Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Space Science

Latest Columbia News 624

Russia is suspending its space tourist program, for fairly obvious reasons. An NYT story notes that the obsolete but reliable computers driving the shuttle are to be examined as part of the inquiry. But most interestingly, a story in Aviation Week claims that a tracking camera trained on the shuttle detected damage to the wing prior to the breakup.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Latest Columbia News

Comments Filter:
  • by levik ( 52444 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:02AM (#5250104) Homepage
    If Russia is canning space tourism, does that mean we're stuck with Lance Bass?
  • by tino_sup ( 460223 ) <tino_sup@aichohteeemayeell.com> on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:09AM (#5250141) Homepage Journal
    As with the Challenger disaster, there are many smart people trying to determine the cause of the accident. In addition to the wreckage, there are memos, notes, films, and other media to review. Investigations take time, and regardless of the desire to find an immediate smoking gun,I anticipate NASA will release an official report no sooner than may. Right now we have several media "experts" offering their opinions.
    • by kfg ( 145172 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:35AM (#5250352)
      It's interesting to read Richard's story of the investigation of the first shuttle disaster, and his realization that the process was political, not scientific.

      He had a great deal of trouble, as an official investigator, just being *allowed* to investigate, and of course to release his findings he had to engage in what amounted to guerilla tactics.

      The end fate of the Morton-Thiokol engineers who "blew the whistle" must stand as some sort of object lesson in this case as well.

      One would hope that steps are being taken to prenvent another go 'round of this shabby and shameful incident in American space history.

    • On the black-box thing...

      I found this [computerworld.com] while jobhunting; it's a rather interesting article on the data collection/transmission path for the shuttle system with some discussion on what steps may be taken to clean up/recover the 'unreliable' 32 seconds of data post-LOS (which sounds like an oxymoron, but LOS in this case [and as described bt Dittemore in various tech briefings] is Loss Of RELIABLE Signal).
    • > Right now we have several media "experts" offering their opinions.

      To amplify on the irony, these are the same media who said Reagan was dead and that Al Gore won the presidential election.

      After a national disaster, I avoid the news media, thus saving myself from the constant "we don't know anything yet, but here are a long line of pundits who are happy to guess with abandon."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:12AM (#5250164)
    "We continue to recover crew remains and we are handling that process with the utmost care, the utmost respect and dignity," said Ronald Dittemore, shuttle program manager.

    They died advancing science so we could all live better lives. Let's keep this in mind...
    • by Om242 ( 558341 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @12:34PM (#5250901)
      I concur with this sentiment.

      The moment that I heard the shuttle was lost, I immediately thought of a German by the name of Otto Lilienthal. This man, in the middle 1800s, is known as one of the first aviators. He designed gliders that he used to drop off slopes and glide for many minutes at a time. While in flight, he manuevered himself to actually control the gliders' direction

      During the time when people thought flight impossible, his conceptions and his inventions were used by the Wright Brothers and Chanute.

      From an article I found: "Lilienthal is not only one of the Father of aviation, he invented piloting, the controlling of aircraft. In any case, he was the first man to have maneuvered in flight, an "heavier than air" machine."

      The point of this post (and small history lesson) was his last words. During a glide that he had performed a hundred times, something went wrong, and he plummeted to the earth. The wounds were lethal, but on his deathbed, he uttered the words: "Opfer müssen gebracht werden!", which roughly translates to 'Sacrifices must be made.'


      P.S. To read a little about this man, go to: http://aerostories.free.fr/precurseurs/lilien/page 2.html
  • by Flamesplash ( 469287 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:12AM (#5250171) Homepage Journal
    I wonder if NASA will start making in orbit inspections of shuttles part of the flight plan. While things like this are obviously rare they are real and deadly.

    I wonder how long it would take an astronaut to correctly inspect a shuttle in orbit.
    • by Donut ( 128871 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:27AM (#5250289)
      [playing devil's advocate]

      What would be the point of inspecting the spacecraft in orbit? There is no way they can fix it in orbit, they don't have the food or water to stay up, and NASA can't send a rescue craft. If it was a ISS mission, they might stay up longer, and maybe the russians can bail them out. Columbia certainly wasn't in a position to do that.

      So, they inspect, and find out they are fuxored. What do they do? Say goodbye to their families Armegeddon style, and eat some cyanide?

      The real way to fix this is to make more infrastrucure for space travel. Have more stations, more ships, more flights. Then, if you have a problem in low orbit, you might have a chance to survive.

      [All of this logic STOLEN from Rand Simberg. [interglobal.org]. Please don't sue me!]

      • The Space station does have a Soyuz capsule for emergency escape; this could have been used to get three people back to Earth.

        It's also possible that the Russians could send up another craft pretty quicky; disposable craft take less preparation to get into orbit.
        • One of the links from a previous /. story pointed out that the Columbia was in a lower orbit than the ISS and did not have enough fuel to reach it.
          • Actually, the problem is not so much the altitude of the orbit, but its inclination. Columbia probably had enough OMS fuel to get to ISS's orbital altitude, as certainly does the Soyuz (to get "down" to the shuttle) currently docked there. Changing orbital inclination is roughly analogous to spinning up a gyroscope, and then rotating it against the gyroscopic resistance. Making a 20 or 30 degree inclination change at LEO is about as expensive in terms of energy as is the liftoff. Neither STS nor Soyuz has anywhere near the order of magnitude of orbital maneuverability to attempt this.

            Of course, there's all the other problems, such as no docking interface, whether both ships could have been configured for EVAs for an external evacuation, and that fact that the Soyuz can only seat two of the shuttle astronauts after the pilot from the ISS.

