Monday, July 03, 2006

Another "glitch" on the space truck:

Strike three for launching the space shuttle Discovery today: this time around it's not the typical crappy weather of the Sunshine State, rather it's a three inch tear in the insulating foam on the external fuel tank (gosh, that's never happened before right?). Presumably, sooner or later Nasa is going to manage to launch the shuttle and when they do I'm sure everyone in Nasa management will be crossing their fingers and toes hoping nothing goes seriously wrong this time. Besides the obvious very pressing imperatives of this mission, which include bringing up a deep freezer to the International Space Station (ISS) and picking up a few tons of trash, the entire future of the space shuttle program might be riding on the success of this mission.

Nasa says that if they can just figure out how to fix that nagging little problem of tiny bits of foam breaking off the fuel tank and damaging the heating tiles that insulate the shuttle from burning up in re-entry; their plan is to fly 16 more missions before shutting the program down in 2010. This would all go out the window if something were to go wrong, it would mean our plans for a manned mission to Mars, W.'s big trillion dollar SiFi fantasy, and would be pretty much kaput for the foreseeable future.

My question is: why are we wasting money to send this ancient piece of 60's era technology into space again in the first place? Shouldn't we be focusing on developing and constructing the next generation of manned space ships that will get us to Mars, or at the very at least back to the ISS before it falls out of the sky?

Unfortunately, that sort of forward thinking about the future of our manned exploration of space is being put on the back burner while Nasa obsesses about the flying foam problem. Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale says hopefully, “In terms of foam, we're so much smarter this year than we were last year" and though that may sound reassuring, it apparently isn't enough for Nasa engineers Brian O'Connor, the chief safety officer, or chief engineer, Christopher Scolese, who recommended two weeks ago that the shuttle not go up due to the on-going issues with foam. Scolese wrote in the flight-readiness review that, "I remain no-go based upon the potential loss of the vehicle." Though some might read that and call for a pause to make sure they know exactly what they're getting into, Nasa management is having none of it. [Sun Sentinel]

Nasa chief Michael Griffin (a Bush political appointee) is determined to risk a 'go' order regardless of the dangers to keep the shuttle program going and complete the politically sensitive construction of the ISS (As if that's really going to happen). Griffin said on CNN yesterday that, "I've kind of steeped myself in this problem for the last month, and I'm quite confident that we've got a very good chance of flying and flying safely." Wow, a whole month, I feel confident don't you?

Once again, politics seems to be trumping professional expertise, which has become a cornerstone of the way this administration does business. "Looking at the whole picture," Griffin says, "I'm willing to take a little bit of programmic risk now --- notice I did not say crew risk . . . in order to prevent a excessive build-up of programmic risk later on." Can you say: beurocratic double-talk?

Scolese and O'Connor eventually agreed to shelve their reservations about safety and go along with Griffin's 'go' order based on his daring plan to use the ISS as a life-boat in case the shuttle is too damaged to return safely and then send another shuttle up to rescue them. Though this sounds to me like something Nasa management came up with on the back of a napkin over a three martini lunch, this idea is actually being taken seriously. It gets better though; in order to make room for the second shuttle to dock with the ISS, they would use some sort of cable to give instructions to Discovery's computers to fly back to Earth on its own (while presumably not bursting into flames).

Whether Scolese and O'Connor are actually buying any of this or not --or more importantly, were pressured to sign off on this -- I can only speculate. It can't have escaped their notice, though, that Griffin's brilliant plan sort of falls apart if the Atlantis, the next shuttle in line, is also damaged by the foam (how many astronauts can you pack into the ISS?). I suppose in that case we could always ask the Russians to come bail us out but that would be a real embarrassment wouldn't it? (Maybe, Cheney & cabal ought to tone down the anti-Putin rhetoric just in case.)

Just as in last year's Discovery mission, two astronauts will be doing space walks, known in the biz as EVAs, to inspect the shuttle to make sure its capable of returning safely. Back in the old days when Nasa actually knew how to do things like go to the moon, space walks were a big deal. Now, however, they're just done to fix the creaky old shuttle that always seems to be on the verge of falling apart. (What would Ed White say?) To me, adding another risk factor like walking in space to this already pointless endeavor is crazy.

I say we call it a day with the shuttle, it's been almost 40 years since we went to the moon and we've been going backwards ever since. My God, the damn Chinese will be zooming past the ISS on their way to the moon and by then we'll be using rubber band propellers to get the shuttle up. What would Gus Grissom say if he were here today? Probably something along the lines of, ‘how can we get to Mars if we can't fix some foam?'


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