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NASA releases Columbia report.
December 30, 2008 2:57 PM   Subscribe

NASA releases the Columbia shuttle disaster report. Space shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003 as a result of damage sustained to its thermal protection system. This report details the possible lethal incidents and the investigation board's recommendations based on their findings.

A synopsis on Wikipedia provides a good, brief review. Here's MetaFilter's original thread about the disaster.

According to the report, there were five events with lethal potential: depressurization of the crew module, trauma from a "rotating load environment" and lack of upper body restraint as the as the forebody starting spinning, disintegration of the crew module, exposure to an extreme environment, and ground impact.

It is believed that the crew lost consciousness very quickly and soon after depressurization.
posted by herrdoktor (65 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was five years ago?!? Next you'll be telling me it's been more than 20 since the Challenger disaster.
posted by Plutor at 3:15 PM on December 30, 2008


Their cover up stories for alien sabotages are getting more complex.
posted by qvantamon at 3:18 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


By one very grim statistic, the Columbia astronauts were luckier than those in the Challenger. The former "knew for about 40 seconds that they did not have control of the shuttle" before passing out. The latter may have been conscious the entire 2-minute-45-second trip from explosion into the Atlantic Ocean.
posted by Plutor at 3:19 PM on December 30, 2008


Look, I've just gotta say that I love outer space. This report kills me not only because it provides chilling details for the imagination to latch on to, but also because the recommendations seem very obvious for the most part. It's a shame it required such a disaster to warrant such close scrutiny to the shuttle's systems and to yield the data it took to produce this report.

And while the world is hurting all over, et cetera, et cetera, I can't help but feel that outer space remains a noble pursuit. There are many things within my sphere of influence I could be helping to improve on, and there's a lot that's beyond my reach that I can't contribute much to. Regardless, I hope that our exploration of near and farspace continues.

This is an apt excerpt from JFK's speech on urgent needs, with one of my favorite passages from Presidential speeches: "Now it is time to take longer strides--time for a great new American enterprise--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth."

And here's Reagan's speech on the Challenger disaster, which stirs similar emotions.
posted by herrdoktor at 3:21 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


And now the cynics will argue about how spaceflight is too dangerous because, you know, everything else humans do is so safe.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 3:23 PM on December 30, 2008


In my two weeks spent picking up shuttle parts on an EPA recovery team there were very few times we found anything bigger than a fist. It really is amazing how much data they were able to glean from some of those things. We were always told to never move any switches and to always note the direction things were pointing when we found them. They made some pretty interesting conclusions from some of the parts discussed in the reports.
posted by Big_B at 3:26 PM on December 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


Too bad we don't have a Richard Feynman this time around to tell us about the findings.
posted by spicynuts at 3:32 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hah. Any fool knows that steel won't melt in a kerosene fire. The shuttle was blown by the CIA to distract us from what Bush was what?, shuttle? Huh?

Ahem.

And the war in Iraq is bad. NO WAR. NO WAR. NO WAR.
posted by eriko at 3:45 PM on December 30, 2008


Fuck manned spaceflight. Send the goddamn robots already.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:47 PM on December 30, 2008 [5 favorites]


And now the cynics will argue about how spaceflight is too dangerous because, you know, everything else humans do is so safe.

I appreciate where you’re coming from, but a shuttle cynic might point out that a full 20% of NASA's space shuttle fleet has now exploded before the world on live television.

What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?
posted by applemeat at 3:48 PM on December 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


I've just gotta say that I love outer space

Shit, when I drive from SF to Fresno I go farther than the shuttle does.

Robots soft-landed on Ganymede -- that's space exploration for yah. Seeing what color spider poop is in microgravity, not so much.
posted by troy at 4:00 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?

Seafaring?
posted by foot at 4:01 PM on December 30, 2008


Steam punk robot sex.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:01 PM on December 30, 2008


Steam sex robot punk.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:13 PM on December 30, 2008


(Blood Sugar Sex Magik)

CARRY ON

posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:14 PM on December 30, 2008


By one very grim statistic, the Columbia astronauts were luckier than those in the Challenger. The former "knew for about 40 seconds that they did not have control of the shuttle" before passing out. The latter may have been conscious the entire 2-minute-45-second trip from explosion into the Atlantic Ocean.