            The long and short of it is that the tolerance for fatal failure in spaceflight is razor thin, and the technical complexities involved would have prevented Bruce Willis, nay, even Tommy Lee Jones [warnerbros.com] from doing anything to save Columbia.

      • The point would be to find out what was wrong. We now have a shuttle that is destoyed and we don't know exactly why. This prevents us from fixing the other shuttles. If they did do an in orbit inspection. Found problem A. Were able to analyze it, that info would be useful in preventing the problem in future missions. They MAY have been able to use that info to help land, maybe not. But at least the info would help FUTURE missions.
    • by Graelin ( 309958 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:30AM (#5250313)
      Well, we know that an orbiter inspection was impossible in this case. If I remember correctly, the cargo bay was full leaving the manuvering arm disabled. Space walks cannot happen without that arm, or are highly discouraged, or something like that. I forget the exact wording they used.

      Also, there are no handles or other surfaces to which the astronauts could use to manuver efficient on the underside of the shuttle. For inspects to take place these would need to be added.

      Adding these handles, requiring astronauts to handle and inspect these tiles may actually introduce more variables and increase the chances of failure upon re-entry. What if a tile is damaged DUE to the inspection?

      Space Walks also take a long time, the shuttle may not be that large but to inspect it thuroughly before re-entry would add considerable resource requirements to every launch. They would either have to prepare for more time in space or cut back on the tasks to be performed for each mission. That would get costly no matter which way they go.

      I read somewhere that they use ground telescopes to inspect the shuttle as well. But that these inspections are not very good due to poor resolution, shuttle orientation and timing issues.

      This has certainly been a tragic loss. We lost 7 great people. We lost a remarkable piece of engineering. And the space agency has suffered a setback none shall forget for some time. But we must remember we call them 'heros' for a reason. These things do happen and are part of the job.
      • by enkidu ( 13673 )
        The sad thing is that they didn't even TRY to get pictures from the ground. It could have been done and yes the resolution might not have been great but it would have been an much much better than NOTHING.

        With only the launch video for information the analysis was 90% WAG (wild ass guess). At best the analysis would have consisted of: "We think the foam is this big, and since we assume the foam is this big we assume it weighs this much, and since it weighed this much, and it looks like it hit around here, so it shouldn't have caused any serious damage. And plus, it was okay the last few times this happened." If I were in charge of a no fail safe system (the exterior hull of the Shuttle) and I hear that kind of bullshit, the first words out of my mouth would be, "Clean out your desk, you're fired for incompetence." What about possible ice? Why did the foam fall off? Could it have been wet? Did they analyze the retrieved tank's foam? Did they measure the missing foam? What was the weather before launch? There were too many unknowns and more information was needed before a proper analysis could have been done. And ANY pictures would have added a whole dimension to the data available for analysis.

        Face it, they bet the shuttle on that WAG. And they lost big. This is an exact repeat of the complacency and lack of paranoia that led to the Challenger disaster. People in charge of spacecraft should be paranoid assholes who insist on things being done as perfectly as humanly possible. And "It was okay the last few times" is not a statement that people like that make.

    • Generally it takes a half hour of pre-breathe before you can start suiting up, 15 minutes to suit up, and the same when you come back in. So an hour and a half to go out and come back in minimum. After that, it depends on what you mean by "inspect" On the ground tiles are inspected by hand and by laser scanners over a period of days if not weeks. And of course its done by a team of people not by a single astronaut. A simple "walkaround" visual inspection of the type airplane pilots usually do would probably take 2-3 hours. Unfortunately this would only discover the most blatant flaws in the tiles (like a bunch missing) so it could have been done, but it would have taken up half a day or so and might or might not have round anything.
    • There was a question related to this in the initial briefing on the accident, essentially "Could you have seen a problem from outside the vehicle?" The answer was essentially that, we don't currently have the capability to do a manned space walk outside of the shuttle bay without using the shuttle's robot arm. Columbia's mission didn't include the robot arm, as it was exclusively a scientific mission. So, using our current technology, requiring in-flight inspections would mean requiring that every shuttle mission carry that arm, which might limit the usefulness of the missions.

      And on top of that, the person answering said that having an astronaut detect a flaw in the vehicle, or do an in-flight repair of the heat shield tiles was currently infeasible. So, it sounds like this sort of thing would require a load of new technology, procedure, and (for lack of a better term) gumption. If only we had the time, money, and world cooperation to make the ISS into something of an emergency shuttle repair station. Stupid worldwide economical slump....

    • They can't do it (Score:5, Informative)

      by CharlieO ( 572028 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:49AM (#5250483)
      The idea of in orbit inspections has been discussed a number of times by armchair theorists in the daily NASA briefings (I've watched them all over NASA TV now over here in the UK) - and the short answer is:
      1) They Can't Do It
      2) They Can't Fix Anything They Find

      First off to fully survey the Shuttle, and its most critical heat protection tiles, you need to go 'over the side'. Now cast your mind back over all the EVA's taken in missions so far, they have all been in the arc of the cargo bay, usually with the assistance of the remote manipulator arm (which wasn't fitted on Columbia as it wasn't needed and the weight budget was better spent on lifitng more science to orbit, which was the whol point) Going 'over the side' of the shuttle means you are out of view of the crew, and its a very dangerous thing to do. In the history of shuttle flights it has never been done, nor are there any procedures to do it as it is considered too dangerous. That is not my opinion, that is the opinion of Ron Dittmore of NASA.

