Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Fate of NASA’s Three Remaining Broken-Down Hoopdies

Twenty-four years ago the Space Shuttle program was born. Back in its heyday, there were six shuttles. One, the Enterprise – which, no lie, was renamed only after an ambitious group of Trekkies signed a petition and got it to the President – didn’t really complete any missions. It was mostly used for testing; making sure the massive thing could get up to space and come back safely. And it did.

The others were all named after exploration sailing vessels, that I may have possibly learned about, had I ever paid close attention in history class. The other five are: Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.

Now, unless you were either not live, have been living under a rock, or like me, do not pay attention in history class, you should know the fate of the Challenger craft. It sorta fell to pieces 73 seconds into its flight back in January of 1986. And killed 7 people. This was blamed on an O-ring in the solid rocket boosters and the crazy unseasonably cold weather in Florida. I blame the jerk-offs running the place.

In February of 2003, the second craft that didn’t return to Earth, Space Shuttle Columbia, had other technical difficulties. There was damage to the thermal heat shielding tiles that cover it, and it basically incinerated upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. Apparently, a large chunk of insulation foam from the fuel tank crashed into its wing during takeoff and damaged those tiles. It killed 7 people. It was an accident.

Or was it?

The shuttles are old. Over 20. Now, I know something about driving around an old-ass car, and having something break on you during mid-travels. I can’t count the numerous occasions that this has happened to me. But, had I known that I was supposed to be traveling into space in my car, I would’ve shouted a loud, “Hell no!” And if I were an astronaut today, I’d feel the same way about these shuttles.

Before the second shuttle mishap, NASA found a crack in the fuel lines of the vessels, causing major inspections to the remaining fleet. Three of the four ships had this damage. And now we’re dealing with insulation foam. First off, I’d like to say this… Has this always been a problem NASA’s chosen to ignore? Why now, after over 20 years of shuttle flights, are we finally hearing about foam insulation? Is it a new problem?

This quote from the Flight Operations Manager, John Shannon, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, leads me to believe that, no… it’s not. “Redesigns since the 2003 disaster have fixed a lot of debris problems. On this launch there was much less foam than we have seen in previous launches.”

Previous launches!? So, you’re telling me that NASA has gotten by on shear luck for 20 years? That this falling insulation has never happened to catch the shuttle until 2003?

So maybe NASA didn’t know the damage it could cause. I understand why those men and women tried to return from space, only to be greeted in flames. They didn’t know any better. But I wonder if the astronauts really understood the risks they were taking. I understand that it was their job, and most likely their life’s ambition. And I still believe that only the best and brightest get to go to space. But, did those daring people know about this?

The Roger's Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident stated that "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.”

There have been approximately 115 shuttle flights since its inception back in 1981. Two of those flights failed and ended in vehicle loss. I’d say both of the figures in that report were slightly optimistic.

And now, two years after Columbia, and after taking what seems to be like proper precautions, Discovery will return to Earth, and the remaining three shuttles will be grounded indefinitely.

Now, as a child who dreamed of going to space, this saddens me. What happened to NASA’s funding? What happened to our elite program? Does anyone remember the space race to the moon? How Russia kicked our collective asses and got Sputnik up first? How our best and brightest worked through it to get Mercury and Gemini and Apollo up there? How we got men on the moon? And the courage and determination set forth to bring the crew of the doomed Apollo 13 home?

What happened to that NASA?

Why are we continuing to send astronauts up into space in NASA’s old jalopies? Where are the engineers and scientists? Why have we not come up with the solution to fixing this problem?

NASA landed men on the moon just eight years after President John F. Kennedy gave the order in 1961. And the shuttle took to the skies in 1981, just nine years after President Richard Nixon said to make it so.

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan called for a National Aerospace Plane that could take off from a runway, reach orbit in a single stage, and return to Earth as routinely as an airliner. A decade and billions of dollars later, engineers joked that the space plane would have to be built of "unobtainium."

In January of 2004, President Bush unveiled an ambitious space plan that includes a human mission to the moon by 2020 and an eventual human mission to Mars. But he hasn’t said a word about the plan since.

And no one knows where the funding would come from.

The hard reality is that great leaps in space technology require great heaps of money.

The single-stage-to-orbit vehicle doesn't exist yet. It's a more sophisticated craft that will require a team of bright-minded thinking-outside-the-box kind of individuals that I’m not sure completely exist anymore. Plus, it’ll probably take billions of dollars to achieve it.

Meanwhile, as the shuttles stay grounded, International Space Station Alpha will stay in its incomplete, unfinished state, and we’ll continue to rely on Russia’s Soyuz Rockets to get people to and fro.

And I can’t help imagining what the NASA of the 60’s would think if they saw themselves today.

End Blog.

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