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Space Science

Columbia Accident Board Preliminary Recommendations 170

Posted by michael
from the picking-up-the-pieces dept.
fwc writes "The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) has released some preliminary recommendations to NASA - To do a better job at inspecting the leading edge of the shuttle's wings, and also to ensure that pictures of the orbiter are taken while in orbit. More recommendations are to follow in the full report which is expected in June. More detailed information on the recommendations are at space.com and spaceflightnow.com. NASA Administrator O'Keefe seems optimistic that they will be able to return the shuttle fleet to flight by the end of the year since there has been no show-stopping problems which have been discovered during the investigation."
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Columbia Accident Board Preliminary Recommendations

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  • I'll gladly volunteer to go up on any shuttle missions to test out the safety :) I can't help but feel that the shuttle program, with all its warts, is still vital and needs to continue.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      And also you want your name to be spread far and wide ...just like your ashes....
    • by Lumpy (12016) on Friday April 18, 2003 @12:18PM (#5759843) Homepage
      I can't help but feel that the shuttle program, with all its warts, is still vital and needs to continue.

      I strongly dis-agree. the SPACE program is still vital and needs to continue but the horribly outdated Shuttle program needs to be given an end of life that is in the near future and rapidly design a new more capable and efficient system to replace it with.

      I dont know about you but the space programs in both major countries is pretty much a joke. We are flying in a 1982 Reliant K car while the russians ar still flying in their 1957 studebaker.

      we have the technology right now for several updated and higher performance launch systems that will be a good basis for getting to Mars and the rest of the inner solar system... a place where we should have been over 10 years ago. Its the idiots and morons we keep voting into office that can't pull their heads out of their arses or the major corperations arses long enough to act like the leaders they are supposed to be.

      Dont get me wrong, the shuttle engineers are an amazing crew to keep that old thing flying and somewhat updated, and the same goes for the Soyuz engineers... amazing men doing fricking amazing things with a ball of twine and a roll of duct-tape.

      As those are the only approved materials that congress let's nasa use anymore.

      Maybe in my children's lifetime we will get a government here in the US that has enough leadership and balls to actually get us there... but I highly doubt it. The chineese will get there first.
      • Russia is flying a 1957 Beetle.

        And China is starting a program based on the Mexican version of the 1975 SuperBeetle.

        If anyone is concerned that this represents an apparent Devolution of humanity's capacity to invent, and innovate -
        Why not read a classic science fiction book by Issac Asimov, called Foundation. It's actually a trilogy, but it's about this very subject.

        The people who are in power today have command of JUST the technology they need in order to maintain their hegemony. Any more is superfluo
      • I believe Boeing is already building a prototype of the newer shuttle. Its a whole vehicle and not just a shuttle actually. I do not have a link but it looks like a futuristic spacecraft. Its features include a big fuel tank in its wings and a newer rocket engine. Rocket boosters are not required. This will save alot money since rocket boosters are expensive to produce and are trashed during each flight. Its a fully resusable spacecraft unlike the partially reusable ones today that make up the shuttles.

        The
      • That's what we get for hiring the two biggest aviation companies to handle the shuttle for us. They'r more interested in bleeding money from the shuttle program than developing a more efficient way to get the job done. Why would they want to produce a shuttle that let them collect less from NASA?
  • by iworm (132527) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:27AM (#5759092)
    "there has been no show-stopping problems which have been discovered during the investigation."

    Well no, other than the strong suspicion that a chunk of the craft can fall off during lift-off and fatally damage the vehicle...
    • Re:Wait a sec... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:38AM (#5759171)
      A chunk of the craft didn't fall off.

      Some insulation on the fuel tank did.

      So far the Columbia Accident board has said that before resuming shuttle missions NASA must do a better job inspecting the leading edge of the spaceplanes' wings and ensure that the nation's spy satellites capture detailed images of the orbiter during each flight.
      • When it fell off, that insulation WAS part of the craft.
      • Re:Wait a sec... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tiny69 (34486)

        A chunk of the craft didn't fall off.

        Some insulation on the fuel tank did.

        So far the Columbia Accident board has said that before resuming shuttle missions NASA must do a better job inspecting the leading edge of the spaceplanes' wings and ensure that the nation's spy satellites capture detailed images of the orbiter during each flight.

        Now correct me if my logic is a little faulty, but if a large piece of insulation fell off of the fuel tank, and from what I hear this is a fairly common occurance, sh

      • I read a report (in the la times, I think) that the analysis of the damage during the mission (that showed the damage from the foam was nothing to worry about) was just some hand-waiving analysys in an excel spreadsheet.

        There is NO way anyone can do a reasonable analysis of damage from an impact in a freakin' spreadsheet. They probably just did something that amounted to fitting a curve to historical data and extrapolating... sheesh! And this was deemed reliable enough analysis that they didn't need to
      • >> So far the Columbia Accident board has said that before resuming shuttle missions NASA must do a better job inspecting the leading edge of the spaceplanes' wings and ensure that the nation's spy satellites capture detailed images of the orbiter during each flight.