      Secondly NASA believe that the wash of the gasses from the EVA system and the likelyhood of impact when attempting the manouever would do MORE damage to the tile system than the damage you were trying to attempt to survey. (Remember the underside of the shuttle is almost totally black, as is space that it hangs again - orienting yourself is going to be astonishing difficult, not accounting for the fact you're in a bulky space suit, the EVA gear and a mutlilayer filter helmet)

      Thirdly each area of tile on the shuttle is made of a different combination of material according to the heat environment it is expected to be in, each tile is near enough individual in its shape and size, each tile is shaved to fit the craft at that point, and the tile system as a whole is designed so that minor damage to the surface does not result in the loss of the whole tile, neither does the loss of a single tile result in a loss of vehicle scenario - just localised structural damage. Replaceing the tiles is not possible due to thier uniqueness - and the likely hood of repair is poor as the repair material coming loose may damage further tiles.

      Fourthly taking images of the shuttle in orbit has been tried before when they lost the drag chute door. None of the images they got in that incident, taken at great hassle, were of sufficient resolution to add anything at all to thier analysis. Given that there is no way of repairing a damaged tile, why even look for it - what are you going to do if you could see it, which you probably can't. Some people have suggested that it would allow you to fly a 'kinder' profile back into the atmosphere.

      Well Ron Dittmore reported they had considered that, trying to think about what if thier analysis of the foam impact was wrong. And the answer is that as a reusable cratf the shuttle already flies the absolute best profile it can on re-entry - it can't be bettered.

      NASA considered tile repair and under shuttle EVA's early in the program and concluded that it was near enough impossible and the effort was better spent in making the tiles stronger and more effective, and tracing the causes of debris impact and limiting thier effects.

      Effectively NASA decided that the tile system is non repairable in flight, accepted that and instead spent thier effort in making it as good as possible.

      Until now that has been good enough - on average each mission has 100 discernable impact points on the tile system and its not had any effect.

      Even now, when it looks likely that some abnormal thermal event happened in the left wing, maybe coupled with a drag event, it is by no means certain that the tile system failed. Whilst the evidence seem to suggest this is a strong possibility, to concentrate wholey on that would be to close your mind to other reasons, and for the good of the shuttle program that is not good enough. We need to know exactly what went wrong so we can move on and continue exploring space.

      The tile system was a revolutionary step change in heat protection systems, and allowed a radical change in the type of vehical that can reach orbit. In 20 years of flight it has only been improved, not bettered, and its an engineering triumph that Amercia should be proud off.

      Flying in space is real and deadly. Between them the US Shuttle System and the Russian Vostock system have had over 100 succesful launches, something of a record for space launch systems, but both have suffered a couple of failures (I forget the exact numbers for Vostock - my apologies)

      As a planet we have probably put people into orbit less than a 1000 times - despite doing it for 30+ years its still a very young technology and is not anywhere near routine.

      Speaking as one person over here in the UK that watched the dawning of a new age with the launch of Columbia, I hope we are all back up there real soon, pushing the boundaries of science, engineering and knowledge, whatever our nation.
      • This reminds me of the analysis of Apollo 12 after it was hit twice by lightning on the way to orbit. All of the electronics checked out, so they went on to the Moon. The only thing they couldn't check was whether the explosive bolts that would release the parachutes had fried, but there wasn't anything they could do about it, so they decided to not say anything to the crew about it.

        The feeling was they'd be just as dead if they brought them down immediately, so they might as well go to the Moon first.

      • Re:They can't do it (Score:5, Interesting)

        by b_pretender ( 105284 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @02:44PM (#5252177)
        One thing that I haven't read anywhere is the following:

        Why doesn't NASA consider a protective coating for the ceramic tiles. I hold a MS in Ceramics Engineering and I've held and performed demonstrations with Spaceshuttle tiles. They have a similar consistency to very dense roof insulation (coated in something hard).

        Why doesn't Nasa put some sort of protective coating (perhaps aluminum?) over all of the tiles. During reentry, the aluminum would certainly burn away, but the freshly exposed tiles would be undamaged.

        For the next flight, NASA would replate the bottom after the tiles are inspected and the shuttle would be ready to go. I feel that this would also prevent a lot of micrometeors and what not that collide with the shuttle during orbit from damaging the tiles.

        • WEll, first off, the weight of a sheet of aluminum or whatever thick enough to protect the tiles would mean leaving something else behind. Also, I'd imagine that the burnoff of this aluminum sheet would often involve the shearing off of largish pieces, which themselves could damage the tiles.
    • by Zathrus ( 232140 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:58AM (#5250554) Homepage
      I wonder if NASA will start making in orbit inspections of shuttles part of the flight plan

      Doubtful. The shuttle is not designed for this, nor are the astronauts equipped to do so.

      EVAs are limited to 8-9 hours due to oxygen issues. And it takes a long time to move around safely up there... even if you could get to the wing, you'd probably have to turn back around before looking at anything.

      Additionally, there are no repair tools available - while some caulk was designed to do tile repair early in the shuttle program, it was determined that it just didn't work well, and there was no reasonable way to apply it anyway.

      Just going to take a look could do more damage than good -- knocking a tile off during EVA would be bad. And you can't just add handholds to the exterior since they would impede reentry.

      Ground based observatories don't have a very good view - especially since the bottom of the shuttle is oriented away from the surface. There are points where it's not, obviously, and they could certainly roll during orbit to allow observation, but even then ground based observatories don't do a great job of resolving "near" objects, plus the level of detail required is inherently obscured by the atmosphere.