I need to take these "very grim" warnings more seriously.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:21 PM on December 30, 2008


Dammit, forgot to add links to the PDFs of the report. Here they are:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4.
posted by herrdoktor at 4:26 PM on December 30, 2008


I'm with Plutor. The Columbia astronauts were luckier than the Challenger astronauts.

I still have nightmares about both.

I still want to go into space.
posted by QIbHom at 4:37 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?

Two shuttles lost, out of 124 flights. Odds are 1:62. Estimated disaster rate before the first flight was 1:75. So, we're currently a bit shy of that, but there were 88 successful missions between the loss Challenger and Columbia. In both cases, the failure chain was seen before and not acted on, so it was humanity, not hardware, that failed.

Assuming no extension to the program, and no further disaster, the Shuttle program is slated to end with 133 missions, or a 1:66.5 failure rate.

Russian roulette: Odds on any given spin, assuming one live round in six cylinders, 1:6.

Personally, I'll take the 10x better chance of survival for the chance to get to orbit.
posted by eriko at 4:43 PM on December 30, 2008 [8 favorites]



I appreciate where you’re coming from, but a shuttle cynic might point out that a full 20% of NASA's space shuttle fleet has now exploded before the world on live television.

What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?


I think it would be more realistic to consider the historic loss rate on a per-mission, rather than per-vehicle, rate. In order words, on the order of 1 in 50 Shuttle flights has resulted in the loss of the crew.

I'll admit to being too lazy to dig up too many records, but perhaps we can compare this to, say, flying a B-17 in WWII bombing raids. According to Wikipedia, loss rates were on the order of 25% per mission early in the war. Robin Higham, in 100 Years of Air Power & Aviation, cites a monthly loss rate of 66% for RAF fighters on the Western Front during WWI.

Not to be cold about it, but machines fail and people die all the time. If NASA had a fleet of, say, 20 or 25 orbiters and flew once every two weeks or so on routine missions, the loss of one would register about as strongly as the loss of a B-2 bomber. Tragic, yes, but not an epic national disaster. The risk to crew members, however, would be about the same.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:47 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well LastOfHisKind, people know bombers are going to have losses because well you know they're going to bomb the fuck out of people who don't want them to and so they will encounter not just natural hazards but other people trying to stop them. On the other hand the Shuttle was sold to us back in the 1970's as the Perfectly Safe Magic Space Car, and don't forget the Challenger killed the very first civilian we ever dared send into space (after the Rooshians had been having lotteries to anoint proletariat cosmonauts for years, a huge popular propaganda success).
posted by localroger at 4:55 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


a 1:66.5 failure rate

To be precise: a 1:66.5 "spend the last three minutes of your life in screaming terror, possibly burning alive" rate
posted by Joe Beese at 5:10 PM on December 30, 2008


Complicated machines fail in exceedingly simple ways. You can engineer the hell out of something and it's still the minutiae that will get you.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:23 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?

Comparing risks is notoriously tricky. Transportation risks are often calculated and compared based fatalities per miles traveled. By that metric, space shuttle travel is about twice as dangerous as driving:

Automobiles: 1.46 fatalities per 100 million miles [source].
Shuttles: 3.16 fatalities per 100 million miles [14 fatalities in 443,423,277 miles]

To my mind, this makes shuttle flight a surprisingly safe activity.
posted by googly at 5:32 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Transportation risks are often calculated and compared based fatalities per miles traveled.

Yes, but that's because most forms of transportation only take you as many miles as you need to go. I could take my car out to a private deserted track and drive in circles indefinitely with a "0 fatalities in N miles" risk for arbitrarily high N, but I won't do that, because why would I?

Granted, in orbit you actually want to go in circles over and over again, but just like on the ground, that's not the dangerous part. When STS-119 goes up, it's going to spend 14 days (and about 5.6 million miles) going in perfectly safe (and arguably unnecessary, since a real "space truck" would have just dropped off people and cargo before returning to refuel and relaunch right away) circles.

The dangerous launch and reentry phases of the flight are (in total for all Shuttle missions, and with generous definitions) a couple million miles, not a few hundred million. That brings up fatality rates by orders of magnitude.

