engineering documentation prior to the challenger explosion stating exactly the failure point, predicting that it would occur around the launch that it did and prior to the challenger launch engineers at MT were making desperate pleas to abort the mission.

Yes, space flight is hard, and you can say 2 out of 135 is good enough, but that's a 98.5 percent success rate and a 40% vehicular failure rate.

Those numbers in engineering terms are ghastly appalling, but really it wasn't an engineering failure at all, it was a failure of NASA executives to foster a culture to care to do better than that, and it could be argued they actively prevented it.

Which is to say, there was a 100% certainty the catastrophic failures could have been prevented and were KNOWN prior. But the culture at NASA couldn't be arsed enough to care to prevent them.

This is well documented, understood and known in engineering circles. It's regularly used as an example of how not to run your engineering organization.
posted by Annika Cicada at 11:06 AM on February 1 [10 favorites]


I worked for a time in Hemphill, Texas. The memories of the shuttle response are still quite raw - all of my coworkers worked on nothing BUT shuttle recovery for the first 3 months of the response, and many of my coworkers continued to work on the response for years later (I work for a federal response agency).

The response of the communities of deep east Texas, an area of the country with some very problematic and sad history is nothing short of phenomenal. Though the weather was cold and rainy throughout the days and weeks that followed the crash, searchers, many of them volunteers from throughout the South (and around the country) stayed out for twelve hour shifts. The piney woods of east Texas are often prone to thorny thickets, and the searchers had to crawl through thick underbrush, fording streams and slogging through wetland areas in order to complete their grid searches.

When the astronauts' remains were found, searchers remained in place, sometimes for hours, never leaving the astronauts alone until the necessary authorities arrived. The owner of a local funeral home and his son were instrumental in recovering the remains of several astronauts. Each time they responded to a report of remains found, the owner dressed up in his finest suit and drove his hearse as far down the road as possible. Then he would ride as far as he could on an ATV, and then walk the final portion. At times these locations were miles from the nearest road, and he walked all the way out wearing his suit and tie. Along with federal agency representatives and a minister from the local Baptist church, he treated the astronauts' remains with the most incredible dignity imaginable. At the end of the incident, both he and the church minister declined to submit a bill for their services during this effort.

The community pitched in as well. Hemphill is a tiny, remote community - it is 4 hours southeast of Dallas and 2.5 hours northeast of Houston. Lufkin, the nearest town of any size, is an hour to the west. There was little in the way of accommodations for the thousands of emergency responders and volunteers who came to Hemphill in the hours and days after the tragedy. My coworkers told me that all of them had their spare bedrooms filled up and also hosted responders - all of them strangers - on their couches and even on the floor.

The women's garden club and a couple of other local groups led the effort to feed the searchers. Initially the responders suggested two cold meals a day and one hot one. But the community refused - one of the women (who was interviewed in a video that is available at the NASA museum in Hemphill) said that with the weather as poor as it was, all of the searchers needed three hot meals a day. In the video she says that they started cooking at 3 a.m. in order to feed the searchers a hot breakfast, and usually didn't stop serving food until 11 p.m. at night. They went to extraordinary efforts to take hot lunches out to the teams in the field. This is a very poor area of east Texas - many folks live in significant poverty. Still, local residents donated hundreds of pounds of food to aid in the rescue efforts - people dropped off dozens of pies, bags of potatoes, brought casseroles, anything to feed the hungry searchers in their community. One old woman brought a single apple - all she could afford.

The community is still very moved by what happened - there are murals painted by elementary school kids around town in recent years that still have the shuttle pictured on them. My boss still breaks down and cries when he remembers being part of the rescue effort. Last year one of the astronaut's sisters came to Hemphill for the anniversary and she walked out with one of my coworkers to the location that the astronaut's remains were found. My coworker told me "I didn't need a map. I still remembered every step of the way out there in my heart."
posted by arnicae at 11:58 AM on February 1 [291 favorites]


arnicae, why did you mention that apple?? I wasn't going to cry.
posted by daisyk at 12:49 PM on February 1 [16 favorites]


(Metafilter had a live thread as the event unfolded, for the curious.) "for the mawkish" perhaps.

I'm sorry, I've poured over story (and similar) as much as anyone, and feel badly for all those affected, but my heart sinks every time we have to re-visit first-world tragedies like this.
posted by marvin at 12:53 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Annika,

A few things. First, when the thrusters began firing to counteract drag it's not likely that the crew knew what was really happening. No doubt they were alerted to the fact that there were some off-nominal issues, but I suspect that the terminal failure occurred so quickly that the orbiter began tumbling and was torn apart before the crew even had time to realize what was happening.