        What are they going to do when they detect that the leading edge of the wing is damaged?
        Repair in space is close to impossible, the ceramic plates are unique, so the shuttle could not have enough spares. Special glues are used to glue
    • Re:Wait a sec... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ackthpt (218170)

      "there has been no show-stopping problems which have been discovered during the investigation."

      Well no, other than the strong suspicion that a chunk of the craft can fall off during lift-off and fatally damage the vehicle...

      That and the rather conspicuous lack of (1) shuttle. Are they planning to build another, or just spread out launches for the reduced rotation?

      Maybe Richard [thisisbristol.com] Branson [guardian.co.uk] can dig one up...

  • by Codex The Sloth (93427) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:28AM (#5759096)
    NASA Administrator O'Keefe seems optimistic that they will be able to return the shuttle fleet to flight by the end of the year since there has been no show-stopping problems which have been discovered during the investigation."

    So a 1-in-50 catastrophic failure rate is not considered a show stopper? At this rate, we'll be out of shuttles in another 150 flights. Would you use software that crashed 1-in-50 times? The shuttle is the "Internet Explorer" of space vehicles...
    • Re:Show stoppers? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by binaryDigit (557647) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:36AM (#5759148)
      Would you use software that crashed 1-in-50 times

      Depends a lot on the software and what you mean by 1-50 times. As an example, take your OS (please ;), I reboot maybe once every couple of weeks. If we said an average of once a week, we're talking one OS crash every year, now that's not too shabby. If we're talking web servers that crashed every 50th http request, that obviously would not be good. If we're talking web broswers that crashed every 50th page request, that would suck. If it crashed every 50th time I fired it up, that would be great (again since I have a usage pattern that starts the browser once and I never close it).

      The shuttle is similar, given that almost any problem can easily turn into a catastophic problem, how much of that failure rate is intrinisic in the activity (e.g. no matter how safe you try to make mountain climbing, there is always an element of risk that is higher than many other activities). And the frequency of that activity, if we're talking 50 missions at two missions a year, that's a lot of years between failures. Hey, that's what makes being an astronaut what it is, a risk, that's why they are elevated to such a high status (unfortunately often times not until AFTER something bad happens).
      • The shuttle is similar, given that almost any problem can easily turn into a catastophic problem, how much of that failure rate is intrinisic in the activity (e.g. no matter how safe you try to make mountain climbing, there is always an element of risk that is higher than many other activities).

        It's a hallmark of poor design that the shuttle is not fault tolerant. Looking back at the Mercury / Gemini / Apollo missions, they were largely safe because:

        1) Simple design -- as few moving parts as possible (la
        • Re:Show stoppers? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by JoeRobe (207552) on Friday April 18, 2003 @12:39PM (#5759983) Homepage
          I really don't think it's a hallmark of poor design.

          The orbiting capsules were intended to go into orbit for a matter of hours and then come back to earth. They were not reusable and were far too small to contain many science experiments. The shuttle is intended to go into space for extended periods of time. This requires more equipment, more moving parts. It is also intended to be a scientific laboratory. This, too, requires WAY more equipment, and a lot more moving parts. It's also intended to be reusable.

          This isn't a poor design/good design issue. It's goal oriented issue. The capsules were considerably simpler, because the goals of the missions were considerably simpler. The shuttle is more complex (read: has more moving parts) because the goals of the shuttle missions are more complex.

          You may have an argument for the Apollo missions: more complex missions. But Apollo 13 was almost a disaster, and many people in the field consider it a miracle that one of the Apollo missions didn't go wrong.

          The shuttle missions can rarely be compared to the early-NASA missions. It was a different world, there were different goals, a different government, and different public support. Yes the missions happen less often than they were originally intended, but then again, there's far less public support of space missions, and Congress cuts NASA's budget practically every year. What do you expect?

          • You may have an argument for the Apollo missions: more complex missions. But Apollo 13 was almost a disaster, and many people in the field consider it a miracle that one of the Apollo missions didn't go wrong.

            Well sure but the point is that they didn't and the shuttle did. Given the damage that Apollo 13 had, which do you think would be more likely to survive, the Capsule or the shuttle?

            The shuttle missions can rarely be compared to the early-NASA missions. It was a different world, there were different
            • My point is that while you're right that there were less disasters because they were simpler, the shuttle has different goals. It's goals require it to be more complex. Being complex means that more things can go wrong. There's no amount of good design that can go into the shuttle to make it as safe as the capsules were. There's just more stuff to go wrong, and if they need to meet the requirements of the missions, they need to make it more complex than the capsule missions.

              As far as given the damage t
    • by ackthpt (218170) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:38AM (#5759170) Homepage Journal
      So a 1-in-50 catastrophic failure rate is not considered a show stopper? At this rate, we'll be out of shuttles in another 150 flights. Would you use software that crashed 1-in-50 times? The shuttle is the "Internet Explorer" of space vehicles...

