Nevermind, I'll have coffee
I'm a fan of Gregg Easterbrook and he's got some good thoughts
over at Time Magazine. The Shuttle must be replaced (not because it's unsafe --- I'll take 1:55 odds to go into space any day), but because, as he rightly points out, it's expensive. And, until it's cheaper to get to orbit, we're not getting to Mars. The Shuttle is a Boeing cash cow, not a bold manned space vehicle. And Easterbrook's right. But never-you-mind! I know we're all saddened by yesterdays events, but if he's going for political blood, he might as well take the time to get his facts straight:
First, he writes:
With hundreds of launches to date, the American and Russian manned space programs have suffered just three fatal losses in flight—and two were space-shuttle calamities.
Not to be picky, and lots of folks are missing this, but there have been four
: The two space shuttle accidents, of course, and most folks have picked up on Soyuz 11
, which took the lives of Georgi Dobrovolsky
, Viktor Patasyev
and Vladislav Volkov
. On Soyuz 11, the Soviets decided to put three cosmonauts on the vessel, but to do so the crew had to forgo wearing pressure suits. A valve, which was supposed to pop open at 4,000 meters to flush air into the cabin opened at reentry, asphyxiating the crew. We should not, however, forget Soyuz 1
which took the life of Vladimir Komarov in 1967 when, after reentry, the main parachutes fouled and the capsule hit the ground at, shall we say, an uncontrolled rate.
He makes some good points about the space station, of which I am also a big critic, but some of this is just polemical:
The bottled water alone that crews use aboard the space station costs taxpayers almost half a million dollars a day.
Well what the hell are they supposed to drink, Mr. Easterbrook? A copy of the Budget and Impoundments Act?
His criticism of the shuttle is fair -- it's damned expensive, so let's talk cheap launch systems (which he does!) but as long as we've got ISS, getting stuff up there costs money: $20,000/pound or more -- $160,000 a gallon. And three astronauts are going to drink three gallons a day. There's your half-million. So long as astronauts and cosmonauts are up there, there's no way to save that cash.
"...no safety systems were added to the solid rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed
Just wrong. The SRBs were dangerous (still are!), but the joints, which allowed the failure of a single O-Ring to doom the shuttle, were completely redesigned with a second O-Ring and a baffle which essentially eliminated the problem. Secondly, and at least as importantly, flight rules were changed so the shuttle could not fly after an overnight freeze, which is really the but-for causation of the Challenger
disaster. All the engineering fixes don't have to all show up in the rocket itself.
"no escape-capsule system was added to get astronauts out in a calamity, which might have helped
At Mach 18? At maximum heating and pressure? A crew eject-system which would have helped Columbia yesterday would be, itself, nearly a completely separate space vehicle, with its own reentry shields, guidance, attitude-control rockets and just about everything else. See my comments below about the F-111 crew-eject
and you'll see it is pretty complex. The Solution, which Easterbrook suggests could have helped Columbia would be as good for ejecting in orbit and leaving the orbiter to rot as it would have in at 200,000 feet. Probably even more difficult.
In 1986 the last words transmitted from
Challenger were in the valiant vow: "We are go at throttle up!" This meant the crew was about to apply maximum thrust, which turned out to be a fatal act.
Easterbrook is obviously confused. "Go at Throttle Up" is a reference to throttling the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), the three hydrogen-oxygen engines which you see on the back of the orbiter itself. Challenger
had just gone through Max-Q (or Maximum Dynamic Pressure) so the engines had been throttled back. Since they were then past that, the SSMEs were put to full. And they had nothing
to do with the Challenger
explosion. The same accident would have almost surely happened at 65 seconds, 73 seconds (when it did happen) or 85 seconds or 100 seconds. Very briefly: because of a faulty O-Ring, the Solid Rocket Motor (which cannot be throttled up or down) was already shooting hot exhaust out one of the seems of the rocket and burning through the insulation on the external tank (itself full of hydrogen and oxygen). When it the flame hit pay dirt, the hydrogen began to leak and, when combined with the air of the atmosphere, burned. As that burned (and then very
quickly) it broke apart the main (forward) oxygen tank and caused the much larger fireball. That explosion pushed the orbiter into an impossible aerodynamic position and the orbiter was torn apart by aerodynamic forces (it was then travelling Mach 1.92 or so).
Anyway, not to be harsh, Easterbrook is a damned smart guy, but if we're going to criticize NASA and make it work, so some little girl who is right now fighting with her Mom about breakfast can, someday, watch a Martian sunset at the edge of Valles Marines: for the honor of the United States of America and for the future of Humanity, we need to get our facts straight.
UPDATE: If I'm going to flog Mr Easterbrook about stuff, I should at least get my own facts straight. It's the Budget and Impoundments Act, not the Budget Impoudnment Act. My bad.