As for the program being doomed from the start, there are a lot of very good discussions about this here on MeFi, as well as elsewhere. My take on the situation is that no, NASA did not scrimp on safety of the overall systems. The most complicated aspect of the stack, the one everyone expected to lead to a LOV/LOC (loss of vehicle/loss of crew) event, was the orbiter's main engines. The loss of Challenger was due to flying the vehicle outside of its design parameters (weather), the loss of Columbia was due to a foam shedding event. Both events were known problems and both were preventable. The problem is that management chose to classify both issues (o-ring bypass and foam shedding) not as in-flight anomalies, which would have forced an engineering study and evaluation, but as tolerated risks. The mentality that developed after several o-ring burn throughs prior to 51L and toward foam shedding prior to 107 was that it happened, but never got to a critical state.

In fact, we came damned close to losing Atlantis on STS-27 due to massive foam strikes on the orbiter during ascent. Read Mike Mullane's book, Riding Rockets, for a great read on the subject. The strikes caused enough damage to the orbiter's TPS to cause a burn through that melted a section of Atlantis' aluminum skin.

Many arguments can be made that the design (i.e.: orbiter on the side of the launch stack) and complexity of STS made the entire system far too dangerous to ever fly. There's a lot of validity to this argument, but instead I would argue that political and organizational pressure made the system far more risky than necessary. Were NASA afforded the ability to truly shake down the vehicle, refine, improve and make the vehicle more safe - even if that meant grounding the fleet for several years at a time to implement said changes - then we would have had a better system.

Unfortunately, ridiculous promises were made and money was never forthcoming so this was financially and politically untenable. Spaceflight is hard and losses will always occur, but in the case of the shuttle the two that we lost were entirely preventable - but not necessarily due to design problems, but due to managerial and political reasons.
posted by tgrundke at 12:57 PM on February 1 [22 favorites]


ok, there are some pretty wild accusations going on in here that just cannot be properly treated in a comment, so I'm going to direct everyone to the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and recommend you read that before placing any trust in the particular interpretations of folks on the internet. It's really really important reading.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:14 PM on February 1 [8 favorites]


I'm sure if the national will was there we could make a spacecraft now a lot better and safer than the shuttles. I'm sure the estimated $10B+ (exact figure is classified) we probably pour into the NSA every year could cover an awful lot of that.
posted by JHarris at 1:16 PM on February 1


I've had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Mike Mullane.

His presentation on deviations from normal helped my engineering processes considerably.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:19 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


This is well documented, understood and known in engineering circles. It's regularly used as an example of how not to run your engineering organization.

As someone who recently got their engineering degree, I can confirm this. NASA culture and the decisions leading to disasters (NASA and other avoidable engineering disasters) were heavily emphasized and used as lessons.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:52 PM on February 1 [4 favorites]


Thank you @arnicae, @kiltedtaco and @tgrundke.
posted by IgorCarron at 2:04 PM on February 1


"I didn't need a map. I still remembered every step of the way out there in my heart."

I'm sat here weeping.
posted by arcticseal at 4:42 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


In our recent thread on the Challenger, I mentioned that the description of the failure of the conference call to get the right information in front of the right people to stop the launch was the part of the investigation board's report that I always found the most heartbreaking.

From Columbia's investigation board report, it's this one finding:

Over the last two decades, little to no progress has been made toward attaining integrated, independent, and detailed analyses of risk to the Space Shuttle system.

posted by radwolf76 at 7:59 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


JHarris: "I'm sure the estimated $10B+ (exact figure is classified) we probably pour into the NSA every year could cover an awful lot of that."

It's not classified, the budget has been in the ballpark of $17B, and its budget has pretty much been the lowest it's ever been when viewed in light of the percentage of total federal budget. With funding at these levels, I'm doubtful that we'll ever get a serious manned spaceflight program again. Or if we do, it'll probably be full of the same cost-cutting screw-ups that keep getting us into these messes in the first place.
posted by Aleyn at 8:22 PM on February 1


I'm pretty sure JHarris was advocating defunding the National Security Administration and giving that money to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:29 PM on February 1 [2 favorites]


One more recovery-related story, this one a bit more light-hearted:

My coworkers often were leading teams of untrained volunteers during the grid searches. Though a lot of the volunteers were local, some volunteers drove in from hours or even days away. One day, a trio of three retired gentlemen drove up from Houston for the day to assist with the grid search. The coworker leading the team had been having issues with the grid search in that every time someone thought they'd found a bit of debris, the entire team would cluster up to examine the find, thus breaking the grid formation. So he'd given very explicit instructions that if someone found something, they should flag its location and call for assistance - but none of the adjacent searchers should move from their place.

