5...4...3...2...1...Goodbye, Columbia
February 2, 2003 6:02 PM   Subscribe

5...4...3...2...1...Goodbye, Columbia "There is something noteworthy a rocket can do that the shuttle cannot. A rocket can be permitted to fail." Gregg Easterbrook's 1980 Washington Monthly cover story looks into the Columbia's beginnings, the hazards he saw in the shuttle, and its weaknesses compared to rockets.
Once you get into space, you check to see if any tiles are damaged. If enough are, you have a choice between Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is hope they can get a rescue shuttle up in time. Plan B is burn up coming back.
[via Slate]
posted by kirkaracha (32 comments total)
The cover image [large version] has the caption "Beam Us Out of This Deathtrap, Scotty!"
posted by kirkaracha at 6:02 PM on February 2, 2003

Interesting article... the same Gregg Easterbrook who writes Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN. What a diverse writer!
posted by jonson at 6:13 PM on February 2, 2003

ISTR (vaguely), about the time of the Challenger disaster, one of the orignal Apollo-era astronauts describing how he looked at an early design of the Space Shuttle, with its solid-rocket boosters on either side of an enormous fuel tank on which piggybacked the Shuttle proper, and, as he put it, "I went, 'Uh-oh.' "
posted by alumshubby at 6:15 PM on February 2, 2003

It does seem crazy to me that NASA had no way of viewing or checking the integrity of the supposedly damaged left wing area if the tiles were as fragile and as critical as they were.
posted by gen at 6:23 PM on February 2, 2003

the same Gregg Easterbrook who writes Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN. What a diverse writer!

From his TMQ blurb: "Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution." I think TMQ's not his day job.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:24 PM on February 2, 2003

Nice story -- I was reminded of the enormosity of the shuttle today: my dad emailed me a digital picture that he wanted to print out, his friend took the picture 2 weeks ago, if you can guess what it's of... shocked the crap out of me when I opened it!

His friend scored a one-off job opportunity to fly down from Toronto to put a science experiment in Columbia's payload. I have a feeling that job will stick in his memory for a while...
posted by krunk at 6:24 PM on February 2, 2003

You know, until now, the Colombia disaster hasn't really phased me... but that picture... I don't know. Seems to have hit home.

Thanks, krunk.
posted by armoured-ant at 6:46 PM on February 2, 2003

I love the way so many people are second guessing things.

We have people with no qualifications, responsibility or data regarding shuttle engineering bagging on rocket scientists. Get real.

"Plan A is hope they can get a rescue shuttle up in time."

Wow, what a clever idea. Can that be done? Or did you just make it up?

"if the tiles were as fragile and as critical as they were"

Fragile? Can you back that up with data? Or did you just make it up? Critical? Haven't shuttles landed safely with missing tiles? Guessing and finger pointing.

"Beam Us Out of This Deathtrap, Scotty!"

Thank God there are professionals who are willing to risk their lives to help put humans in space. Or should they have refused to fly in the deathtrap? I can just see astronauts being informed that there is some danger involved. "What??!! There's a chance we might die? Reentry is dangerous??!! Well count me out."

This *is* rocket science. No solution will prevent things like this from happening. Short of just deciding to stay here on the ground where it's safe.

The inevitable happens and suddenly everyone is an aerospace engineer.
posted by y6y6y6 at 6:48 PM on February 2, 2003

Fragile? Can you back that up with data? Or did you just make it up? Critical? Haven't shuttles landed safely with missing tiles? Guessing and finger pointing.

From the article:
...they're so fragile you can hardly touch them without shattering them.
The tiles are the most important system NASA has ever designed as "safe life." That means there is no back-up for them. If they fail, the shuttle burns on reentry.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:56 PM on February 2, 2003

y6, the article was written nearly 23 years ago, so it's hardly second-guessing anything.
posted by Zonker at 7:07 PM on February 2, 2003

If you don't click through to the Slate article, this article is by the same Gregg Easterbrook who wrote this "anti-shuttle" Time article, linked to in previous MeFi shuttle discussion today.
posted by zsazsa at 7:10 PM on February 2, 2003

Quoth Easterbrook:
You've probably heard, for instance, that the space shuttle will retrieve damaged satellites and return them to earth for repair. Not so. It can't. Simply and flatly, can't.
Shuttles can't retrieve satellites? This guy's quite a Nostrodamus, isn't he?
...they're so fragile you can hardly touch them without shattering them.
Bullshit. I've handled a tile after it had been blowtorched (as a demonstration of its heat capacity), and it was in no danger of shattering.