Of course, that's an apples to oranges comparison anyway. Trying to figure out what to do with a new part of the universe has historically always been much more hazardous than staying at home, yet it's always ended up being worth it, and this time "a new part" means "the other 99.9999%".
posted by roystgnr at 6:19 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mmmm... this dog tastes nice.
posted by Dumsnill at 6:24 PM on December 30, 2008


.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 6:30 PM on December 30, 2008


backseatpilot: thank you, that was a great quote that summarizes the problem very well. In both the Challenger and Columbia accidents the cause was both human failure and the initial launch system (SRB in the case of Challenger, External Tank (ET) for Columbia). Amazingly enough, the orbiter itself performed brilliantly, to specification, in each event.

The orbiter itself is a remarkable vehicle, and again, in both cases it was human failure, not hardware, that caused the loss of crew and vehicle. Challenger was flown outside of engineering parameters (cold temperatures), Columbia was struck by *known* debris, not only on STS-107, but on many other previous flights. Just as with Challenger, NASA had come to accept "normal anomalies" of foam shedding and O-Ring burn through. So long as the anomalies didn't extend *too far*, they were acceptable enough to continue flying.

Each successful mission leaves me in awe - that we are able to make that vehicle fly successfully. Each failure has highlighted how complex systems fail - and how fallable humans are. They are sad, but excellent reminders. Humbling.
posted by tgrundke at 6:41 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yet more lies from NASA.

Columbia never existed! The entire Space Shuttle program is an elaborate hoax using lasers and mind control rays. Wake up people!!
posted by wfrgms at 7:00 PM on December 30, 2008


What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?

Auto racing?
posted by smackfu at 7:19 PM on December 30, 2008


What other romanticized mechanical activity, short of Russian roulette, has that kind of risk rate?

Spending the night with someone else's Real Doll?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:37 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


smackfu, your tax dollars don't support NASCAR.
posted by applemeat at 7:39 PM on December 30, 2008


(...and nobody admonishes their kid to study hard so that they can grow up to be a race car driver.)
posted by applemeat at 7:42 PM on December 30, 2008


Appendix F of the Rogers Report on the Challenger disaster, written by Feynman, remains relevant:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?"
posted by lukemeister at 7:47 PM on December 30, 2008


I appreciate where you’re coming from, but a shuttle cynic might point out that a full 20% of NASA's space shuttle fleet has now exploded before the world on live television.

2 out of 5 is 40%. That's if you count Enterprise which never went into orbit.

Otherwise it's 2 out of 4 or 50%.
posted by Bonzai at 8:09 PM on December 30, 2008


oops. I forgot Endeavor. Still 2 out of 6 (or 5) is not 20%
posted by Bonzai at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2008


It's a bit of a weird number anyways. I'd guess that practically we don't really need more than two shuttles given the rate of flights. So if we cut the number of shuttles to two, would that make it worse that we had lost two? If we had ten shuttles, would that make it better? Only one flies at a time anyways.
posted by smackfu at 8:37 PM on December 30, 2008


lukemeister, thanks for the link to Feynman's report. To me, the end is the real clincher:

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.


I can only imagine his (justified) rage were he alive to see another shuttle needlessly lost.
posted by marble at 9:06 PM on December 30, 2008


I just finished reading the report. (Well, skimming it heavily and at length.) What I came away with is that this is a survivable event. They just need a) to have their gloves on so that their emergency suits can pressurize b) their visors down and locked c) proper restraint systems that can deal with the wild gyrations of the detached crew cabin and d) a crew cabin parachute that will deploy automatically.

All of these are, mechanically, pretty easily accomplished. Interestingly, it's the mundane points A and B that present the biggest problem, because doing anything (like, say, landing a spaceship) while wearing gloves and a visor is a huge pain in the ass. Just imagine trying to use your mobile phone while wearing ski goggles and wearing thick ski gloves, and then imagine that your life depends on you using said phone promptly and properly.

I wonder whether NASA's Ares plans are too far along to act on any of these lessons.
posted by waldo at 9:10 PM on December 30, 2008


I just read the report, too, and it's obvious this was not a survivable event. The whole visor thing would have meant maybe 30 more seconds of consciousness, until the friggin' thing broke up into a million little pieces. Though discussion of body trauma was redacted from the report, reading between the lines gives a pretty clear picture -- loss of consciousness (and death) came from loss of cabin pressure, and/or (sorry, graphic) the astronauts' heads being bashed around inside their helmets from the forces in the cabin, and/or their torsos being ripped from their lower bodies, which remained restrained in their seats.