Mid-morning, however, he looked up the line to find that all three of the retirees from Houston were clustered together around a likely-looking cluster of metal on the ground. My coworker called for the team to stop and walked over to the trio, who were arguing about the provenance of the piece of metal. One claimed that it couldn't possibly be related to the shuttle, the other two disagreed.

My coworker broke in, and this is what he told me he said, "Boys, ain't none of you rocket scientists - just flag it and get back into line!"

The three men stopped arguing and looked over at him. After a moment, one of the three said, "In fact, we all are retired engineers from NASA. So we actually ARE rocket scientists."
posted by arnicae at 9:16 PM on February 1 [41 favorites]


how much the quality of public discourse has plummeted in just twenty years.

Eh, that was just Dubya's deliberate deracinated down-home style. And Reagan had Peggy Noonan, one of the best speech writers of the 20th century. Surely you wouldn't judge our public discourse as having climbed precipitously from 2003 to 2013 merely due to Obama and his writers (like Jon Favreau); you'd treat them as exceptional.

recommend you read that before placing any trust in the particular interpretations of folks on the internet

I have and I don't think anyone has said anything here that is really out of line from what the report says. There can be differing interpretations of the same facts -- but it's important we agree on the facts.

I'm doubtful that we'll ever get a serious manned spaceflight program again.

At least in terms of keeping the ISS crewed, we're well on our way toward privatization, with the SpaceX Dragon undergoing human-rating abort tests this year. There are two other contractors working on competing craft at the same time. It's going to take some time to get our minds off the longstanding framing of crewed spaceflight as a Great National Project, a viewpoint shaped during the Cold War out of necessity. The future is likely to be more experimental and entrepreneurial, with even privately funded missions to asteroids (with a view toward resource exploitation) not out of the question. As much as I have loved our astronaut program, I'm primarily a fan of planetary exploration, and it's my hope that getting NASA out of the business of putting humans in space will free up resources for more interesting science (there are indications that's not going so well, with the mission pipeline getting a bit empty, though). In short, don't despair.
posted by dhartung at 11:30 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


They were about 16 minutes from home, after a successful 15 day mission, when the Shuttle broke apart. Yet they were doomed at launch. An apt metaphor for life if there ever was one.

Eriko's decision to go play Kerbal Space Program is a good one. Though scaled down from real life (it only takes six hours instead of 3 days to reach "the Moon"), it's a great game for comprehending how difficult building and launching rockets really is.

Late January/early February is always a solemn time for anyone who wants in the spaceflight field or is a fan.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:21 AM on February 2 [1 favorite]


My coworker broke in, and this is what he told me he said, "Boys, ain't none of you rocket scientists - just flag it and get back into line!"

Metafilter: Ain't none of you rocket scientists, flag it and move on. Well, actually some of us are rocket scientists.
posted by Random Person at 7:35 AM on February 2 [8 favorites]


As a UK observer, it amazes me just how anti privatisation the whole programme has been. Sure, most of the shuttle was built by contractors (with a slightly questionable award process), but considering that there are few nationalised industries in the UK, why did it take so long to consider wholesale privatisation of entire programmes? NASA watch for years carried a frightening graphic of the shuttle adorned in sponsors' logos, as if this was a terrible idea. It doesn't quite chime with how I understand American capitalism.

I'm also struck by how small the "prizes" for successful delivery of an orbital vehicle are now compared to a single shuttle launch. I wonder if things would have been better or worse if this model had been employed instead of building shuttles. (Admittedly no DoD involvement, but who really thought that was a good thing?)
posted by welovelife at 8:59 AM on February 2


I'm sure if the national will was there we could make a spacecraft now a lot better and safer than the shuttles.

It's pretty simple really -- stick the spacecraft on top of the rocket, not on the side.

They might have even been able to save the orbiter, if someone found a clever way to cover that hole

I'm no expert to be sure, but I don't understand why they couldn't perhaps develop some sort of aerogel that they could pump into the void where it expands and hardens. Aerogels dissipate heat pretty well, and all it has to do is ablate/last long enough until they are in the atmosphere. Just enough to get them home.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 9:36 AM on February 2


who really thought that was a good thing?

Me, for one. Some things shouldn't be in the hurlyburly. Like medicine, for example. And space. Now that there multiple millionaires trying to get up there in their own way I am basically not interested any more. But that viewpoint has not carried the day here.

