Archive for columbia

A monstrous white Y in the sky

Posted in neverbeengood, Space, Tech with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by badhex

So, it can’t have escaped everyone’s notice that last week was the final touchdown of Shuttle Discovery on STS-133, the third-to-last mission for the Space Shuttle program as a whole. As readers may know I’m very interested in space, and in particular the human exploration of (read: manned missions to) space – but I’m a little worried about the future of these missions.

I love Shuttle. It’s brilliant. Liftoff is just as good every time I see one, and I watch as many as I can. It’s particularly impressing these days when we can sit at our computers looking at websites like NASA HD TV or Spaceflight Now, and watch realtime as Shuttle takes the first precarious, powerful step on the latest sojourn into orbit.

The craft itself is truly awesome – beautiful, graceful and a sheer feat of humankind’s ingenuity and perseverance in our many scientific endeavours (no pun intended). Watching it in action is a pleasure, and things like the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, it looks almost unreal. Thousand of minds and man-hours have gone into creating and maintaining one of our greatest achievements, a craft that “can launch like a rocket, go into orbit, change into a spacecraft and then land as a hypersonic airplane” – and the only craft which can do so.

But just because we can do it, does not mean that we should.

When I was a kid, I happened to be in Florida when Shuttle Discovery took off on mission STS-48. At that time, to me the shuttle was a thing of true, flawless wonder, and in my head that’s what I thought of when people said ‘NASA‘. Of course I had read about past missions, regardless of which nation had undertaken them, and had obviously heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, and seen pictures of the various Apollo vehicles – but Shuttle was the spacecraft of my generation. As I grew older I learnt more about space, and the other methods by which we have travelled there, and still Shuttle remained to be an awesome thing. Then, one day, everything changed for me. A drastic turnaround of my thoughts and opinions occurred, and my heart sank.

The Shuttle program was a failure.

You’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about the terrible Columbia disaster, and indeed I am – but it was not that fated day on which my thoughts occurred, it was some time later, after the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had been published. I read an amazing, eye-opening article in a broadsheet (I can’t remember which one) which had a detailed synopsis of these findings, and it was this that made me change my mind. I have since read a lot more on the subject and watched numerous programs and documentaries, and all of these sources say the same thing: the disaster was caused by an initial problem with the technology, and furthermore massive organisational failings in NASA management – and this cause rings true for both Columbia and the Challenger disaster as well.

Now, I could go on for hours about the various findings of the reports in terms of the managerial failings that should have been dealt with or should never have happened, but I’m only going to touch on these. There are many many books, articles and documentaries which cover the minutiae a lot better than I can. If you want to (and I suggest you do), go and look it up. Read the various Wikipedia (and other) articles I’ve linked to, watch the documentary, or read Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? (which I haven’t read but is on my list).

I’m going to talk about the technology, because that is where the fundamental problem lies. This excerpt from David ‘Doc’ Searls blog is actually an article written by him in 1986, and was sent to me by my good friend Pete Sigrist. If you only read one of the links in this post, read this – it inspired the (admittedly rather grotesque) title of this blog post and gives a good summary of what I’m talking about:

Consider for a moment that the shuttle program is, after all, the bastard offspring of a dozen competing designs, and constrained throughout its history by a budgetary process that subordinates human and scientific aspirations to a variety of military and commercial interests. And consider how, as with most publicly-funded technologies, most of the Shuttle’s components were all produced by the lowest bidder. And consider the fact that many of the Shuttle’s technologies are, even by NASA’s admission, obsolete. If we had to start at Square One today, we’d probably design a very different program.

The Shuttle is brilliant, but ultimately flawed – a technology so precariously balanced and tightly strung that in the words of many NASA engineers, scientists and both shuttle disaster investigations, it is a genuine surprise (albeit a welcome one) that there have been so few accidents. What your average person does not realise – and what I didn’t realise as a child – is that most shuttle launches have been far from problem free, and this is not unknown by NASA management either. Both the O-ring failure in Challenger and the ‘foam shedding’ which saw the demise of Columbia and its crew had been categorised by NASA as “normalization of deviance” – acceptable risk – despite the fact that this conflicted with supposedly stringent design and safety specifications. Ultimately, in many cases one single failure in myriad vastly complicated, intricate systems, all depending on each other to work, would be the undoing of any launch. This is unavoidable with such a complex machine as the Shuttle – it is simply too complicated to be considered a truly safe mode of transport into space – and astronomically expensive to run.

Of course, the reason we don’t think about any of this is because of the way shuttle has been portrayed over the years, as day-to-day, routine – and this portrayal is by no means accidental. Physicist Richard Feynman played a large role in the Rogers Commission Report and was aghast at the disparity between the reality of the perilous balance in which Shuttle sits, and the view of NASA management that the Shuttle was almost infallible:

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

Feynman’s beef was mostly and rightly with NASA which is well illustrated in that quote – but the most salient point for me is that the technology is not as reliable as we have come to take for granted.

Of course there have been major advances and changes in both Shuttle design and NASA strategy; there have been multiple contingencies devised for crew rescue in case of disaster and from STS-114 onwards (the return-to-flight mission two years after Columbia) procedures implemented to safeguard against the ‘foam shedding’ problem, such as the R-Bar or Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver I mentioned earlier, but ultimately these are just patching holes  in a too-flawed system. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly glad to see it go and I revise the thinking that Shuttle is a failed experiment; but an experiment it is, and it has proved not to be the correct path.

So we move unto the future, and Shuttle is simply not what we need any more. However, in the wake of the cancelled Shuttle program, we have very little in place for our next move, and a lot of questions as to what that move will be. The NASA pilots themselves seem to be asking the same questions. I’m no qualified scientist so I can’t say what is the best course of action, but Medium and Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles (MLLV and HLLV) as an initial method seem to be the best option. Cheap, reliable, and proven. The Soyuz rocket is the most frequently used, and most reliable launch vehicle in the world – over 1700 launches since the mid sixties with a tiny percentage of failures – and is very low cost. I might also add that it was the only thing we used to resupply and perform crew changeovers for the International Space Station during the time when Shuttle was grounded after Columbia.

Breaking out of Low Earth Orbit – a hitherto unaccomplished task for humans – is what most people (including myself) seem to think we should be doing, and there are some plans afoot for a manned mission to Mars. But how are we going to get there? The cancelled Moonbase plans leave us without a, well, base of operations from which to launch longer duration missions, which would seem to be the sensible thing to do;  the ability to construct, or at the very least refuel craft outside Earth would help us a lot on our outward journey as it would be much easier to launch from the Moon than Earth itself. This of course is easier said than done, and creates a whole load more questions, like how we get the raw materials up there in the first place. Still, I would have really, really liked to see a Moonbase in our time.

So, finally, we find ourselves on the edge of space in need of a method for the next step – but I’m glad it’s not Shuttle – lest we end up with another monstrous white Y in the sky.