Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 2003.12.02
The Death of Columbia

I've just finished reading an amazing article about the shuttle Columbia accident written by William Langewiesche for the Atlantic Monthly. Amazing and extremely sad. I would encourage you all to take the time to read it. Right now. If they want to charge for the story, consider spending the money. You won't be disappointed.

The article talks with a lot of detail about the shuttle, the accident, and the investigation. Langewiesche interviewed extensively Hal Gehman who lead the investigation. Sounds like an extremely capable man and the right guy for the job. The management and communication problems inside NASA sound exactly like those in place with earlier disasters. What a shame.

I'll lead with a quote from the piece about the test firing of a piece of foam at a spare leading edge piece in an attempt to simulate what happened when some insulation broke off the external fuel tank and hit the shuttle during launch. Among the engineers watching the test were many from NASA who were still refusing to believe that the foam could have done any damage.

The gun fired, and the foam hit the panel at a 25-degree relative angle at about 500 mph. Immediately afterward an audible gasp went through the crowd. The foam had knocked a hole in the RCC large enough to allow people to put their heads through. Hubbard told me that some of the NASA people were close to tears. Gehman had stayed away in order to avoid the appearance of gloating. He could not keep the satisfaction out of his voice, however, when later he said to me, "Their whole house of cards came falling down."

My Thoughts

I am someone who has until recently taken the reality and necessity of manned space travel as a given. We must try to get out there -- push at the limits our little ecosphere here. Maybe I'm worried that the damage to our planet will be too great at some point that we will have to move elsewhere. Maybe I see our population growth problems translating into the need for yet more land and resources lest we make the movie Soylent Green prophetic. Maybe, as Asimov theorized, if we do not push out into the stars to colonize early, some other species will do so first, their "No Trespassing" signs restricting human exploration.

Probably the biggest reason that I support manned space exploration is that I want to do it. It's a feeling made up of the science fiction books and movies, wild west flicks, and amusement park rides. Americans are a crazy independent bunch -- maybe we all are -- and the dream (yes, not the specifics) of space travel are intoxicating. I can see working for some space launch company in a future incarnation, if only it isn't in Texas or Florida.

I guess recently I've come to the conclusion that although we should be doing research on manned space exploration, the shuttle and even the International Space Station are mostly a waste of effort and money. I followed the Deep Space 1 project with it's low cost and innovative technology and watch the news for commercial launch company viability. The shuttle is the most complex system every flown. This said, they have to go on Ebay to buy 8086 processors to run their systems. I believe strongly that the money spent on the shuttle program could have produced other technologies by this point. Single stage truly reusable craft with less complex and more off-the-shelf technology.

Although we should still do research on manned space travel, the science being performed currently in space is crap. What exactly has come from it? People point at communication satellites and even integrated circuits as byproducts of the space industry but it is not any work done in space which has resulted in these advances. Rather the innovation which has come from past development of launch vehicles is the force that has pushed the envelope before handing off the technologies to market forces. Our research dollars will be much better spent if we took the NASA millions and spent it on space innovation while leaving the space research to unmanned missions until the costs of human launch vehicles gets a lot less -- maybe by two orders of magnitude.

Maybe we'll have to wait for the space elevators to be a reality before man should again be in space to any significant degree. Maybe the Russians with their space tourism have got it right and if people want to pay for it and can afford it then people will go. I can see paying at least $10k for a trip into space -- maybe even $100k. If market forces drove manned space exploration, then the market would correct it.

I was in my room working on my Macintosh in 1986 when my brother called out from the living room to come in and watch the shuttle Challenger explode -- "roger, go to throttle-up". I was shocked and dismayed and felt the surreal quality of the event and now I'm not sure why. These were men and women who knew the risks. They were riding an enormous bomb into space and I'm sure their wills were in order. I don't mean to belittle the event but I think we must put it in its proper perspective. 7 people died that day doing something incredibly dangerous -- but it wasn't a senseless death. It shouldn't have been a surprise or shock. It was certainly unfortunate but it should be seen as a necessary byproduct of working with the "risk versus risk" scenarios.

I think it is more interesting to figure out why I/we treated the Challenger disaster with such reverence. What is it about space travel which has us looking and talking about 7 lives while innocent people die on street corners every day in senseless, hopeless, terrible ways? Maybe the human psyche yearns for space travel to be a reality. Maybe we see it as one of the last great frontiers and our endeavors to push the envelope in this area are supremely noble. Maybe these are the reasons why we weren't told until must later that the Challenger crew most likely survived the explosion and died when the cabin slammed into the ocean minutes later.

So I have no idea where I was when I heard about Columbia breaking up. Maybe Challenger cured us of future moments of shuttle loss. Maybe 9/11 overwhelms all tragedy. Maybe my cynicism has changed my view of space disasters. I think it is a good thing when space accidents become as mundane as other transportation accidents -- when the safety organizations mobilize to the crash site, determine what went wrong, but the flights continue in the meantime. It will certainly be a better thing when true competition and market forces, with standard government oversight, push the envelope more than NASA dollars.

Unfortunately, I am pessimistic that I will see this in my lifetime.

Interesting Facts

Here some interesting facts about the shuttle that I didn't know or found particularly interesting.

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