      Ooooo. You don't like shuttles, do you? I'd say, if NASA were run by Microsoft they'd recommend setting the clock back and trying again...

      "Well, there goes the shuttle Explorer 2003 SP1, up in flames. Condolences will be sent to loved ones, and flights will continue while they work on SP2. Meanwhile, in other news, Microsoft lobbyists have renewed pressure on Congress to black out any public notification of these shuttle disasters."

    • Re:Show stoppers? (Score:3, Informative)

      by codegen (103601)
      Would you use software that crashed 1-in-50 times

      You mean like Windows 95, which could not stay up for more than 49 days continuously (MS technote Q216641)?

    • Errmmm (Score:3, Interesting)

      You are missing a key point.

      The space shuttles are man made vehicles designed to take people into space! There are going to be inherent risks with such undertakings, but this is the nature of space exploration. Time will provide safer alternatives, but for now 1/50 isn't bad.

      The astronauts know these risks too, and they willingly assume them.

      PS: The Internet Explorer comment is unnecessary.

      • Faulty reasoning (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Codex The Sloth (93427) on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:34AM (#5759518)
        The space shuttles are man made vehicles designed to take people into space! There are going to be inherent risks with such undertakings, but this is the nature of space exploration. Time will provide safer alternatives, but for now 1/50 isn't bad.

        Really? The Mercury/Gemini/Apollo program didn't kill anyone in a flight (3 were killed on the ground and another 3 came about as close as possible) and that was in the 60s and they were going to the moon. The reason the space shuttle has a higher failure rate is simply that it has more moving parts and things to go wrong. The shuttle failure rate would be significantly higher if it really flew once a week as it was designed to and if the per flight costs were what they were expected to be. Doesn't the fact that it flies 1/50th of the amount it was designed to tell you something about the difference between the expected failure rate and the actual failure rate?

        The astronauts know these risks too, and they willingly assume them.

        They are brave people, no question. I'm sure, given the choice, they would rather fly in a safer space craft and risk there lives for something more important than studying the effects of weightlessness on tiny screws.

        And what if the columbia had broken up over a populated area of California rather than empty portion of Texas. Would all those people who gave their lives appreciate the risk that was being taken on their behalf?

        PS: The Internet Explorer comment is unnecessary.

        Well IE never killed anyone (although I could be wrong on that) -- they are both crap though.
    • We would need to know what "show stopper" means. I think a show stopping problem might mean a flaw that would mean permanently grounding the fleet because it is unfixable.

      Comparing the risk to to IE is not the same, in some ways worse. For IE to compare, then there would be a 2% chance that any startup would completely destroy the computer to the point of unsalvageability of parts, and also kill its user.
      • We would need to know what "show stopper" means. I think a show stopping problem might mean a flaw that would mean permanently grounding the fleet because it is unfixable.

        True. I claim that by nature of it's complexity and fundamental design, it's not likely to become grossly safer.

        Comparing the risk to to IE is not the same, in some ways worse.

        Yes but that's a question of the effect. If IE were being used in a situation where the slightest fault would cause disaster then we would expect a much higher
    • Would you use software that crashed 1-in-50 times?

      Continually, Yep, I'm another of Bill Gates customers.

      So far not lives have been lost.
  • Shouldn't NASA be fully aware of this already? I think in pretty much most cases they know what they are doing, at least more than anybody else knows what they are doing...
  • by TopShelf (92521) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:33AM (#5759122) Homepage Journal
    So they'll do more thorough inspections before reentry - but they still haven't addressed the issue of what to do if they actually find something wrong. As I understand it, there is no capacity to perform such repair work while in orbit.

    So again, what do they do if they find a problem? Just upload an MP3 of "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"???

    • There is a way to repair damaged tiles in orbit. The Columbia mission didnt have the right equipment to do it, or the gear to spacewalk to the underside of the orbiter.
      • Then I'm surprised not hear among these recommendations that such equipment and gear be required for each mission. After all, they didn't always pack seven astronauts in each mission. At what point does making room for additional crew reduce space for safety-related material???
        • Unfortunately this is virtually impossible. Every Space shuttle is almost completely taken apart, and then reassembled, and lots of parts are replaced, EVERY time it goes on a mission (there is a reason why it costs between 50-500 mil to send the shuttle up there ONCE). What you are suggesting is basically taking a second shuttle with them, but then with all the extra load of extra parts, the shuttle wouldn't even lift off. It's simply not possible. Most of these repairs could under no circumstances be perf
          • Every Space shuttle is almost completely taken apart, and then reassembled,

            What they do isn't even close to completely taking it apart. However, they do perform an amazing amount of work on them to ready them for the next launch.

            there is a reason why it costs between 50-500 mil to send the shuttle up there ONCE

            Even NASA's use of creative accounting gives numbers much higher than that. And independent experts claim that the cost is closer to a billion dollars per mission.

            As it turns out, the

    • So they'll do more thorough inspections before reentry - but they still haven't addressed the issue of what to do if they actually find something wrong.