I don't know what's to be said for Easterbrook, but he's no...uh...rocket scientist.
posted by waldo at 7:10 PM on February 2, 2003

As it happened, the tiles fared better than predicted, actually: replacements after each flight averaged around 50-75, or some 0.3%. Some sections, though, were later covered with thermal blankets instead of tiles. Good charts of the heat protective system. Still, the inspection and refurbishment of the tiles after each flight is one of the more labor-intensive tasks in the program and a major reason for the lowered flight rate -- and thus the enormous half-billion cost per launch.

y6, even as an advocate of the shuttle program in general, I think Easterbrook's questions were spot on. They certainly reflect criticisms that were raised during the design process, and criticisms that persisted by other "rocket scientists" up through the present day. In general, I think the shuttle program met its diverse requirements well, but it is far from perfect, and there were many points at which design changes might have had major effects. In engineering, there is no such thing as a perfect system, only a system that balances costs, risks, materials, and requirements -- and generally fairly closely.

It's possible to be a fan of the space program, and yet recognize that the shuttle is an enormously expensive boondoggle that has failed to meet its promise, and in hindsight has proven much more dangerous than it was believed it would be. In 1986, there were certainly aerospace engineers who could say that in 1974 they advocated bitterly for liquid boosters and weren't listened to. It's not an ideal world, we don't have unlimited money, and safety cannot, alas, be the only consideration.

waldo: They don't mean fragile like art glass. They mean brittle and chippable like -- well, like very few natural materials. It's essentially a ceramic, foamed up like a meringue. Buy one, and you're warned that it is fragile. They're fragile enough that NASA won't fly in the rain because of it.
posted by dhartung at 7:21 PM on February 2, 2003

I'm certainly no expert on the matter - but isn't there an awful lot of space junk floating around in near-Earth orbit which would have posed a potentially deadly threat to those crucial tiles?.......Given their life-or-death importance, why no contingency plans to address tile damage? enter Dhartung stage left...
posted by troutfishing at 7:58 PM on February 2, 2003

"Easterbrook is not an aerospace engineer, thus the points he raises are not valid."

Bullshit. Even if there are answers to those questions, we as the public certainly haven't been made party to them. Frankly, however, it's become obvious that the shuttle program is a failure. It needs to end now, before Discovery and Atlantis and their crews blow up, too. Sure, that would end the program, but it's not really the desired method. They learned a lot with the STS program, which is cool. But it's ungodly expensive for no real purpose. And it keeps killing people.

posted by kavasa at 8:30 PM on February 2, 2003

trout: going out and fixing a busted tile is impractical. The tiles are massively individual in size, shape, thickness, and materials. In order to be able to repair any arbitrary tile, you'd have to take up copies of just about every tile. In which case you'd probably be better off just adding another layer of tiles to the shuttle, or giving it thicker tiles.

gen: there's nothing they can do about it in any case, so why spend $20000/lb or whatever it is currently to haul up equipment to check the tiles just so they can know they'll probably die on entry?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:33 PM on February 2, 2003

Troutfishing, at the speeds they're going, any junk they encountered would be a threat to more than just tiles. Of course "speed" is something of a relative term in space; a piece of junk in the same orbit as the shuttle would be relatively stationary. But the amount of delta-V involved in achieving orbit and coming back means that any object you encounter the size of a grain of sand or larger is very likely to cause a fatal integrity failure somewhere, tiles or no tiles.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:54 PM on February 2, 2003

kavasa writes: But it's ungodly expensive for no real purpose. And it keeps killing people.

Arguable in the extreme. It hasn't killed, in absolute or proportional terms, a fraction of what oceanic exploration voyages of the 15th through 18th century did. And do you think that those accomplished "no real purpose"?
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:03 PM on February 2, 2003

I just flipped to MoviePlex tonight... APOLLO 13 WAS ON! It seems like it was scheduled before the Columbia accident. I couldn't believe it. A little OT, just had to share.
posted by tomplus2 at 9:12 PM on February 2, 2003

ROU_Xenophobe - (re: individualized tiles) OK, now it makes sesne to me...sort of. (essentially) irreplaceable parts? hmmm...makes the design seem a bit dubious to me.

George_Spiggot - but wouldn't the vastly greater numbers of smaller-than-sand-grain particles still pose a disproportionate threat to the tiles - if they are so fragile but also crucially necessary? I am assuming that such tiny particles (which would be much more numerous than those of the sand-grain size)) could damage the tiles without actually punching through the shuttle skin. Bear with me, because I am arguing from relative ignorance.

ROU_Xenophobe, George_Spiggot - So are you two both saying that there could be no conceivable contingency plans for damaged tiles?
posted by troutfishing at 9:15 PM on February 2, 2003

Troutfishing, even near-Earth space is unspeakably vast. And while there's enough manmade junk up there to make it tricky to actually keep track of it all, it's still very, very sparse for the amount of volume involved. And anything that's not in a stable orbit has drifted off or, more usually, fallen into to the atmosphere and burned up. So the chance of actually running into something is extremely low on the list of potential hazards. (But if you did you'd be screwed.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:43 PM on February 2, 2003

Great picture, trunk. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:05 PM on February 2, 2003

Um. I meant krunk. Sorry.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:06 PM on February 2, 2003

Well, IMHO, as a (former) rocket scientist, I didn't find anything technically wrong with this article.