      Spaced based observation platforms (spy sats) could be used, but it was ineffective when they tried in 1999 with Discovery. Dunno why.

      To be coldly realistic, the cost of the inspections would likely be far greater than the return... something has gone wrong once out of over 100 flights. Add in the pre-Shuttle flights and I believe it goes up to three times out of several hundred, with only one time (Columbia) resulting in loss of life (this is in-space problems relating to reentry only - both Apollo 1 and Challenger were pre-launch issues). It's a horrible tragedy whenever something goes wrong, and we should mourn the loss of the people who died, but throwing in a bunch of regulations and pointless inspections isn't really going to help.

      We certainly need to find out what went wrong and try to prevent it in the future though -- I just don't think that orbital inspections will do any good toward this end, at least not until we have a LOT more infrastructure in orbit to deal with the eventuality.
  • by ArsSineArtificio ( 150115 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:12AM (#5250173) Homepage
    Russia is suspending its space tourist program, for fairly obvious reasons.

    It's not really obvious why they're doing it. The article implies, but doesn't state, that it's because they now need to put cargo where the third, "passenger" seat would go on a Soyuz capsule.

    Some people have suggested they're doing it because "space is now unsafe", which makes absolutely no sense.

    • It's not really obvious why they're doing it.
      Full agreement here. Anyone who gets to the point of handing over a check to pay for a trip has been fully briefed on the risks. The risks haven't changed - they are the same as they were before the Columbia failure - so why would the paying passengers change their mind?


  • by Jezza ( 39441 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:13AM (#5250176)
    It's probably overdue that the shuttle was updated, shame it takes something like this to make it happen. Personally I hope that manned space flight can continue, and get safer.

    It seems unlikely that computers were to blame for this, but the kit in the shuttle is pretty old - if we're going to ask people to risk their lives like this we must give them the best kit we can.

    I know I was shocked at the loss of the shuttle, and it should remind us of how brave these people are.
    • by Hanashi ( 93356 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:17AM (#5250203) Homepage
      In this case, a stable, well-known and quite familiar technology is "the best kit we can." If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Upgrading for the sake of getting "newer" components is more likely to cause safety hazards than leaving older, perfectly good systems in place.
    • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:21AM (#5250248) Homepage
      It seems unlikely that computers were to blame for this, but the kit in the shuttle is pretty old - if we're going to ask people to risk their lives like this we must give them the best kit we can.

      that would be suicide... The older computers running in the shuttles are rock solid, space proven, and reliable. which are very different from anything that intel or AMD makes. the older and slower computers are doing the job fine without baing overloaded or needing to read sensors any faster. Remember, this is flight control computers... I'd rather have a known 99.999999999% uptime processor that was designed in the 80's running my spacecraft or aircraft than any of this unstable junk we use today.

      outdated in the articles terms means it's nothing but a comment by an uneducated person trying to get their 15 seconds of fame.

      The Software would have a larger potential for blame... I.E. the programmer did not make klaxons go off when sensors give bad readings, or there was any instance of throwing out data.

      Until I see a report that states that the current computers on board are running at > 50% capacity and are getting near the overtaxed point then I'll believe it. until then it's fake news.

      • There are comments after this and before this that really show a total lack of comprehension when it comes to writing (near) error free code. (The parent I'm replying gets it, but doesn't really expand too much on the SW side of it)

        Just throwing in a "realtime version of Unix" because it is a "reliable and robust OS" will NOT mean the program running on it is reliable Or robust.

        When I was doing my CompSci degree 12 years ago the SW Eng Prof was on sobatical to NASA to write some new code for the attitude jets so it could dock with Russian equipment. There were about 2 or 3 PAGES of code. It took them almost a YEAR to write it and verify that it was error free. And then, when he came back he said they estimated there was still one error for every 10,000 lines of code in the space shuttle program. Not only that, it was the MOST ERROR FREE CODE ON THE PLANET. Translation: More error free than any Unix/Linux OS or program.

        And now people want to just throw in a newer chip with a newer OS?! WTF are they thinking? There isn't even any evidence that would make anyone think that the computers were to blame for the accident in the first place! Fix what isn't broken or even related to the accident... Briliant, only a clueless legislator could come up with something that stupid!

        As the parent to this post said, the chips are working fine, they are not overloaded, and the program is tried, true and tested. Don't fix what ain't broke!
  • Obvious? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by FortKnox ( 169099 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:14AM (#5250185) Homepage Journal
    Russia is suspending its space tourist program, for fairly obvious reasons

    I'm glad the airlines don't stop all planes when one crashes.
    Seriously, though, I'm almost positive that anyone that signs up to be a space tourist signs some document stating that there is a chance of death, and the russians can't be held liable.
    I don't think that its "obvious" they should stop it. Everyone is aware of the dangers of space travel. This isn't the first time an accident has happened in the space program (especially russia's).
    • Re:Obvious? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Ctrl-Z ( 28806 ) <tim@tLAPLACEimcoleman.com minus math_god> on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:56AM (#5250534) Homepage Journal

      Did you actually read the article? Or are you just making assumptions based on the synopsis, which on this site are known to be highly inaccurate?

      Quote the article: Plans to send tourists into space have been frozen by Russia after the Columbia shuttle disaster left its Soyuz capsules as the only working link between Earth and the International Space Station.

      The point is not that space is any more dangerous as a result of the Columbia disaster. Since NASA has put flights on hold, Russia needs to use more room on the Soyuz capsules to pick up the slack. That leaves less rooms for space tourists. As quoted in the article, a Russian space agency spokesman said, "Space tourism is not a priority. State interests must come first, then commercial interests."