      Agreed. Furthermore, it's not clear whether just taking pictures is sufficient to check the integrity of the ship. Who is going to look at the pictures? What are they going to see? What level of detail do they have to look at to find hairline fractures which may be sufficient to take the whole thing apart? What about ship integrity stuff that's right un

    • So they'll do more thorough inspections before reentry - but they still haven't addressed the issue of what to do if they actually find something wrong. As I understand it, there is no capacity to perform such repair work while in orbit.

      This all bears repeating. NASA decided that repairing a tile in orbit is not viable because a repair effort will probably result in further damage to the surrounding tiles. Spacewalks are performed by astronauts with years of training specific to spacewalks. Most shuttl

    • Actually, the problem they've found is that NASA hasn't been very thorough in checking the condition of the RCC material on the ground before the shuttle flies. The investigation appears to be heading towards a "suspected" cause of some fault in the Leading-Edge RCC being missed during inspection, which happened to be hit by the flying foam.

      The recommendation basically states that NASA must inspect the leading edge material better than they have doing - which up to now is basically go out and look at it

  • by ih8apple (607271) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:33AM (#5759126)
    The problem I have with there being no "show-stopping problems" is that they are white-washing the risk away. There is inherent risk in space flight and the public is stupid if they think that it's now somehow safe (until they are shocked when the next O-Ring or Leading-Edge-of-the-Wing fails.)

    Here's a good analysis from 1996 [gladwell.com] about the Challenger disaster and inherent risk that people need to accept.
    • by Surak (18578) <surak@mailblCOLAocks.com minus caffeine> on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:01AM (#5759319) Homepage Journal
      Exactly, especially when there are rockets or rocket engines involved. Rockets work via a large controlled explosion. The larger the explosion (the more thrust), the harder it is to control that explosion. Anytime you're strapping people into a vehicle that has close to 6 million pounds of thrust [nasa.gov] behind it, you're taking a risk that the explosive power behind that ~6 million pounds isn't going to get away from you. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that. ;)
    • by XNormal (8617) on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:12AM (#5759381) Homepage
      There is inherent risk in space flight

      And it's made much greater by operating a vehicle with razor-thin margins. Take a look at this amazing story [jamesoberg.com] about the reentry of Soyuz 5. One of the things that struck me was how robust soviet space hardware is. The shuttle, by comparison, is extremely fragile. It couldn't possibly take one percent of the punishment that Volynov's capsule took.

      And yet Boris Volynov is alive to tell the story.

      Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair and Ilan Ramon are not.

      The Russian space program had its share of lethal accidents - but it also had several major accidents where the crew survived. With the shuttle the abort modes are mostly theoretical. In practice any serious accident means loss of the entire crew.
      • by amabbi (570009)
        you are oversimplying things. the soyuz safety record, i believe, is actually worse than the shuttles (the shuttle had 2 catastrophic failures in 140 some-odd flights, the soyuz had 2 catastrophic failures in 130 some-odd flights.. or something to that effect). previous shuttle flights have come back with meteor damage, wing damage, tile damage..
        • That's true. The shuttle is so much more expensive than the soyuz. The soyuz also has been operating for a lot longer.

          But the shuttle's max payload is a lot more - 24-27 tons vs 2-4 tons? (assuming LEO).

          Still does increasing payload cost so much more? How much do the Titan/Ariane cost?
      • "The force of the impact tore him from his seat, threw him across the cabin, and knocked out several of his top front teeth; he tasted blood as it filled his mouth."

        Expected Provda news the next day: "Cosmonaut successfully undergoes routine dental procedure to remove painful cavities."
      • This is almost exactly the same thing that happened to John Glenn, except they intentionally kept the retro-pack attached until it burned away. His Mercury spacecraft was correctly aligned, though, because he had the extra margins that the Soyuz doesn't. The reason the Soyuz has survived all these narrow escapes is that it doesn't have the right stuff to avoid them in the first place. The reason you don't hear about close scrapes on the shuttle is that it has enough redundancy, and missions are so well plan
  • In a nutshell... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Be more careful! As if NASA wasn't already careful.
  • I'd have recommended that they didn't cancel the 2nd generation shuttle part of the SLI. Can you believe they want to keep flying those death traps till 2022? Jeez.
  • by stratjakt (596332) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:34AM (#5759134) Journal
    Space is some scary, dangerous shit. You dont want anything to do with it, trust me.

    Finish Doom 3 please.
  • by patmandu (247443) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:37AM (#5759154)
    I mean, they go over it with a fine-toothed comb before they launch, and then a couple of weeks later they just say "OK, everybody buckle in, we're heading home". Sheesh, it takes more than that to fly a private plane, doesn't it? You do a pre-flight check, you fly, you land, then you do another pre-flight before you fly home again. Is that so hard a concept to apply here?

    How come they don't have some tethered drone camera dingus that does an inch-by-inch surveilance of the important bits while they're still in orbit? Why bother with all the "well, if we use a 3-foot-long-telephoto-spy-lens..." crap?