The most interesting things I gleaned from the report were (1) how remarkably thorough the reconstruction was -- they essentially chronicled second-by-second exactly what we mean when we say something "smashed to smithereens," and (2) how remarkably bureaucratic -- or maybe, un-holistic -- the whole shuttle-building and equipping process is, a fact that contributed if not to the astronauts' deaths, then to the manner of their deaths and dismemberment. Helmets, which didn't conform to the astronauts' heads, were a leftover idea from previous iterations of space vehicles; there were too many tasks to do in too short a time before landing, so not everyone was strapped into their seats and/or had their helmets/gloves on; those tasks weren't intended to be done by astronauts wearing suits/gloves anyway (wearing the suits became a requirement after the Challenger accident); the seatbelts and seats weren't intended for the forces that accompanied the Columbia accident, which explains why the upper bodies of the astronauts separated from their lower bodies. And on and on. Most fascinating, however, was the fact that there is almost no record to compare the accident to; the investigators had to reach back to a Blackbird accident to learn about the failure of the pressure suits, and to various airliner explosions to see why the bodies were stripped of their clothing.

The most heartening thing is that this report came out at all; we're not used to that kind of introspection in a government agency these days.
posted by turducken at 9:20 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


^ I was under the impression that the main pilotage required to land the shuttle was pushing the gear-down button, and said step was added to give the pilot something to do during the descent.
posted by troy at 9:23 PM on December 30, 2008


It depends on what you mean by "required". In theory the Shuttle has auto-landing capability but it's not used for the actual missions and hasn't been tested on a real landing.
posted by smackfu at 9:46 PM on December 30, 2008


It is an astounding study and most certainly the first of its kind.

I'm also reminded of the most glaring human error I've heard of in recent NASA history: the crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter due to one team's failure to convert Imperial measurements (lbs, seconds) to Metric.

Still, every glaring failure can be met with an astounding accomplishment. And I get the feeling that despite past failures, the astronauts who lost their lives in the shuttle flights would not have wanted the missions to stop.
posted by jwakawaka at 9:51 PM on December 30, 2008


Troy, you aren't serious, are you?

The shuttle becomes an unpowered glider during descent. One without terribly friendly aerodynamics. I've heard flying the shuttle be likened to flying a brick because that's about how it handles. The pilots who fly the shuttle have a lot of skill, and they need all of it. If they are off even a bit, there's no second chance to land it.
posted by azpenguin at 9:54 PM on December 30, 2008


I was under the impression that the main pilotage required to land the shuttle was pushing the gear-down button, and said step was added to give the pilot something to do during the descent.

As it happens, the Shuttle landing gear has no built-in retraction capability. Once deployed the gear can only be retracted during ground processing. This means that deploying the landing gear at any time other than a few moments before landing is fatal. Since the gear can be deployed easily by the commander or pilot, why would you choose to expose them to the risk of an automatic system that could fail and deploy the gear at the wrong time? It wouldn't even gain you anything because the crew would have to be monitoring the system, poised to deploy the gear if the automatic system failed to do so.

The Shuttle has flaws, some glaring, and I think it is unfortunate that they tend to mask the very, very deep thinking and analysis that went into the design of the vehicle.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:17 PM on December 30, 2008


Red stars falling: from James Oberg's 1988 book, Uncovering Soviet DisastersChapter 10: Dead Cosmonauts:
The Russians had always presented their march to space as a smooth road to glory, the outgrowth of sound planning and monolithic support. The Soviets' traditional practice of boasting, covering up, lying, and retouching aspects of their own history made most Western observers doubt this rosy image.

Contradictory information came out in bits and pieces, sometimes suggesting a picture worse than it was. Golovanov's articles in 1986, five years after my Red Star in Orbit came out, were the first tentative attempt to set part of the record of the past straight. And there was such a lot to set straight by then.

Even before the first announced Soviet spaceman blasted off in 1961, rumors reached the West about the existence of secret graves of anonymous dead cosmonauts, killed on unannounced missions. Moscow vigorously denied them all, to no effect. Lists of dozens of dead cosmonauts circulated in the Western press for many years. The Soviets denounced the originators of such material as "enemies."
Links to Oberg's articles and columns about the Columbia disaster are here.
posted by cenoxo at 11:06 PM on December 30, 2008


Looking at loss rates or failure ratios is a bit silly. Even if the odds were 1 in 6 of being reduced to a smear on the landscape, I suspect there would not be any shortage of astronauts; at least not enough to shut the program down completely. You might not get as many repeat customers, so to speak, but there are lots of people who would take those odds, and only a few dozen slots that you'd need to fill anyway. (Hell, I bet you could still run several launches a year if it was a bona fide suicide mission, and even if you restricted your candidates to pilots and engineers with terminal diseases.)

