Skip to comments.NASA Grounds Shuttle Fleet While Probing Columbia Disaster
Posted on 02/01/2003 8:02:03 PM PST by Destro
NASA Grounds Shuttle Fleet While Probing Columbia Disaster
02 Feb 2003, 01:22 UTC
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The U.S. space agency, NASA, is suspending future shuttle flights until it knows what caused the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven- member crew. Columbia broke up over Texas Saturday minutes before it was to land in Florida after a 16-day research mission in Earth orbit.
Seven astronauts, including the first from Israel, went down to their deaths in a hail of shuttle debris over Texas. Dramatic videotapes from a Dallas television station show it streaking to Earth in several smoking pieces.
Shuttle officials say the first sign of a problem was the loss of readings from sensors that measure tire pressure and temperature and structural heat on the orbiter's left side as it at headed toward landing at 18 times the speed of sound. Chief flight director Milt Heflin says controllers lost all contact with the shuttle minutes later.
"We lost the data and that's when we clearly began to know that we had a bad day," he said.
News reports tell of shuttle remains strewn across a wide area of east Texas. NASA is sending technicians to Texas to collect it with help from national, state, and local emergency agencies. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has established both an internal and independent external review board to investigate the cause of the disaster.
"This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts, and likewise tragic for the nation," said Mr. O'Keefe.
The head of the shuttle program, Ron Dittemore, says debris analysis is key to understanding what happened to Columbia. He pledged a non-stop effort to assess it and all related flight data.
"It's going to take us some time to work through the evidence and the analysis to clearly understand what the cause was," he explained. "We will be poring over that data 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future."
Pending the answer, NASA is suspending all space shuttle flights. It has stopped preparing orbiters for flight at the Kennedy Space Center launch site, including the one that was scheduled to exchange crews at the International Space Station in early March.
A Russian supply rocket, set for launch Sunday, is bringing supplies that NASA says will support the station crew through late June.
Seventeen years ago, the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, but the Columbia disaster is the first time a shuttle has been lost returning from orbit since the program began 113 missions ago in 1981.
At the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, space expert Joan Johnston-Freese notes that takeoff and landings are the most dangerous times for space shuttles.
"That's when the maximum pressure and velocity occur," she said. "The shuttle lands as a large glider and control is always a challenge, but under those conditions of pressure and velocity, the shuttle is so super-heated at that point that it's a very volatile situation under the best of conditions."
As part of NASA's probe, technicians will look for any signs that an unusual launch incident may have damaged critical insulating tiles on the shuttle's left wing, the side of the shuttle where the sensor readings went dead. Insulation from the rocket that helped boost Columbia to orbit flew off and hit the wing during liftoff.
Shuttle manager Dittemore says that after exhaustive analysis early in the mission, flight engineers determined that it probably would have no affect on the flight. But given Columbia's loss, he did not dismiss the potential impact to the wing.
"We're going to go back and see if there is a connection. Is that the smoking gun? It is not. We don't know enough about it. A lot more analysis and evidence needs to come to the table," he emphasized. "It's not fair to represent the tile damage as the source. It's just something we need to go look at."
When the Columbia disaster occurred, NASA administrator O'Keefe was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida awaiting the shuttle's return with the families and friends of the astronauts. What was to be a happy reunion turned into grief-stricken moments of consolation. Mr. O'Keefe paid tribute to the astronauts, whom he said dedicated their lives to facing scientific challenges for all of us on Earth.
"The loss of this valued crew is something we will never be able to get over and certainly the families of all of them," he said. "We have assured them we will do everything, everything, we can possibly do to guarantee that they work their way through this horrific tragedy."
Security had been tighter than usual at the landing site because the presence of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon prompted government fears that he might be the target of a terrorist attack. However, NASA says there is no indication that terrorism is involved in the shuttle loss.
The concept of the Shuttle--a reusable orbiting payload vehicle sounds like a good idea but it has never worked out with with our current technological and budget limits.
Simply put NASA has placed all its eggs in the Space Shuttle program and because of that our rocket technology and space exploration program has suffered. The Russians are still a generation ahead of us on rockets because they still produce them and rely on them.
Disposable rockets are 10 times cheaper and 100 times more structurally sound than a reusable space shuttle.
In addition the cargo bay of the space shuttle limits the payload capacity of the shuttle while on disposable rockets the payload is theoretically unlimited.
PS: A story I heard about the approach of the Russian and NASA space programs is very illuminating. The story goes like this, when a Russian space agency official was told by a proud NASA official about the expense and effort of its engineers that goes into desgining even the so called astronaut or space pen that allows it to be used in zero gravity the Russian replied "we use pencils."
It is time to start using disposable-reliable space vehicles and open up space to private industry.
For starters I would ask congress to authorize a bounty that it would reimburse any private organization that would send a manned mission to Mars and return its crew to Earth safely that would cover all expenses plus 15%.
Competition to Mars would capture and ignite the world's imagination.
Open space to private industry yes .... yes disposables, absolutely NOT.
We should have an SSTO spaceplane to replace the shuttle. And nuclear rockets for ultra heavy payloads to go into orbit.
"Recent inspections of Space Shuttle Atlantis and Space Shuttle Discovery found cracks, measuring one-tenth to three-tenths of an inch, in one flow liner on each of those vehicles. Some of the cracks were not identifiable using standard visual inspections and were only discovered using more intensive inspection techniques. "These cracks may pose a safety concern and we have teams at work investigating all aspects of the situation," said Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore. "This is a very complex issue and it is early in the analysis. Right now there are more questions than answers. Our immediate interests are to inspect the hardware to identify cracks that exist, understand what has caused them and quantify the risk. I am confident the team will fully resolve this issue, but it may take some time. Until we have a better understanding, we will not move forward with the launch of STS-107." The impact of the investigation on other upcoming space shuttle launches has not been determined." - - June 24, 2002
Here's what I would do, and I have said this repeatedly, even just yesterday: Launch cargo on BDBs [Big, Dumb Boosters.] Launch crew on separate man-rated vehicles, which means the crew can escape under any circumstances, and for crew re-entry, use something much smaller and easier to make robust. Forget the wings.
Get to work on this right now and assume the Space Shuttle is headed for mothballs as of today. If any more building is to happen on the ISS, use BDBs to launch the hardware.
It's time to rethink NASA's mission. Moonbase and Marsbase should be the goal. NOW.
The real advantage of unmanned flight is that you don't have to factor human safety into major decisions.
That is silly. Things break, shiite happens. Airliners have catastrophic failures, nobody (except the French) panics and gives up. One hundred years from now, with technology we can't imagine, people are going to die traveling to and from space.
Sure, the shuttle is a failure in many ways, but if you think space can be made affordable by throwing away millions of dollars worth of hardware with each flight, forget it.
Right now, you really can't draw conclusions and take them seriously.
I cannot imagine any private company that would attempt this for a mere 15% return on investment.
The shuttle is a much more capable and complicated system, plus the Russians pay their engineers in magic beans.
While what you say about the safety record is true, the sample size is too small to draw any statistical conclusions.
In fact the French-using big dumb boosters undersell NASA in putting up satellites as do the Chinese.
I know the Space Shuttle looks good on a poster but it is not a good program.
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