Countdown to the Cape: 10-9-8-7-6-5…

The final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery—and the penultimate mission for the Space Shuttle program—is scheduled for Monday, November 1, 2010. Lofty Ambitions will be there! Anna will be at Kennedy Space Center with the press, and Doug will be watching with the crowds on the coast of Florida.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been catching up on the facts and lore of U.S. manned spaceflight. In our years together, there have been books we have both read, but often we purposefully divide our reading in order to cover more ground. That’s what we’ve done during our countdown to next week’s Shuttle launch. We are reading individually while working as a team. We’re discussing books and articles along the way, and watching videos together over lunch and dinner.

NASA WikiCommons PublicDomain
STS-124 Discovery

Anna just finished reading Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program. The book’s author is Pat Duggins, a news analyst for National Public Radio who’s covered almost a hundred Shuttle missions, including the fatal Challenger and Columbia missions. Published in 2007, the book holds out hope for the follow-on Project Constellation and its Orion capsule and Ares rocket. Since then, though, future manned space exploration has been cancelled or remains unfunded. After February’s final launch of Endeavour, it’s not clear that a NASA program of manned spaceflight will ever resume.

Pat Duggins points out, “The lifetime of the shuttle has been marked by a lack of focus and a series of compromises.” Whereas the Apollo program had a mission—land on the moon within the decade and beat the Soviets—before it had a spacecraft, the Shuttle was a vehicle without a well-defined mission or destination. Its course is limited to low-Earth orbit, mostly doing science in low gravity and launching satellites. These tasks led to compromises in design so that the new orbiter could serve scientific, commercial, and military needs. That said, the Shuttle was the only way we had to give the Hubble’s misshapen mirror eyeglasses to correct its vision. The first Hubble Space Telescope repair mission was the most complex mission in those early years, and required five spacewalks. Until the International Space Station (ISS) welcomed human beings in 2000, though, the destination for the Shuttle and the need for people to be launched into orbit wasn’t clearly defined. (To view the ISS in your night sky, go here for dates and times.)

In addition to the lack of focus and abundance of compromise, the program has lost two of its vehicles—Challenger and Columbia—in catastrophic failures, blamed in large part on NASA’s institutional culture. In addition to Enterprise, which was not built for orbital use and now resides at the Udvar-Hazy facility of the National Air and Space Museum (see NASM blog here), only five orbiters were built. On the surface 40 percent loss rate is not good. Yet, for a program that is on the critical edge of technological and organizational complexity, this loss rate isn’t unprecedented. The SR-71 Blackbird, the Mach 3+ spy plane, also lost 40 percent of its number (20 out of 50) in its thirty-plus-year program. And herein lies the trap in which the Shuttle was caught: the promise of airline-like reliability, but in an environment that is much less hospitable than the friendly skies.

NASA Photo of Challenger's Break-Up

One of the videos we watched last week was Space Race: Era of the Space Shuttle, which included a recap of the Challenger investigation (view the report here). We’d heard a lot of it before: O-ring, freezing ambient temperature, engineers warning of danger, higher-ups not listening. In a cultural gaffe, NASA managers ignored problems because, instead of understanding that a statistical problem remained the same flight after flight, they mistakenly assumed that successful flights lessened risk.

What struck us in this video, though, were tapes of Challenger’s launch in 1986, slowed down so that we could see the tiny flame pop through the joint of the solid rocket booster. The flame grew, joining the booster’s main flame, which thrust the Shuttle contraption into the atmosphere. When the Shuttle broke apart—disintegrating, not exploding, as it had seemed while we watched it on television in college—the pieces were identified on the video. The nearly intact crew cabin—the seven astronauts likely securely strapped inside—arced out and down into the ocean, where it was later recovered. Evidence exists—switches thrown by pilot Mike Smith, evacuation air supplies activated by three astronauts—that the crew was conscious for a few seconds, perhaps almost three minutes after the orbiter broke up.

STS-107 on Rollout to Launch Pad

The NOVA video Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster was another look at Columbia’s demise in 2003. (Watch this NOVA here.) After Challenger, Columbia was the only remaining orbiter not equipped to dock with the International Space Station, so its mission was microgravity science research. Because the heavy robotic arm wouldn’t be needed for those experiments, it was left on the ground. When engineers saw that foam had struck the Shuttle during launch, there was no robotic-arm camera available to look around outside before returning home. Had the hole in the leading edge of the left wing been discovered, the Shuttle couldn’t have docked with the Space Station to wait indefinitely for help. What was new to us was the vivid experiment that investigators used to prove to doubting engineers that a handful of light foam could, when hit by an accelerating Shuttle or shot from an equivalent gun, rupture a large hole in the wing (view the report here).

NASA WikiCommons PublicDomain
Ilan Ramon

Earlier this fall, we attended a screening of An Article of Hope, which looked at the Columbia accident through a focus on Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. (See Guest Blog by the film’s producer here.) In both these films, what remains most striking is how much survived, including video shot inside the crew cabin shortly before it broke apart. Searchers recovered 70,000 pieces of Columbia, representing 37 percent of the spacecraft by weight. This debris is stored by Kennedy Space Center for future study, where the debris from Challenger—55% percent of the orbiter—is buried in a missile silo. (To view debris photos, click here.)

Discovery was the “return to space” orbiter after both Challenger and Columbia. It takes flight for the last time next week. Despite the troubled history of the Space Transportation System (STS), we’re looking forward to being there for STS-133. Next year marks thirty years of Shuttle service, which has achieved what few national efforts have ever managed to do.

We’ll count down to the Cape every day, cover launch day on Tuesday, and write as the mission unfolds next week. If you don’t want to miss any of the Lofty Ambitions countdown, subscribe to posts via email in the right sidebar (below the search).

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