    Heck, here's another opportunity for Canada to come to the rescue, just add another attachment on to the big shuttle bay crane arm.
    • by rand.srand() (243903) on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:12AM (#5759382)
      You are at 30,000 feet in your 747. You've been flying for 11 hours. You decide to go and do a prelanding check because hell, anything could have broken and you've got 200 innocent people on board. In your checklist you discover that one of the wings has lost 14 of its 18 welding points.

      You can't repair anything away from your repair facility. You can't land the thing any differently than you normally would to reduce stress. And you can't transfer your passengers to a different plane while in the sky. There's no parachutes. Why did you even bother checking?

      And that's a 747 very close to the surface going much slower built with much less exotic materials.
      • Ya, but the big difference is that the shuttle crew has the *opportunity* to have some surveillance checks...the 747 isn't flying for 2 weeks.

        Think Silent Running with the little drone guys.

        And as far as 'you can't fix it so why look?', the flipside is 'if you know it's going to blow up, why try to land it?'

        If you know there is a problem, you have an outside chance of doing something about it. If you don't know, then you're screwed.

        Heck, I'm sure that given the choice of toasting a crew and a multi-bil
        • > Even if it couldn't be repaired quickly, they might luck out with the launch windows and be able to launch another ship/shuttle to offload the crew, and nudge the damaged into a higher orbit to buy some time. Maybe having a rescue mission waiting in the wings becomes a new launch criteria.

          Mothball the Shuttle and build a new heavy launch vehicle? No way!

          Much better to - in addition to $500M per Shuttle launch - deciding that you now need an extra $200M per launch to keep a second shuttle on wa

      • On a 747, you can not climb out on a wing whilst it is flight. On a shuttle you can once you are out of the atmosphere. A 747 is very well understood and flies well within its envelope.

        When the shuttle was built, repair was not a possibility. SInce then, materials tech has improved and there are a number of materials which could have significantly increased survivability.

      • You "bother" checking to help out the next flight. I've seen a lot of comments in this past and in previous posts related to the shuttle that alway focus on that specific flight and not the long term. We don't want to accept a policy of easily writing off shuttle crews as expendible, But we do want to instill a policy of understanding what is happening and what are the cause and effects at all times to prevent future disasters.

        If not having taken a picture of the Columbia in flight leads to the loss of an
    • Heck, here's another opportunity for Canada to come to the rescue, just add another attachment on to the big shuttle bay crane arm.

      probably wouldn't have been very useful, considering columbia wasn't carrying the canadarm...

    • I mean, they go over it with a fine-toothed comb before they launch, and then a couple of weeks later they just say "OK, everybody buckle in, we're heading home". Sheesh, it takes more than that to fly a private plane, doesn't it? You do a pre-flight check, you fly, you land, then you do another pre-flight before you fly home again. Is that so hard a concept to apply here?

      You're misidentifying the orbit phase of the mission. The orbit phase is not the same as landing at your destination in a plane. It's s

    • Comparatively speaking, going over the shuttle with a fine toothed comb is a "pre-flight check". As would be checking the shuttle with a telephoto lense or any other device while it is in orbit.

      Btw, it should be apparrent that walking around the shuttle and kicking its wheels or a similar cursory inspection that a private plane's preflight check is, would not make a difference to any of the problems that have brought shuttles down so far.
  • Shouldn't that be "shuttle" instead of shuttle fleet?
    • Shouldn't that be "shuttle" instead of shuttle fleet?

      No, there is more than one shuttle in the fleet. Endeavour and Atlantis are two that pop into my mind.

      If you have a pile of stones and you start removing them one by one, then at what point can't you call it a pile anymore?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Here are the findings in a nutshell:
    Shit happens. Get over it.
  • by jj_johny (626460) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:50AM (#5759248)
    Recommendation two - get good pics of shuttle in orbit every time. Wow, that should help determine if we are going to tell the astronauts that they have stuff they can't fix.

    Honestly, do you have any contingency to examine in space and fix the shuttle if it does have problems? No, well, see you back here in another 10 years.

  • obvious... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dioscaido (541037) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:56AM (#5759282)
    when the shuttle launched, a piece of debris broke off and hit the wing. Back then they said it didn't matter, then the shuttle exploded on re-entry. Now, months and months of 'careful study' they find that the wing had been damaged. No sh*t... what a useless exercise. And the recommendation: study the shuttle more carefully! Ummm. yeah, how much are they being paid for this?
    • The problem with that argument is there's still no clear way that the impact could have done enough damage for the shuttle to burn up. Either it was a very, very unlucky hit in just the wrong place, or there's some other problem which, in combination with the impact, lead to plasma coming in through the wing. For all we know, the wing could have been damaged prior to launch (either due to errors in handling on the ground or pure old age) and the normal stresses of orbital maneuvering could have led to the s
    • Re:obvious... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by badasscat (563442) <basscadet75@@@yahoo...com> on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:32AM (#5759509)
      when the shuttle launched, a piece of debris broke off and hit the wing. Back then they said it didn't matter, then the shuttle exploded on re-entry. Now, months and months of 'careful study' they find that the wing had been damaged. No sh*t... what a useless exercise. And the recommendation: study the shuttle more carefully! Ummm. yeah, how much are they being paid for this?