      I know that many people on Slashdot don't actually read the articles, but it sure helps to clear up a lot of confusion.
  • by lpret ( 570480 ) <lpret42@@@hotmail...com> on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:14AM (#5250188) Homepage Journal
    Haven't yall?

    I mean, we cut back a ton of spending for some of the most dangerous quests known to man, and then we're shocked when their systems are failing on a thirty-year-old shuttle.

    What I would like to see is a new branch of the military take over the space program. Call it Space Force if you want to be cheesy, but at any rate, whenever the military gets involved in programs they get an incredible amount of financing. And for those of you who are concerned that if it becomes military we'll never see it again, think DARPA Net. The military is a great way to get things started, and then let blatant commercialism take a choke hold...
    • The design of the Shuttle was compromised [nasa.gov] by the USAF requirements for a vehicle that could be launched, orbit once and land. the problem is that the USAF launched from Vandenburg for the polar orbits, which has a lot of water in the vicinity.

      The original design that NASA were gunning for was for a vehicle that would come in steeper and then glide over a limited range to its target with two real wings. The advantage being that the vehicle would only be exposed for a short period of time to the heating effect. The shuttle would also land a lot slower with this design.

      The USAF needed a longer glide range to operate from Vandenburg, so they could always get back to land, even after a single orbit. They pressed for a delta wing which allowed them to glive for about 2,500 miles. This disadvantge is that the shuttle must fly through reentry (rather than a controlled stall, that NASA wanted). This meant that reentry took a lot longer, with much greater exposure to heat.

  • by NaugaHunter ( 639364 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:16AM (#5250197)
    The O-rings in use on the booster rockets for the Challenger (and previous shuttles) were rated for warm weather, which was acceptable since the launches were in Florida. It was a cold day when Challenger launched. The engineers warned admin that day that the boosters might fail. There had already been numerous delays, so admin launched anyway.

    Interestingly (or suspiciously?), the ethics site's page is down, but the cache is here:Roger Boisjoly on the Challenger Disaster []
  • by jdavidb ( 449077 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:16AM (#5250202) Homepage Journal

    Someone found this really cool article [fastcompany.com] about the group that writes the shuttle software. I've always admired CMM level 5, having spent my entire career at level 1. ;) I wonder if they need more coders.

    • by oni ( 41625 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:33AM (#5250340) Homepage
      The people that write the code for the Shuttle do great work, and the organization supports them. The result is software that's remarkably error-free. Like you, I admire them.

      I hate it when clueless journalists say "the computers are old" So what? It's the software that's important and the software is top notch. They seem to imply that a pentium IV would have magically saved Columbia. That just isn't true. It's like saying improved metal detectors would have prevented 9/11.

      Unless there is some added function that they could only implement only on newer hardware, I don't see why the shuttles need new computers. Naturally, these jouranlists will never ask "what additional functionality does the shuttle need that the current computers don't provide?" they aren't trying to get at the truth of an issue. they're trying to get people to watch - and the best way to do that is by stirring controversy. All it takes to do that is to say "Look! the comptuers are so old!"
      • old computers (Score:3, Insightful)

        by crow ( 16139 )
        New computers would have several advantages:

        1) They would weigh less. That is probably the most important advantage.

        2) They could do more calculations. When trying to compensate for failing parts without going off course, spinning out of control, or overstressing the failing part, additional computation power might be helpful. (I'm guessing that the software may have failed to consider that a part that is not performing upto specifications is likely to have reduced structural integrity.)
        • Re:old computers (Score:3, Insightful)

          by sconeu ( 64226 )
          Show me a rad-hardened mil-spec Pentium IV, please.
        • Re:old computers (Score:4, Insightful)

          by oni ( 41625 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @01:20PM (#5251398) Homepage
          New computers would have several advantages:

          I'm not flaming you here Crow, but I don't think you have any idea what you're talking about.

          1) They would weigh less. That is probably the most important advantage.

          how much less would they weigh and how much additional load would it allow the shuttle to carry? I think you'll find that upgrading the computers would let each astronaut take 1 extra pair of socks into orbit. So what?

          2) They could do more calculations.

          More calculation on what? Once the software has looked at all the data and made a decision, what is there left for it to do with all that processing power?

          I'm guessing that the software may have failed to consider that a part that is not performing upto specifications is likely to have reduced structural integrity.)

          Let's assume you're correct. Would a more powerful computer magically become sentient and figure that out? No. Using the same software a more powerful computer would make the same wrong decision - it would just make it a lot faster.

          Even if the software was upgraded to take into account the structural integrity of the ship, that doesn't necessarily mean a more powerful computer is required. In fact, I'm sure that one of the results of the Columbia investigation will be such changes to the software, and I'm sure that the new software will still run just fine on the current computers.

          In short, you haven't made your case.
        • Re:old computers (Score:4, Informative)

          by CharlieO ( 572028 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @01:33PM (#5251511)
          They would weigh less. That is probably the most important advantage

          But not the most important requirment. Amongst the most important requirements is that the system should be able to perform all the tasks it needs to, faultlessly and reliably.

          The shuttle avionics exist and survive in one of the harshest environments available. The suffer heavy vibration and heavy radiation compared to other avionics such as used in military jets. More modern avionics are less suited to survive either.

          Having a lighter faster computer that needs more radiation shielding to ensure reliable operation does not gain you much.

          The flight system in the shuttle was fully capable of flying the craft when it was first launched, and until proved otherwise it remains fully capable of doing the job.

