Friday, August 19, 2005

Delays, delays....

NASA has announced that the next shuttle flight will not be until at least March 2006. While I can understand the reasons for putting off the next flight, I am also concerned that it reflects the timidness in our modern society. The no failure is acceptable attitude that pervades our country will keep us from greatness if left unchecked. Yes, the foam falling from the tank during STS-114 was not good, but at least we knew about it while that knowledge could actually do some good. The shuttle has some flaws, but if our plans for its retirement are to be carried out, it only has to fly about 15 or 20 more times, so a big expensive fix is just not a reasonable thing. With the extra launch imagery and the on orbit inspection and possibility of repair, we won't see another Columbia type accident. There are far more things to be worried about on the Shuttle - the SRBs have worked well since Challenger, but they are still quite dangerous. The main engines on the shuttle have worked nearly flawlessly, but are some of the most complex components on the shuttle and I cross my fingers for the 8 minutes they are burning on each flight. We've never had a return to launchsite abort and hopefully never well - I've heard that astronauts and mission contollers are uncertain that they would even work.

What we need is to get on with the shuttle program and go finish the ISS and retire the old shuttle fleet. We need to learn our lessons from the shuttle and factor those into the design and construction of its replacement and get on with human exploration of the solar system. It will be dangerous, but if we learn our lessons, we can make the best of it and go to the Moon and Mars much more safely than we might have without those lessons. Exploration is not for the timid and not for the foolhardy. There is a balance and we need to find that balance and get on with things. The Universe awaits us.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

To Boldy Go Where No One has Gone Before....

It has been interesting, but frustrating to watch the mission of STS-114 and to watch the reaction of the press and the public to the technical issues of this flight, the first shuttle flight since the Columbia accident. What is most frustrating is just how timid our nation has become about facing the dangers inherent in spaceflight. The attitude seems to be that no failure is acceptible. With this attitude, we would never have gotten to the Moon during Apollo. Despite how easy NASA has made spaceflight look, it is still very dangerous business. That is a tribute to NASA that they have done the business of spaceflight so well that it looks routine and to most, "boring".

As for the current mission, it is both a great enhancement and a heavy burden to see all of the extra imagery of the vehicle, both during launch and on orbit. During the first 113 missions of the Shuttle program, they would have no information about tile issues on the bottom of the orbiter and would not have detected the large bit of foam that fell off the external tank unless it hit the orbiter, so any engineering issues regarding such events would either not be addressed at all or would be discussed after the mission when the orbiter brought the evidence back with it in the form of damage to the tiles. Tile damage on the orbiter is a given. You've got the spacecraft mounted on the side of the launch vehicle where any bit of debris - foam, ice, bolts, whatever - that fall off of it risk impacting the spacecraft and its delicate thermal protection system. One thing we can learn for future spacecraft is to not only provide a continuously available abort system to get the crew away from a failing launch vehicle, but also, put the spacecraft on the front of the rocket where debris damage is much less likely.

So, while past missions suffered an AVERAGE of about 150 dings to the tiles, this mission, from the preliminary orbital inspection only had around 25 tile dings! That is a huge improvement! But while in the past, those dings and anomalies would not have been seen until the orbiter was on the ground, the engineers now see it in orbit and have to make a decision to repair or not during the approximately 2 week mission. We risk fixing a lot of things that are not going to bring the orbiter down like Columbia, for example the gap filler removed by EVA astronaut Robinson on Wednesday. We've seen this kind of anomaly before.

While there has been talk of scraping the shuttle right now instead of continuing its lame duck future and finishing the International Space Station with shuttle resources. We have more than 100 flights under our belt - we should be able to accept the risk and get on with the mission and finish the orbiter program. The new exploration program envisioned by NASA and supported by the current administration will not happen without risk. We must get back to business and accept that risk, for the future is worth that risk. Astronaut Gus Grissom, who died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire knew the risks he was taking and accepted them. He said, before the accident, that if he should die, he hoped the program would go forward despite that and Apollo did, as much because of his sacrafice. We learn, we get better and we go on, so its time to go on and keep flying the shuttle to its planned retirement.