The real problem is not in the technical aspects of the launch system, it's in how that system — and space flight in general — has been sold to the public. The Shuttle in particular.

Space flight is not safe. It's pretty much the definition of an "inherently dangerous activity." Even if we had a space elevator, and removed all the flying-bomb aspects of getting into space, it would still be dangerous: you're wholly dependent on fallible equipment for every aspect of survival. No matter how well-designed, eventually something will fail, even if it's just because random chance produces a situation outside the designers' best predictions. When that happens, people depending on that equipment will die. This is life in an extremely hostile environment.

If space exploration gets axed by an angry public, it will not be the fault of the engineers, but it will be the fault of the administrators and politicians who sold the idea to the public as something safe; who billed the Shuttle as a big white space-bound school bus, rather than the envelope-pushing experimental rocket plane it really is.

Space flight needs to be taken to the public as a noble but dangerous enterprise: something a very small number of people do despite the very real risk of violent death, because to do so is glorious, both for them as individuals and for us generally, as minuscule parts of the pyramid of technology and society that makes what they do possible.

If we cannot, or will not, pay for exploration without falsely downplaying the risks — and in doing so, minimizing what the people involved are doing — then we should not do it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:25 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


On the other hand the Shuttle was sold to us back in the 1970's as the Perfectly Safe Magic Space Car

Space has never been sold to the people as perfectly anything, especially safe.

and don't forget the Challenger killed the very first civilian we ever dared send into space (after the Rooshians had been having lotteries to anoint proletariat cosmonauts for years, a huge popular propaganda success)

No... technically, the first U.S. civilian (where civilian == not active military) in space was Rep. Bill Nelson, on the Columbia mission immediately preceding the Challenger disaster.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:39 PM on December 30, 2008


The shuttle becomes an unpowered glider during descent. One without terribly friendly aerodynamics. I've heard flying the shuttle be likened to flying a brick because that's about how it handles. The pilots who fly the shuttle have a lot of skill, and they need all of it. If they are off even a bit, there's no second chance to land it.

The Soviets landed their Buran knock-off from orbit with nobody on board.

I think the "flying brick" dynamics make it easier to land, more a function of ballistics than aviation.
posted by troy at 11:44 PM on December 30, 2008


The Soviets landed their Buran knock-off from orbit with nobody on board.

Indeed they did. Some knock-off.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:27 AM on December 31, 2008


Space flight needs to be taken to the public as a noble but dangerous enterprise: something a very small number of people do despite the very real risk of violent death, because to do so is glorious, both for them as individuals and for us generally, as minuscule parts of the pyramid of technology and society that makes what they do possible.

Well put, but I'd like to respond as something of a NASA-hater or, to be more specific, a manned-flight hater. The riskiness in itself doesn't bother me, but risk at what possible benefit? I remember back in the 90's when NASA had some sort of reach-out for elementary schools where teachers and their classes were supposed to come up with the best "activity" the next shuttle mission could do in space. The winner was something to do with urine, animal or human I forget. Point being, there simply wasn't a whole lot of worthwhile science being done on the shuttles to keep them in existence for as long as they were. Over the past few years it really has been a situation where the only substantive things we were learning happened when something went wrong and we had to jury-rig staplers to punch in some extra heat resistant bandaging or what have you.

Kudos to the techs and astronauts of the shuttle program. But we'd be better off if we'd killed the whole thing ten years ago and shifted our attentions, 100%, to robotic explorations of space. Hovering a few hundred miles above the earth in a tin can isn't going to lead to the next paradigm of propulsion and life support that will get us further out into the universe.
posted by bardic at 12:35 AM on December 31, 2008


The Atlantic had a great article about the last moments of the shuttle a while back. The Commander Thinks Aloud by The Long Winters is a great soundtrack for it.
posted by srboisvert at 3:14 AM on December 31, 2008


I've heard flying the shuttle be likened to flying a brick because that's about how it handles

No. Bricks glide better.

Seriously. The Shuttle Training Aircraft is a modified Gulfstream IV jet. The modifications are two. One, they put in controls that look like and act like the shuttle. Two, they take a couple of safeties off the plane.