          Why replace an avionics system that has returned the craft without fault over a hundred times, with one that never has? Do you have any idea the cost and development time of developing 5 multiple redundant intrinsically safe mission computers is likely to be - and is replacing a functioning avionics system at such a cost a good use of budget that could be better spent on science?

          They could do more calculations. When trying to compensate ... additional computation power might be helpful

          The limiting factor of any avionics system is the response rate of the air frame itself and then the response rate of the mechanical systems themselves - in the shuttle's case the aero surfaces and the thrusters.

          The important point of an avionics system is to keep the airframe in the zone of expected operation, you should never allow the airframe to get near the edge of the envelope where you might not be able to command it back in time.

          The most important thing here is not the raw commputational power, but rather very accurate sensors so you can detect anomolies as soon as possible, and fast control reactions so you can correct them as quickly as possible. This is true of any closed circuit negative feedback control system that tries to minimise the error between the actual state of the system and the desired state of the system. These are all around us in the traction control systems of cars, the ABS, autopilots on planes. They don't need a lot of computing power, but they do need absolute reliability.

          I'm guessing that the software may have failed to consider that a part that is not performing upto specifications is likely to have reduced structural integrity

          Software is NOT intelligent, it doesn't make considerations. Engineers and software programmers make considerations. The software will be designed to cope with all the predicted conditions. If the engineers never considered the possibility of a damaged flight surface to be likely, then they wouldn't have required the software to cope with it.

          At best you use your knowledge as an engineer and programmer to do your best that should the software experience conditions it was never desing for it does the best it can, but what "best it can" means is a decision of the humans that wrote the software.

          Personally if I'm at Mach 20 balanced on a knife edge with plasma at 2300 Celsius a few feet away in a craft that needs reactions and senses far sharper and faster than a humans can every be to keep up this delicate dance on the edge of survivablity - then I don't want that system to go all 'fuzzy logic' on me and make guesses. I want a system that is utterly reliable and predictable, and for my guys on the ground to ask it to fly an utterly predicatble route.

          What ever did happen to Columbia to the best of our knowledge the flight control system was within the range of its capability. The system would have been seeing the same readings as mission control could see in the telemetry. It was unusual in that in the final moments it was working harder than it had need to on any other flight, but according to NASA it was well within limits. It was in fact responding to the situation that the aero srufaces may not be giving it the response it needed and started to use the thrusters - an event that had been predicted, accounted for and planned for 30 years earlier when the avionics system was defined.

          The avionics on the shuttle are just as capable today as they were when it was launched, if they were not up to the job then Columbia would have not made it back the first time.
      • The US air traffic control system is still many years behind on replacing all the computers from the early 60s. They kept coming up with prototype systems with magnitudes more processing power - and magnitudes more bugs. It looks like they're finally installing stuff that mostly works; but it's around 15 years behind schedule.

        On a similar note, I know of a Fortune 500 corporation that was still running its accounting system on early-60s RCA mainframes in the mid 80s. It wasn't worth it to recreate the software - which worked fine - until financial execs who were starting to put PCs on their desks got too frustrated about not being able to access the data directly.

        You can build an airframe requiring extraordinary processing power just to keep it stable in flight - our newest fighters are of the sort. But the shuttle's not. And maybe it shouldn't be - since if it was there'd be no possibility of a human pilot subbing for a down computer. In combat, if the computer's down, the craft's toast anyway.
  • Thanks! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Matey-O ( 518004 ) <michaeljohnmiller@mSPAMsSPAMnSPAM.com> on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:17AM (#5250208) Homepage Journal
    That Aviation Week article was the best recounting I've seen yet. I get so tired of that period of time between a catastrophic event and the time real information can be disseminated. Looks like I'm not alone [kuro5hin.org]
  • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:18AM (#5250213)
    I am guessing that the general public won't get to see those Air Force images for 25 or 50 years, as releasing them would reveal the capabilities of the device/location taking them.


  • Software problems (Score:3, Interesting)

    by crow ( 16139 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:22AM (#5250257) Homepage Journal
    I'm sure they'll be looking at the computers to determine if there was a software problem. While it seems obvious that the disaster was caused by physical dammage, the flight computers could have been a major factor. They were experiencing excessive drag. The flight computers were trying to compensate for the poor performance, and in doing so may have failed to factor in that the increased drag may have indicated a weakened structure. Hence, in trying to stay on course, the flight computers may have put too much stress on the dammaged wing.

    Most likely, software changes could have bought them at most a few more irrelevant seconds, but they certainly should be looking at it in case someday those few seconds aren't so irrelvant.
  • Obvious reasons (Score:5, Informative)

    by aridhol ( 112307 ) <ka_lac@hotmail.com> on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:26AM (#5250283) Homepage Journal
    Well, the reasons for Russia to cease launching space tourists may be obvious if you know one major factor - the Soyuz is not reusable. Since the shuttle fleet is currently grounded, the Soyuz is the only link between Earth and the space station. The Russians don't want to waste a single-use mission on a tourist if they're going to run out of equipment before the reusable shuttle fleet comes back online - they want to keep them for station resupplies, crew changes, etc.
  • Obselete Computers (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dissonant7 ( 572834 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:28AM (#5250292)
    If the computer is still doing its job, then why is it obselete?

    There are also good technical reasons why NASA uses "obselete" computers on alot of their spacebound equipment. [kuro5hin.org]
  • by renehollan ( 138013 ) <rhollan AT clearwire DOT net> on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:30AM (#5250311) Homepage Journal
    A piece of the shuttle reportedly fell in Plano, TX, a suburb of Dallas (and uncomfortably close to my house in Allen, TX, which I am in the process of selling).

