Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Disaster of the Space Shuttle

On Saturday, July 16, NASA delayed the shuttle launch indefinitely because of a fuel-gauge failure. This is the latest in a string of delays that has prevented NASA from launching a manned mission ever since the Columbia exploded on reentry in 2003.

Just last week, lady astronaut Eileen Collins had spoken of her hopes for the mission: "The world is watching but I'm not focused on the world watching. I'm focused on the priorities: Getting things done on time but doing them safely."

Of course she was wrong to say that the world is watching. The world couldn’t care less about the shuttle, which emerged from a bored, cut-rate space program bent on low orbits at bargain prices. The shuttle's original creation has been a disaster in itself – in fact the dominating disaster of the modern space program.

Why should the world be watching? We know what the shuttle will do: it will travel into space – where the crewmen will perform some experiments that nobody cares about and add some parts to the international space station that nobody cares about. Then it will return to earth. If we’re lucky, it won’t explode.

On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire during a dress-rehearsal for Apollo 1. The fire resulted in a completely re-engineered Apollo capsule. The space program resumed when this rework was complete. That was the first and the last time we lost men during the Apollo program.

On January 28, 1986, 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle Challenger exploded as a result of an O-ring failure in one of its two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). All seven astronauts were killed. The physicist Richard Feynman is credited with discovering the O-ring problem (he found that the O-ring rubber lost its elasticity at low temperatures and failed to act as a fire insulator). He made many other findings, which were included as an appendix to the Challenger accident report.

Feynman noted the surprisingly great differences between the failure-rate predictions of engineers and of NASA managers: the engineers predicted a failure rate of roughly 1 in 100; management predicted a failure rate of 1 in 100,000. In practice, the failure rate has turned out to be closer to 1 in 50 (there have been 113 launches to date). Feynman spotted significant problems not only with the SRBs but with the main engines and their components, the avionics, and the gradually falling standards of the Flight Readiness Reviews. He wrote: “It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.” He compared NASA’s handling of O-ring erosion to Russian roulette (“the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next”). He would probably be shocked to learn that the shuttle is still “flying” today on its 24th anniversary, and still using plenty of original 1980s technology, such as memory units with reel-to-reel tape readers.

Feynman would also probably be surprised to learn that “Russian roulette” came up again after the second disaster, this time with respect to insulating foam coming off the orbiter in flight (the cause of the Columbia disaster). This time, six-flight shuttle veteran Story Musgrave made the comment. He described foam coming off the orbiter as an alarmingly common event that was bound to create a disaster sooner or later. (“NASA's tried to kill me for 30 years if you get right down to it,” he added).

Problems on the shuttle remain, and may be too difficult to be “worth” fixing – Deputy Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale has said that if the wayward fuel gauge on Discovery cannot be fixed in a few weeks, NASA may launch the shuttle anyway, although the shuttle’s main engines are shut down once orbit is reached by a computer that depends on a correct fuel reading.

But no one will pay any attention to the space shuttle unless it does something exciting, like blowing up.

The decrepit vehicle was never designed to push back the boundaries of manned space-exploration. We need a new ship and a new mission.

Remember that we didn’t know exactly what we’d find on the moon. Our landing was mainly for the sake of landing, of exploring new places. Scientific and economic motives were secondary – spiritual motives came first. It was America’s romantic impulse.

That romantic impulse still exists; it just needs something to feed on. This is not just a question of spending money wisely (although no money is less well-spent than the cash that sends the next shuttle back up to put a new control moment-gyroscope on the space station). We need something that captures the imagination – that sparks the interest of a new generation of astronauts and rocket scientists. And we need something that America will take pride in and care about. Let’s go to Mars. Let’s go where no man has ever gone before.


At 4:39 PM, Blogger Longstreet said...

Amen, Brother!


At 5:29 PM, Blogger Commander Mike said...

I think Feynman would agree that it's not happening anytime soon.

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Janelle said...

Nice post. Watched Apollo 13 recently by any chance? Still waiting to hear from you about that thing we discussed. I have several people who are very interested and would like to know more.

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