      A classic misinterpretation of an accident report - though this isn't even a full accident report yet, and I imagine there will be even more misinterpretation when it is finally released.

      What the investigators have actually determined is really nothing. What they have determined probably happened is that there was pre-existing corrosion to the frame of the wing's leading edge, which weakened it to the point where the foam strike caused something to break. This pre-existing corrosion should have been caught and fixed by NASA, and if finally proven as fact, would be the root cause of the accident. The foam hit was not the cause of the accident, the corrosion was. Assuming they stick to this theory, of course.

      I've said before that almost all accidents are a series of events, some preventable, some not, most benign by themselves. It's that particularly series of events and the way they unfold that causes the accident. Without the corrosion, the foam hit would have done nothing. It's happened so many times before without incident, and the shuttles were built to take punishment - these are vehicles designed for repeated launch and re-entry, for God's sake - the G-forces, shock and vibration they're built to withstand are almost ridiculous, and they've been hit by multiple objects at launch, in orbit and during re-entry before without incident. The facts seem to suggest that Columbia was no longer in like-new condition - that it was fatally weakened even before its last launch. If it wasn't for this foam hit, it would have been something else that would have brought it down eventually. The foam was just a catalyst.

      What I find shocking is the apparent deriliction of maintenance on the part of NASA, and the budget cuts really need to be looked at as a contributing factor to the accident. There's no way these shuttles should be allowed to have this kind of corrosion, and Columbia was just refitted a couple of years ago - the wings were taken completely apart, they should have seen any damage like this. Even if they didn't, though, they should be doing MRI's or whatever they need to every 6 months or a year to check the interior structures of all critical structures.

      Just one final comment - someone suggested doing 2 "pre-flight" checks, one before launch and one before re-entry. This doesn't make any sense whatsoever. The poster used commercial airliners as an example - well, this would be like doing a "pre-flight" check both before takeoff and before landing. First of all, the pre-flight on a commercial airliner is usually nothing more than a walk-around by the pilot and a systems check while taxiing (many airplanes spend 30 minutes or less at the gate before pushback). The space shuttle sits in a hangar for 6 months being looked over with a fine tooth comb before launch - it's much more thorough than anything a commercial airliner goes through. Second, there's no "pre-flight" before a plane lands - that would not be feasible or even necessary. There's no reason why a space shuttle would need such a check either if the vehicle itself is in good working condition - which should be established while it's on the ground, not in space. If you establish the fact that the foam hitting the wing was not catastrophic in and of itself but that it was corrosion to the interior structure of the wing's leading edge that weakened it and led to the break when the foam hit - that's something that should be caught before it even gets to the launch pad. It's not something you should worry about in flight.
      • Re:obvious... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Thagg (9904) <thadbeier@gmail.com> on Friday April 18, 2003 @12:22PM (#5759866) Journal
        People who say that it is pointless to do an inspection while in space have limited imagination about what damage those inspections might find, and what might be done in response to that damage. While it is worthwhile to examine that 10,000 (say) most likely failure modes and come up with the best way to respond to each (including, perhaps, just administering last rites), doing an inspection to look for unanticipated damage is a really good idea.

        The test-flight community is awash with stories of pilots who through skill and ingenuity (and luck) managed to recover airplanes with catastrophic damage. There's nothing like impending death to focus one's mind -- and in the case of the shuttle there might be millions of engineers around the world thinking of creative solutions if the problems are known.

        In the Apollo 13 near-disaster, a failure of the magnitude that occured was not planned for, because it was assumed that something like that would lead to the prompt and certain death of the crew and loss of the ship. But, due to extremely insightful prompt action on the part of the crew, and the dedicated work of tens of thousands of engineers within NASA, the crew just barely survived.

        The case mentioned above of describing the futility of noticing that the welds had failed on a 747's wing spars is incorrect, and demonstrated by a classic case. A test pilot was flying a n early Czech aerobatic monoplane, and the right wing started to fold up because the main wing spar had failed. Now, there was no checklist item for 'spar failure recovery', it is assumed that that is one of those things that cause planes to invariably crash.

        What the pilot did was immediately roll the plane inverted. With the loads in the other direction, the spar held. Obviously you can't land the plane inverted, so he held it inverted until he was just over the runway, then rolled the plane upright, and landed just as the wing was folding up.

        Inspect! Information is almost always better than no information. It's really important.

        thad
    • It disintegrated upon re-entry. In other words, it broke apart. No explosion involved (except for stored fuel *after* the fact).