    It turns out that it fell through the roof of a condo complex and totally destroyed the unit owned by a friend of my wife. She believes that if she were in the place at the time, she would have been killed.

    They have hired a lawyer and are exploring their options -- most insurance policies don't cover falling objects from space.

    Yeah, I know "friend of my wife" is rather FOAFish, and I will try to get more details (and perhaps pictures) if possible.

  • Soyuz safety record (Score:5, Interesting)

    by balneary ( 56298 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:40AM (#5250397)

    Just as a point of comparison: The 1675th Soyuz launch took place recently. There have been only two fatal Soyuz accidents, both over 30 years ago. I don't think the Russians have to apologize in any way for their safety record.

    • Just as a point of comparison: The 1675th Soyuz launch took place recently.

      That would be Soyuz the launch rocket, as opposed to Soyuz the manned spacecraft. The booster is used to launch both manned and unmanned cargo. While there have been no fatalities with the capsule since the '70s, the booster crashed on launch sometime during the last year, and there were fatalities, IIRC.

  • by airrage ( 514164 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:41AM (#5250410) Homepage Journal
    Some people should never be quoted, ever:

    But at least one expert -- Richard Doherty, a consulting engineer who did research for a member of the commission that investigated the Challenger explosion -- questioned whether the computers onboard the Columbia had all the information they needed. After tiles were damaged on takeoff, Mr. Doherty said, NASA could have sent up a few changes in the software guidance program to adjust for increased drag on the left side of the craft.

    The computer did compensate for drag on the left side -- but at some point physics catches up with you -- and it simply burns up. The shuttle basically flys the stall all the way down, it's not like they can "pitch for power - throttle for altitude". This person is an idiot.
  • parachutes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by g4dget ( 579145 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @11:54AM (#5250519)
    Maybe it's time to go back to parachutes [parachutes.nl] for reentry. In fact, there are some modern attempts [spaceflightnow.com]. Those are the kinds of technologies we need for unmanned planetary probes anyway, and they are by far the most cost effective choice for sample return missions (where it may not be such a big deal if the parachutes fail).

    It seems to me that the building of winged reentry vehicles is more driven by a desire for Buck Rogers-style space adventures, not good, cost-effective engineering.

    • Wings are better (Score:3, Informative)

      by code_rage ( 130128 )
      Let's compare: with wings, the Shuttle gets relatively high L/D (lift to drag ratio) of about 3.5 if I remember correctly. Ablative reentry systems (Apollo/Soyuz/Gemini/Mercury) get L/D of about 1.

      Why this matters:1. More L/D means you can control descent rate better. You can control it somewhat by steering the Soyuz using the attitude control jets, but only to a limited degree. So the Soyuz generates about 8-9 G of acceleration during descent. The Shuttle only generates a comfortable 3-4 G.

      2. Equally important: lateral control gives the Shuttle and other lifting bodies significant crosstrack steering capability. This means that precision landing is possible, and also offers far more flexibility for contingency landings. With Soyuz/Apollo style entry, you get a large landing footprint, which is why the Russians land in the relatively empty steppes and the Apollos landed in the ocean.

      Those are the options that are available today for hypersonic reentry. Parachutes are only used for the latter portions of the descent (typically subsonic).

      The recently mothballed X-38 uses both. For the high-speed reentry, the lifting body is used to control the descent rate and to provide cross-track steering. At landing speeds, the lifting body doesn't have much lift, so a parachute is used.
  • No need for heroes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by panurge ( 573432 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @12:37PM (#5250923)
    The fact is that we are nearly 100 years after the Wright Brothers and the mechanisms for rescuing people from aircraft - all kinds of aircraft - are still very poor (except for the ejector seats for some military aircraft.) We accept that if something goes seriously wrong with virtually any kind of aircraft in the air, the occupants will get killed. In terms of aircraft disasters the Shuttle destruction was right down there with light aircraft crashes in terms of number of people killed, though not in financial damage. Far more people have been killed by systems failures in commercial aircraft, and I would be interested to know which is the safer form of transport in terms of either passenger miles or passenger hours.
    But then, whether you call it cynicism or realism, we accept a level of failure in all transport systems which is capable of killing people. We allow people to ride bicycles in motorised traffic. We allow manufacturers to build cars that are capable of traveling fast enough that a brake or steering failure can kill not only the occupants but anyone who gets in the way. We allow the construction of ships that break up in heavy seas, of railways where trains can pass red lights and crash. There is no public contract about this: we never actually get a chance to vote on the level of risk we want in our transport systems. What we do is react to disasters, and politicians have to decide based on that reaction whether to take some kind of action.
    Sometimes they do, and as a result we have anti-lock brakes, double-hulled ships, crash barriers on freeways and autoroutes, airbags, automatic train protection systems, and a host of other technologies.

    The Shuttle crews are unusual, superior human beings. But they should not need to be heroes, any more than someone who gets on a plane in LA to fly to a meeting in Tokyo is a hero.

    Because if the exploration of space is ever to become commonplace, we have to get rid of the idea that this is a dangerous enterprise for heroes. We need to follow the same rules that apply to everything else. We need to ask nasty questions like "Why can't tiles be replaced in orbit, since we have had 18 years to think about things like this?" .

