by† Michael Hammerschlag
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Feb 2, '03†††††††††††††† †††††††††
The burn-up of the shuttle wouldnít have been such a shock, but for the astounding success of manned spacecraft. In the 250 odd manned missions since the beginning of the space age, this has been the great fear: that this little craft of metal, hurtling at a blinding 5 miles a second (ten times faster than a bullet), would flip out of position and vaporize in a matter of minutes in the 4000 degree fireball of reentry. Amazingly this never happened, though the threat was always there, lurking in the background. The returning Moon astronauts reentered at 7 miles a second, 25,000 mph. The shuttle had to maintain an exact reentry angle within a degree or 2, lest it skip back into space or overheat. It was a flying brick in a controlled crash- it only became a air craft in the last 50,000 feet of altitude and really only in the last 10,000 ft when the dense air gave some bite on the heavy stubby winged vehicle. The entire launch assembly- with the huge fuel tank and booster rockets was such an ungainly clunky beast that it looked like an accident waiting to happen. Before the first launch in í81 I thought that theyíd have to very lucky to avoid a tragedy- there were so many firsts- the first space-plane, the first reentry at orbital speeds, the first launch of unwieldy assembly of 3 rockets and a tank. For the first few years, there were consistent problems with those glued-on ceramic foam heat tiles falling off- the loss of any one or 2 in a crucial position could supposedly cause the loss of the vehicle. In í97 I wrote a piece excoriating the faster, better, cheaper philosophy of NASA; subsequently 3 Mars Missions and another launch failed. Again there seems to have been a buildup of arrogance in NASA. Though there were pieces of fuel tank installation falling off on 1 or 2 previous missions, it wasnít taken seriously- though the heat tiles were sensitive enough that they were initially afraid of a fingerís touch. Detaching debris (rock hard heavy "foam") big enough to be visible in tiny telescope images is obviously crucial and life threatening*. After numerous shuttle safety complaints by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, NASA forced most of them to resign in 2001. $1 billion was cut from the NASA budget in fiscal 2002. Dittemore's blithe observations that the engineers determined "that there wasn't any danger" bespeak of a careless nerdy conceit.
-Why didnít they track down and fix the insulation shedding on the fuel tank?
-Why didnít they inspect the possible damage with a telescope, or an EVA (spacewalk)?
-Why did the spokesman say they had no ability to go around to inspect the bottom of the shuttle in an EVA? Of course they could- they went farther to fix the Hubble and still terrifyingly- donít use any kind of lanyard to avoid being lost in space if their propulsion guns stick on. UPDATE: They didn't have space suits or propulsion packs!! How and why? ADDENUM below
-With all of the problems of the tiles, why didnít they have some spares and the training to reattach them? They had trained doing that on early missions.
-If they had discovered serious damage couldnít they have used the Soyuz escape vehicle on the space station, or waited there for another shuttle or
†Soyuz to get them, or sent the shuttle back with only 1 or 2 astronauts?
-Did cutbacks in NASA funding damage safety; and was the 22 year old Columbia shuttle too old for the stresses of space (though renovated)?
In 1990 I watched a rare nighttime polar military launch of the shuttle after 2 cancellations and a 4 hour high speed return from the Everglades (with about 2 minutes to spare). From the press center 3 miles away, it was impressive, but compared to the rumbling and raw power of the Apolloís (which they allowed people to get very close to), it was a little disappointing. Most crushing was the 1000 foot cloud cover, which totally swallowed the rocket within 5 seconds, never to appear again. Millions of people along the east coast, however, saw the blasting trail as it traced the US shoreline- better than me. It still was a great thrill- I camped out at NASA for 3 days.
In Hawaii one night, I happened to read a newspaper story that the docked shuttle/Mir was passing overhead in 3 minutes. I rushed outside to watched in wonder as the brilliant space station/shuttle silently cruised from horizon to horizon 210 miles overhead in the jet back sky over 4 minutes.* Since then, Iíve seen the new International Space Station/Shuttle several times- NASA has a site that will tell you exact pass and distance times for any city on earth. Many people now have a stake in space: a million people (including me) have their names carved into microchips on the STARDUST spacecraft, now 220 million miles out in space, halfway between Mars and Jupiter, on its way to rendezvous with comet Wild-2, collect dust from the tail in Jan 2004, and return it to earth in 2006. In 1979, I was one of a few hundred people on the planet who got a first chance to see new pictures from the spectacular new worlds of Jupiterís moons at the Brown Geoplanetary Center, taken by the intrepid Voyager. At the beginning of the space age, my father took me outside awestruck to see the overflight of the ghostly Echo spacecraft, a 300 ft inflated balloon for primitive radar reflection distance measuring and communications tests- 36 years later I talked with astronomers born after that who were planning a reprise of that mission.
The only consolation is that the end for the astronauts was probably mercifully brief. But the voyage will continue.
* The difference between orbiting spacecraft and high jets is that spacecraft move incredibly smoothly and slowly, have no flashing or colored lights, and shine with a steady consistent white light. In good conditions, one gets a sense of great distance. The closest the shuttle comes is about 195 miles. On Mauna Kea, I was looking at a couple of galaxies through a 12" reflector telescope once, when a satellite blew right through the frame, almost knocking me over.
ADDENUM 8/4/05: Nasa? person on furious response
to my blog NASA WIMPS OUT (on SPACE.com) about the instant grounding
of fleet on Shuttle's Return to Flight claims
there were "2 space suits on Columbia,
as there were on every flight", but
I've heard they weren't rated for outside.
If they had the human ability to do an EVA
to inspect that terrible impact, they would
Michael Hammerschlag has written commentary for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Moscow News, and worked on the Subaru telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea astronomical complex, Hawaii, with 4 of the largest telescopes in the world. His website is http://hammernews.com†† email† email@example.com