      Explosion means a sudden release of contained energy or forces. A crack in the wing joint/missing tile/exposed interior parts/systems caused the disintegration due to heat/stress that results from re-entry forces.
  • by Mr. Foogle (253554) <brian@dunbar.gmail@com> on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:56AM (#5759286) Homepage
    "The USA has been flying a fleet of twenty-year-old X-planes, and we're running out. Half the people I know have been trying for all their lives to build a better rocket ship. I can't find the energy to be enraged."

    -Larry Niven

    • by ChuckDivine (221595) <charles.j.divine@gmail.com> on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:33AM (#5759514) Homepage
      "The USA has been flying a fleet of twenty-year-old X-planes, and we're running out. Half the people I know have been trying for all their lives to build a better rocket ship. I can't find the energy to be enraged." -Larry Niven

      This begins to address the real problem. The space shuttle was sold as "routine access to space." It isn't. It's a routinely operated experimental vehicle. That's not good. Back in the 1940s we didn't build Bell X-1s for the Air Force. We used what we learned from the X-1 to build production jet aircraft.

      Official attempts to build better rockets (NASP, X-33) have failed to produce even flyable vehicles. Currently a considerable number of people have given up hope that the aerospace establishment will eventually come up with a vehicle that actually gives us routine access to space. I believe Larry's friend and coauthor Jerry Pournelle is one of them.

      People have noted that real innovation in software comes from academia and small companies. Microsoft talks about innovation, but doesn't really deliver.

      In the aerospace field, however, a healthy culture of small companies and independent academic research hasn't begun to exist until recently. And NASA's experiments turn into expensive failures. What's worse is the establishment tends to inadvertently suppress research by people other than itself.

      • Oh, there's no doubt that x-33 would have flown.
        It would even have launched!
        But the problem is - in the effort to make it an economical vehicle, they opted to use an oddly-shaped carbon-fiber fuel tank, which could not stand the pressure it was designed to withstand.

        Had they used an aluminium, or stainless steel tank, it would have easily worked, but the payload would have been cut roughly in half.
        Or had they used a more symetrical shape, the carbon-fiber tank would have worked, but there would not have be
  • by Pop n' Fresh (411094) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:57AM (#5759291)
    I sure am glad we're spending 50 million dollars to find out why an old, damaged spacecraft exploded, killing several people who knew what they were doing, and only 9 million to find out how our government's inability to communicate with itself allowed 9/11 to happen. Our government sure does have its priorities in order.
  • Band-aid (Score:3, Interesting)

    by avandesande (143899) on Friday April 18, 2003 @10:58AM (#5759299) Journal
    They don't need to check the wings better, they need to be 'on their feet' when there is and anomoly during lunch, and respond intelligently.
  • by sockit2me9000 (589601) on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:01AM (#5759315)
    ... and that is the space shuttle program itself. Too many variables, too inefficient and too easy to break. What is really needed is a fundamental rethinking of the space program. The shuttle is still useful as a "space truck", perhaps. But to use it to just jet people into space for scientific experiments is a huge waste of resources. They need something smaller, lighter, safer, and easier to maintain. NASA is one major accident away from getting its program sacked completely. The shuttle it a ticking time bomb.
  • Safer space flight (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tomster (5075) on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:24AM (#5759448) Homepage Journal
    Both Challenger nor Columbia were caused by human error. In Challenger's case, the politicians/managers made the decision to go despite warnings from the engineers. In Columbia's case, they had the opportunity to take pictures of the shuttle in orbit, per suggestions by the engineers, but decided not to do so. (What they could have done to save the crew is a separate topic.)

    So when we talk about the dangers of space flight, or how unreliable the shuttle fleet is, let's not forget how much of an element human decision-making is.

    -Thomas
    • by badasscat (563442) <basscadet75@@@yahoo...com> on Friday April 18, 2003 @11:47AM (#5759605)
      Both Challenger nor Columbia were caused by human error. In Challenger's case, the politicians/managers made the decision to go despite warnings from the engineers. In Columbia's case, they had the opportunity to take pictures of the shuttle in orbit, per suggestions by the engineers, but decided not to do so. (What they could have done to save the crew is a separate topic.)

      No, it's not a separate topic, especially since you use the lack of cameras as a "cause" of the accident. People need to use their heads before making statements like this. What, exactly, would have taking pictures of the shuttle actually accomplished in this case? How was not taking pictures in any way contributory to the accident? The recommendation is for *future* space flights - pictures of Columbia while in space would have accomplished nothing but satisfying the morbid curiosity of people like you after the fact.

      If there was damage to the leading edge of the wing from launch, Columbia was doomed, plain and simple. I don't see how having pictures confirming that ahead of time is going to make anybody feel any better about it. Great, so now the astronauts know they're going to die. How fun for them and for us. It would have been like Apollo 13 all over again, only this time without the happy ending.

      It's been firmly established that there was no way to save these astronauts once they were up there. They did not have enough fuel to reach the ISS. There was not enough time to rush another shuttle up to rescue them before their food and water ran out - not even ignoring all safety rules and risking two accidents for the price of one.