They fly up to around FL360, then to make the GIV "glide" like the shuttle, they deploy the spoilers, the landing gear, and the thrust reversers. They run the engines up to about 45% thrust.

This allows it to plummet out of the sky like the shuttle. Here's a video from the pilot's view. Here's how to read the HUD. There are two vertical lines of numbers, the one on the left (three digits) is airspeed in knots, the one on the right is feet above ground, in thousands of feet.

Note how that one, well, plummets. The circle with three arrows is the target point, yes, they spend most of the descent aiming short of the runway. When they hit 5000 feet, the HUD simplifies, the number to the right of center is airspeed, to the left is feet AGL. The double triangle moving up is a cue to the pilot as to when to start the pre-flare maneuver, to slow the shuttle to a more reasonable 230kts and, of course, to land on the runway.

During the descent, the shuttle loses 1000' in less than 7 seconds, on average. It doesn't glide. It falls in a rather controlled manner.
posted by eriko at 6:04 AM on December 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


Hey considering the whole thing was built by the lowest bidder on a government contract I think the fact that it even flys is a miracle. NASA has a history of engineering based blunders. Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell hatch, Apollo 1, Apollo 13, SkyLab, Hubble... When one takes great strides one is apt to stumble once in a while.
posted by Gungho at 6:11 AM on December 31, 2008


Comparing the Shuttle to driving is inaccurate. A better comparison would be the race to be first to the South Pole, or climbing Mt. Everest.
posted by QIbHom at 6:29 AM on December 31, 2008


The infuriating and depressing thing is what the accident reveals about NASA: they didn't learn anything from the loss of Challenger.

The ET wasn't supposed to lose foam. Foam hitting the Orbiter and damaging tiles was definitely not supposed to occur. But when this out-of-spec situation was discovered, they used the same logic that they had with the SRB o-rings; "Hey, this happened but the mission came off ok. So this unexpected damage is acceptable." And overruled engineers that saw the hazard.

Which works, for a bit. Until circumstances combine to have a larger piece break off and hit a more vulnerable area. And you lose the Orbiter and crew.

Feynman would be disgusted, but not surprised. NASA did everything they could to squelch his report on Challenger, after all.

And I rage, because I think we are fools to give up manned launch capability. I think mankind's destiny should be more than squabbling over pieces of dirt. And I don't see how sending robots only will help us to overcome the problems of life support that will get us further out into the universe. I don't know if NASA is fixable, or if we need to find another path to manned spaceflight. But we shouldn't stop.

Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it's dangerous. We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
posted by bitmage at 8:11 AM on December 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


Hovering a few hundred miles above the earth in a tin can isn't going to lead to the next paradigm of propulsion and life support that will get us further out into the universe.

Uh, that's exactly how NASA figured out how to go the moon in the Apollo program, by hovering a few hundred miles about the earth in a tin can. Hell, all the space walks done on the ISS are feasible because after numerous tries and failures in the Gemini program, Buzz Aldrin figured out to train for spacewalks and put that into practice on Gemini 12. Other Gemini missions practiced docking and rendezvous techniques and how people can survive in space long enough to go the moon and back.

Over the past few years it really has been a situation where the only substantive things we were learning happened when something went wrong and we had to jury-rig staplers to punch in some extra heat resistant bandaging or what have you.

It's called exploration (PDF link) and you should at least read the first paragraph of this article to understand that science and discovery aren't always strictly linear.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:48 AM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


No. Bricks glide better.

Seriously.


I don't think you seriously mean that.
posted by Catfry at 2:53 PM on December 31, 2008


I don't think you seriously mean that.

Let's say that the landing gear is broken, so the shuttle can't land. the landing gear is...WHAM. You start bailing out at 20,000 feet.1 The first guy goes out, and just happens to drop a brick. Oh, and his chute fails. The rest make it out ok.

The Shuttle will hit the ground first, the brick second, and the poor SOB with no chute will hit third. Note: The shuttle will be under control of the autopilot, because if the Shuttle stalls, nobody gets out, and NASA's already in enough trouble, they'd *really* like to avoid hitting anything with it.

The shuttle is *very* good at falling.

