only the insane have strength enough to prosper. only the prosperous truly judge what is sane.

27.7.05

Grounded again...

The shuttle fleet has been grounded again, after a large chunk of material was spotted falling off the external tank during the launch.

Key quote:
"Since the Columbia tragedy, NASA has spent over $1 billion on making sure shuttles would be safe from falling foam debris."

That figure doesn't include the enormous cost of the ISS, which is a mere shadow of what its planners hoped it would be...and is probably the primary reason why the Space Shuttle still limps its way into orbit. Now we discover that $1 billion has been spent to improve safety, yet a piece of foam (warning: links to large hi-res photo) as large as three feet peels off of the external tank. NASA admits that it's basically 'good luck' that it didn't strike the shuttle.

To me, the issue is not whether NASA is competent...I'll leave that to others. I'm more concerned with the fact that the shuttle is looking more and more like an obsolete hunk of failed space race dreams. How long have we been reading about replacements for this aging beast? X-this, X-that, aerospike engines, launch costs so low that you can send grandma to the moon for her birthday. When? "The near future. 2000 at the latest. Maybe 2005. When you get to 2005, make it 2010. I mean 2020..."

The risks simply seem to outstrip the rewards. I could live with the shuttle if it could do something other than spin around our planet in a low orbit. So much risk, for what? Science that robots could do cheaper and more safely. We spend billions so the Canadarm can poke around looking for holes with a new sensor stuck on the end of it. This isn't the stuff of dreams, it's a snoozer. It's the equivalent of reading the dictionary from cover to cover while standing on top of a metal tower in a thunderstorm. Terribly boring, and oh so dangerous.

It begs a comparison to a few recent space missions:

  • Mars Pathfinder: $280 million (including launch vehicle and operations)
  • Mars Exploration Rovers: $820 million (including the launch and initial 90-day missions of both Spirit and Opportunity)
  • SpaceShipOne: ~$20 million (development costs and suborbital flight)

The robots sent to Mars captured the world's imagination, and have returned enormous amounts of useful science. They create a sense of wonder, they appeal to our sense of adventure. We really are boldly going where no man has gone before. If we had more money for robotic missions, we could take even bolder risks--dropping rovers into the Valles Marineris, or on top of Olympus Mons...the possibilities are endless.

SpaceShipOne serves a different purpose--it puts the Buck Rogers back into spaceflight. There's something thrilling about seeing a bunch of plucky rich guys blow a small (very small, by NASA standards) fortune to cobble together a spacecraft capable of suborbital flight. Even though it achieved nothing "new" (save the fact that it's privately built), it still had that critical quality--it captures our imagination. The design says it all--SpaceShipOne looks *cool*, like it wasn't simply designed to be functional. It's Buck Rogers in real life--so what if it's not in orbit? SpaceShipOne and its mothership, the White Knight, look like something a 10-year-old boy with an overactive imagination would design....

Robots for exploration. Private spacecraft for manned flight.

Cheers to the brave Shuttle astronauts, nevertheless. They're heroes without a cause, I fear.

UPDATE: Mike's Noise (via Instapundit) details some very interesting information about the type of foam used for insulation. This line really jumped out at me: "After the new foam was used on Columbia mission STS-87 in November 1997, post-flight examination of the craft found that 308 of the special heat-absorbent ceramic tiles that cover the Shuttle's outer skin were damaged. The average number of damaged tiles for previous missions was 40."

2 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Cunningham said...

In television news items which have been discussing the falling off of this chunk of tiling, or whatever, the commentators keep referring to it as 'the size of a suitcase'!

All I would say is you guys across the Atlantic sure do have some funny sizes and fashions of luggage!

7/30/2005 06:21:00 AM

 
Blogger Eric S said...

It's always amusing to see how the commentators attempt to translate things like this so as not to confuse the public. The actual dimensions of the piece, according to CNN: "The piece of foam that fell from the tank appears to be about 24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 14 inches wide, and from 2.5 to almost 8 inches thick."

Somehow I don't think this would be a particularly functional suitcase! In addition, the last time I checked luggage comes in all sizes. Are they referring to a smaller carry-on suitcase, or a very large piece of luggage designed for a long holiday? The public needs to know!

Here's another example from a Fox News story: (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,163900,00.html)
"The plate-sized hole let in superheated gases that caused the shuttle to break up on its return to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003."
What kind of plate? A dinner plate? A small salad plate? A large oval platter?

8/01/2005 07:01:00 AM

 

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