      Cameras may help troubleshoot and solve problems on future shuttle flights. Eventually, it will likely seem ridiculous that we don't now have exterior cameras covering all surfaces of our spacecraft, and the ability to film them from satellites as well. But on this particular flight, there is nothing anybody could have done to save these astronauts once they were up there, camera or no camera. The only helpful thing having pictures would have done would be in helping determine the cause of the accident afterwards - but we know there was a breach in the wing without them, so even that point is moot.
      • If the Apollo team had had your attitude, the Apollo 13 capsule would have re-entered the Earth's atmosphere with three dead astronauts. Fortunately, they had a "can-do" attitude.
        • by crawling_chaos (23007) on Friday April 18, 2003 @12:19PM (#5759850) Homepage
          The Apollo team did have his attitude. Read up on the lightning strike during the launch of Apollo 12 and the descision to go ahead with the mission. There was a pretty good chance that the parachute pyros had been fried by the lightning, but there was no way to inspect them, and no way to fix them even if they were fried. There also was no spacecraft that could be sent up for a rescue mission before 12 would have run out of supplies. Mission Control decided to send them on to the Moon, since they'd be just as dead if they brought them back immediately.
      • No, it's not a separate topic, especially since you use the lack of cameras as a "cause" of the accident. People need to use their heads before making statements like this. What, exactly, would have taking pictures of the shuttle actually accomplished in this case? How was not taking pictures in any way contributory to the accident?

        This has been discussed many times, where were you? There are things that could have been attempted if it was known the wing had a big hole in it. For example, the attitude o
      • It has not been firmly established that there was no way to save the astronauts.

        I'm sure that if one had looked at the Apollo 13 accident ahead of time, one would have thought that there was no way to save them, yet it is amazing what the human mind can do with unlimited money when human lives and political capital are at risk.

        Spacewalks could have happened - perhaps not the kind that NASA usually does - tiles could have been torn off less vulnerable areas, some equivalent of duct tape could have been fou
      • I think you underestimate the motivation people would have experienced if they'd known the shuttle was damaged. For starters, I bet the Russians could have gotten a Progress up to dock with the shuttle. Somebody could have figured out way either to keep the thing supplied long enough for rescue, or to fuel the thing so it could rendezvous with the station. Apollo-13 was rescued with duct tape, ingenuity, and the raw instinct for survival. Never underestimate that last one.

    • by enkidu (13673)
      Maybe a link (or several links) in each chain was human error, but to place the blame for each entire accident on those two decisions is bullshit. Regarding the Challenger accident, if they hadn't had to build the booster rockets in sections for political reasons, there never would have been any O-rings to start with. Oh, and if they had actually sat down and figured out the actual engineering costs of using liquid hydrogen, they would not have needed the damn boosters in the first place. The Challenger ac
      • The proximate cause for each accident was human decision-making. Yes, there are engineering weaknesses in the shuttle. There are also engineering weaknesses in my car. That doesn't mean the car and I share blame if I take a corner too fast.
  • No doubt the plan is going to be to pay Bechtel and MortonThiokol a few billion to redesign and upgrade the whole bloody shuttle.
    (The Bechtel crack is a response to the free ride the Bush administration just gave Bechtel in Iraq)
  • One question I have about the proposed visual checks is whether or not they will be using infrared thermography or just plain visible spectrum checks once the shuttle is in orbit... IR thermography allows non-destructive detection of sub-surface cracks and other imperfections that visible analysis cannot show, but I rarely (if ever) hear it mentioned as a possible means of integrity verification. Does anyone know what NASA would intend on using in this situation?
  • So if you're wondering why the CAIB said nothing about the foam impact, that's why. And when you hear O'keefe say "no show-stoppers" he means they haven't discovered any fundamental design flaws.

    The suggestion for better inspections of the wings' leading edge is because the CAIB has found the present methods inadequate. And they are, the tiles don't get near enough respect. Just because it's got no moving parts, and is essentially just a bunch of dumb bricks doesn't mean the thermal protection system is
  • NASA Administrator O'Keefe seems optimistic that they will be able to return the shuttle fleet to flight by the end of the year since there has been no show-stopping problems which have been discovered during the investigation.

    In other words, they can't really do anything to prevent this from happening again.

    Note that even though they plan to use military spysats to examine the shuttle after launch, they can't do anything about damage unless they:

    1. launch into an orbit that can dock with the space sta
  • ABC News [go.com] has an article [go.com] that discusses data from the magnetic tape of the OESS (Orbiter Experiment Support System). According to the article, the launch data show a spike in temperature just after the foam struck the leading edge of the left wing. The spike was in the area of a sensor behind one of the left wing's spars and was registered for 40 seconds. It goes on to say that this sensor would have normally shown a steady to decreasing temperature under normal conditions.
  • NASA should order some Buran shuttles from Energia. Buran is a proven design, and can lift more weight to orbit. Outsourcing the US space program for competitive reasons makes good, hard sense.

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