No Shuttle has ever recovered a satellite, and noone would want them to either (unless it was some mission-critical defense satellite); the article is spot-on in that respect. The only case that even comes remotely close is the fixing of the Hubble primary lens, which was probably the greatest achievement of the Shuttle program (although, in retrospect it could have just been cheaper to launch another Hubble rather than maintain STS).

It's also true that the Shuttle crew has very few options if anything goes wrong (and yes, I think a rescue Shuttle mission was a contingency in the pre-Challenger days). In many ways, the Shuttle was/is an excuse for NASA to maintain huge pork-barrel programs, and it's a major cash cow for the companies involved (mostly Boeing these days, after much consolidation).

However, with most of the Shuttle facilities in California, Texas and Florida, I doubt anyone would scrap the Shuttle w/o a replacement pork program in the works.
posted by costas at 10:50 PM on February 2, 2003

No Shuttle has ever recovered a satellite

Whatever the merits of the Space Shuttle may or may not be, this isn't true.

In 1984 STS-51a recovered and returned to Earth two satalites which didn't reach orbit after their rocket motors failed to fire after being deployed by STS-41b.

In 1990 STS-31 recovered and returned to Earth the Long Duration Exposure Facility which had been deployed 6 years earlier by STS-41c.

STS-41c was also the first time a satallite was recovered and repaired in orbit when Challenger serviced the Solar Max solar observation satellite - something that has been repeated several times since, on various other satellites, including Hubble.
posted by adamt at 12:07 AM on February 3, 2003

The real issue with satellite recovery is that the cost-saving properties of a wide-ranging capability was touted as a main justification for the shuttle system. Unfortunately, that wide-ranging capability was not there.

Many of our most valuable satellites are located in geosynchronous or sun-synchronous orbits, well above the shuttle's maximum altitude. The space tug that was supposed to compensate was never built, as noted in the article. (Interesting to note that someone is looking at a similar concept, with a somewhat different mission and a lack of reusability) At any rate, the market just doesn't seem to be there. This is the business model that killed a thousand dotcoms. If you build it, they will come. Field of Dreams sure wreacked havoc on the world economy.

In 1984 STS-51a recovered and returned to Earth two satalites which didn't reach orbit after their rocket motors failed to fire after being deployed by STS-41b.

Good thing their rockets failed to fire completely, leaving the satellites in a viable shuttle flight path enabling their recovery.

In 1990 STS-31 recovered and returned to Earth the Long Duration Exposure Facility which had been deployed 6 years earlier by STS-41c.

The mission was designed for recovery. There were no orbital requirements which, as is often the case, made it unrecoverable via shuttle.

Solar Max, space station construction (itself a bit of a dubious project) and especially Hubble are the rare occasions where the Shuttle really shined as a uniquely capable vehicle. I don't think they justify its continued existence, however.

I love the shuttle. I do think it's a truly majestic vehicle and took up some seriously daunting engineering challenges and met them more or less successfully, not taking cost or safety into account. But I'd prefer to see them displayed proudly in the Smithsonian (okay, maybe not much room with Enterprise already there) and all the money being plowed into keeping them running put into a new fully recoverable single-stage-to-orbit vehicle or dumped into a spacee elevator project and a fleet of deep space craft that don't have to worry about those pesky launch and re-entry stresses. With the recent advances in materials science and molecular assembly which make a wide range of materials with unique properties possible, a concerted effort to build a truly viable system might turn up something really viable.
posted by rocketpup at 2:49 AM on February 3, 2003

Just a quick answer to spigot's note re: oceanic exploration. It's true that many more people died exploring the world via oceanic routes. It's also true that, by the end of that age, far fewer than 50% of all viable ocean-going craft had sunk with all hands.

In addition, I'm not saying space exploration should end - I'm saying it should continue along a better route. Lastly, I'm not saying the STS program is/was without value - I'm saying it's pretty much done everything it could concievably do. It's time for an elevator or an STO, as 'pup (and like everyone else in the world) points out.

posted by kavasa at 4:33 AM on February 3, 2003

I wonder what the costs of disposable rockets are compared to the shuttle for 113 flights? I know that ostensibly the shuttle is supposed to be cheaper, but . . .
posted by mecran01 at 5:21 AM on February 3, 2003

An alleged crack on the Shuttle's left wing [via Drudge]
posted by 111 at 10:39 AM on February 3, 2003

That is the one of the worst pieces of photoshopping I've ever witnessed, 111.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:48 AM on February 3, 2003

Civil, it's from israeli newspaper Maariv, and it was republished by today's Corriere della Sera. Apparently, it's a vidcap extracted from the televised conversation Sharon had with the jewish astronaut.
posted by 111 at 11:29 AM on February 3, 2003

Unfortunately I can't read Italian but I don't know what that picture is. What's that cylindrical nobby thing on the "wing?" In any case I have to applaud 111's use of the word "alleged" because that picture looks mighty dubious.
posted by rocketpup at 2:10 PM on February 3, 2003

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