NASA's engineering culture didn't fail because it wasn't a hyperlean avatar of capitalist rank-and-yank efficiency. That's a method of organization optimized for increasing risk and pushing the cost of risk to the base of the compensation pyramid, or, ideally, outside the organization altogether.

The costs to society of privatizing space will surely be less than the costs to society of not inspecting, say, petrochemical plants in East Texas for three generations, but they will be higher than those so far incurred. Just less spectacular. Fewer knights will be lost, but more grooms.
posted by mwhybark at 10:52 AM on February 2 [3 favorites]


I'm no expert to be sure, but I don't understand why they couldn't perhaps develop some sort of aerogel that they could pump into the void where it expands and hardens. Aerogels dissipate heat pretty well, and all it has to do is ablate/last long enough until they are in the atmosphere. Just enough to get them home

I'm also no expert, but my first thought at reading this would be that a lack of gravity would be an issue for getting the foam to stay in place without a complicated space walk?
posted by matty at 11:17 AM on February 2


This MIT lecture is an excellent and entertaining look at the history of space flight, but the part discussing why the shuttle was built the way it was, how it was meant to be used and the accidents ... is simply outstanding and highly recommended. Lots of computer history and engineering too. (2 hours long, space shuttle part start around 44 min mark.)

Partial description;

Dr. Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Director of Flight operations for Apollo, former Director, NASA/JSCDescription: Chris Kraft manages to present in a single event the ultimate in engineering case studies, as well as an insider's history of 20th century space missions and a pep talk for Aero-Astro students. This blunt raconteur describes the challenges of the earliest space pioneers. His story begins with Project Mercury in the 1950s, whose space task group of 35 included eight secretaries. "We were capable people but didn't know a damn thing about how to fly in space," recalls Kraft. How would they communicate with a man in orbit, or assess his health? Most doctors thought when an astronaut left earth's atmosphere, "he'd be a blithering idiot." Air to ground communication in those days consisted of 20 words of teletype. "How do you make real time decisions in those circumstances?" muses Kraft. He proudly describes assembling the Mission Rules book, "probably the smartest thing we ever did," which attempted to address all conceivable malfunctions on a space mission. This was an early example of systems engineering, says Kraft.

Kraft has some harsh words for the current state of space exploration. He can't countenance NASA's abandoning the space shuttle. "We seem to have a great propensity in this country for building something wonderful, great and high performance and throwing it away '.Golly, my mother would have gone bananas!" He believes that NASA could have made the shuttle much more efficient to fly, and used it as a key element in the new race back to the Moon and to Mars. Kraft doesn't believe this program will get off the ground mainly because NASA hasn't built anything new in 25 years, "and they've forgotten what it takes to do it." The next space mission, whatever it turns out to be, will depend on the current crop of young aerospace engineers. "Go do it, don't be frightened to fail," exhorts Kraft. "You learn more from your failures than from your successes."

posted by phoque at 3:41 PM on February 2 [11 favorites]


NASA isn't the problem (though clearly mistakes have been made), Congress and various Presidents refuse to set a clear goal and provide the money.

Dreams are nice, but you gotta pay for them and space flight is extremely expensive. It'll probably be worth in the end, but you gotta build the infrastructure if you want it done.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:55 PM on February 2 [4 favorites]


To add to Brandon's comment, there's a popular phrase in the spaceflight community: No bucks, no Buck Rogers...
posted by tgrundke at 5:49 PM on February 2 [3 favorites]


I'm late to this thread, but: if anyone's interested in what might potentially have been done to try and save the Columbia mission, had they noticed the problem with the wing on time, you might want to check out Space Rescue: Ensuring the Safety of Manned Spaceflight, by David J. Shayler. There's a section devoted to Columbia that goes into quite a bit of detail, as well as a more general survey of the history of spaceflight safety procedures and equipment.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:29 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


I arrived late to the thread also. Being from Northeast Texas, I remember hearing the sonic boom caused be the re-entry of the pieces of the shuttle. Also being an avid Shuttle mission follower, I knew exactly what that sound was.

Lots of us from Longview...my town...went south to offer our help. Almost all of us were turned back because there were so many arriving to try to help. Undeterred, many searched for debris and evidence on the perimeters of the projected crash path with much found.

These actions aren't uncommon for disasters around here, or elsewhere. When Katrina wiped out New Orleans a couple of years later, some of us traveled there to help. Then hundreds (thousands?) of evacuees were brought to the same areas of East Texas for temporary housing where Columbia had rained down.

Actions like these aren't particularly uncommon all over our country, but more often than not the catastrophes are more local in scope and never make a lotta news.
posted by chuckiebtoo at 12:06 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]


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