1) Because if you start at 12,000 feet, guys five through seven probably won't make it out of the door before you hit. Bailing out of the shuttle isn't easy, you have to hook onto a curved pole that flings you in such a way that you miss the wing. Space Cowboys had a scene about bailing out of the shuttle that was very accurate in terms of procedure -- the only issue was that they took too long, the shuttle would have impacted by the the time they finished.
posted by eriko at 4:15 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


That surprises me to the point of incredulity but you DO sound confident, and I know from your posts on this site that you have some good knowledge in the area.
I lack the skills to back up my gut feeling but I might be able to understand if you could present numbers to back you up, or a good explanation source.
Just so we are clear, the ability to glide is the capability for unit movement perpendicular to gravity, relative to unit movement towards gravity, in my definition.

Also, happy new year.
posted by Catfry at 7:12 AM on January 1, 2009


The only thing I could think of numberwise that I was able to do was to compare the surface area of the 'lift' part of the design to the mass, of a shuttle and brick respectively.

According to Wikipedia, the Shuttle has a max landing weight of 107 000 kg. (Or we can use the altenative number of empty weight, about 70 000 kg).
The surface area of the 'lift' part is basically the entire underside. I found a graffic, I guess it's basically the area marked HRSI, which is 480 sq m.

So the shuttle comes out at around 217 kg / sq m lift.

Now a brick.
A brick has an enormous weight to lift area. A standard clay brick weighs 2-3 kg. Its best lift surface is the broadest, measuring 20 by 10 cm or so, so about .02 sq m.

In the end the brick comes out at a whopping 118-150 kg /sq m lift.

..

That's, erm, that's.. lower than the shuttle so the brick has BETTER weight to lift are ratio than the shuttle...

Ok, I concede the point.
posted by Catfry at 8:17 AM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


At least they weren't twittering on the way down.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 7:05 PM on January 1, 2009


Ok, I concede the point.

You know, I was going to dig out that very math. It was Henry Spencer who first pointed out to me, and I went through very much the same process. But it was the video of the descent that really drove it home for me -- "plummet" is a very good word to describe how this beast flies.

The reason that it "glides" so poorly -- to be a better glider, it would need bigger wings. Bigger wings would mean more mass, and more surface area. More mass makes the shuttle payload mass fraction even worse, more surface area is that much more surface you have to protect against reentry.

Worse, the stress on that wing is incredible -- you need a very stout airfoil to handle the load.

The wings aren't any smaller because, well, it already plummets.

Interesting failure mode -- Criticality 1, which means there can't be a spare, and that loss of it will result in loss of craft and possibly crew. It is *really* important that the shuttle land levelly -- on both main gears. If it lands on a bank above about 5 degrees, the one gear down will almost certainly fail before the other one can get down and help support the load.

This would be insane in an aircraft, but -- because the shuttle is such a lousy glider, it's also very insensitive to wind forces. Thus, a gust of wind that would push a commercial aircraft over a few degrees isn't noticed by the Shuttle. There are restrictions on crosswinds and gusts, but it's never been an issue -- once on the final flare, the shuttle settles down level, every time.

On a sheer technological level, the Shuttle truly is amazing, but it has too make far too many compromises. I think that a crew-only shuttle could work very well indeed, but the shuttle is supposed to be both a mass lofter and a crew carrier, and the two goals are very much contradictory. The best mass lofter *brings nothing back*. The most expensive mass to carry into orbit is the mass you have to bring back to the ground safely.
posted by eriko at 5:22 AM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think you are very right. Ironically, the very feature that has made the shuttle so expensive, it's ability to bring large payloads back from orbit is also the one unique feature that might possibly be needed by the ISS program now they are getting up to six person crew, and larger amounts of science experiments and samples might need to be returned for study.
And this will happen just as the shuttle is being retired.
It's enough to despair. Has the large cargo return capability ever been utilized? And now when it might be needed the program comes to an end.

Very interesting about the landing gear.
posted by Catfry at 4:35 PM on January 2, 2009


I really, really, really want to witness a launch before we give up the ghost on these birds.

Whoever pitched the shuttle as a 'Perfectly Safe Magic Space Car' was either lying or condescending to you. There was a reason shuttle launches were put on TV in schools, and it wasn't because the parents' tax dollars paid for it. It is one of the modern wonders of the world, a triumph of human brains over the environment.

I'm excited to see what comes next in the line of manned spaceflight, but I'm also not that patient. Robotic exploration of planets is entertaining, but not quite the same thing, is it?

thanks for posting this, Dok.


have a brownie.
posted by Busithoth at 1:51 PM on January 3, 2009


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