    A WW1 biplane could keep flying after it had been shot full of holes, yet the Shuttle seems to have a number of extremely fragile technologies failure of any one of which could destroy it on re-entry. If that's so, why haven't we developed a better technology? Is it the mindset that needs to change as much as the design?

  • by pizzaman100 ( 588500 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @12:45PM (#5250999) Journal
    There is an article on Fox News [foxnews.com] that is blaming the disaster on the change to a more environmenntally friendly foam. Apparently until 1997 they used a freon based CFC foam that had much fewer problems.
  • Car nervous systems (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Odinson ( 4523 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @12:51PM (#5251076) Homepage Journal
    This is not a cost analisis. Just an idea.

    Perhaps I am thinking to simply, but if they did not have enough information about the state of the shuttle, isn't it time for more sensors , hense more information. Autombiles now have sensor systems as extensive as the shuttles. How about a rfid transmiter (or induction proven heat resistant equivelent) attached the back of every tile? If 30 thousand dollar cars have nervous systems equivelent to the shuttle (minus a couple of gyroscopes) isn't time for more sensors?

    What is the most expensive part on a car the motor? The computer? The transmition? The body? Antilock brakes? Nope it's the wiring harness. Perhaps the shuttle is due for a sensor upgrade. No spacewalk needed.

  • Pictures suppressed? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fishbowl ( 7759 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @02:10PM (#5251867)
    We keep hearing stories about photos that may or may not help make sense of the accident, but, the
    pictures are not shown to us. In the hours after the accident, we saw all kinds of fuzzy images, such as the still of the insulation hitting the wing, and all sorts of video of the re-entry. So why all of a sudden don't we get to see the film? What's with the guy in California who apparently gave his camera, negatives, prints (I guess it was film?) to some spooks? Why are we supposed to accept a story claiming what "high resolution tracking cameras" captured, when we aren't allowed to see these images for ourselves?
    • My colleague pointed out that suppressing the images from high resolution USAF cameras makes sense b/c the recording equipment itself is probably classified. This guy in California, I guess, didn't keep copies of anything, the media never got hold of the film, and NASA is simply not devoting as much time to publishing as investigating.
  • Humane Lie? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by kievit ( 303920 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @05:33PM (#5253585) Journal
    From the article:

    No matter what the investigations show, there are no apparent credible crew survival options for the failure Columbia experienced. With the ISS out of reach in a far different orbit, there were no credible rescue options if even if wing damage had been apparent before reentry -- which it was not.

    If, in the midst of its 16-day flight, wing damage had been found to be dire, the only potential -- but still unlikely -- option would have been the formulation over several days by Mission Control of a profile that could have, perhaps, reduced heating on the damaged wing at the expense of the other wing for an unguided reentry, with scant hope the vehicle would remain controllable to about 40,000 ft., allowing for crew bailout over an ocean.

    So, let us suppose that the conclusion of the post-launch analysis of the damage done by the foam chunk was that it was in fact fatal, with absolute certainty; what would you do when you were in a commanding position in Houston?

    Would you tell the crew: "Sorry, your spacecraft is broken, we do not see any possibility for repair so you will certainly die during reentry?" I think that would have been absolutely horrible for the astronauts.

    I don't know, but "given" the fact that nothing can be done about it anymore in such a situation, I think it would be a realistic option (after consulting silently any other appropriate authorities) to keep them and everybody else ignorant of the imminent disaster and let them have a good flight, let them enjoy it and let them die (almost) happily.

    The most serious objection I would see against the latter decision would be of religious nature: for many religions it is very important to prepare for death, say prayers and so on (sorry for my clumsy phrasing, I am not religious myself). In order to respect this, the crew should have gotten a warning somewhat longer before the expected catastrophe.

    Well, just a thought.

  • by io333 ( 574963 ) on Friday February 07, 2003 @06:06PM (#5253814)
    Let's consider some other aircraft:

    The SR-71 could do mach3.3 (2200mph), and it's titanium skin temp routinely got up to 1000F, well above the melting point of the shuttles aluminum skin. (melting point aluminum 600F, titanium 3000F).

    The exhaust outlet temp of the SR71 engines is around 3400F, so we know there are materials available for aircraft manufacture that can take some pretty high heat even when they are taking a pounding.

    The SR71 was designed long before the shuttle and flew routinely up until the 1990s without incident.

    How about the MIG-25. It can do Mach 3.3 or so also, and its airframe can withstand 25G! I don't know what the design specs were on the shuttle, but I know it never experienced more than 3 G, and I would guess that 10G would rip it apart.

    If I were going to slap a spacecraft together, I'd give it the airframe specs of a MIG-25, make it out of titanium, and instead of tiles just bolt on a piece of disposable titanium covered with teflon for a heat shield. It could probably be used a bunch of times too before it had to have a new coating put on it if the teflon coating were thick enough. Heck, there's so many new frying pan materials out there that would probably do 10 times better than teflon too.

    Such a spaceship would have weathered what destroyed the shuttle with little more than a tiny dent.

    You mean to tell me that with $500 million per FLIGHT (!) that piece of junk was all they could come up with? It was half disintegrated before it ever left the ground. Tiles so delicate you could not touch them? WTF? That's like some kind of sick joke. It's almost like they're making it up. They designed a winged aircraft that is supposed to use aerobraking for reentry and made it out of aluminum instead of titanium?

    Hell, I have a whole set of frying pans that are more advanced.

    Lots of folks are getting screwed here people: Astronauts and taxpayers to name a few.
  • by ke4roh ( 590577 ) <jimes AT hiwaay DOT net> on Friday February 07, 2003 @07:52PM (#5254547) Homepage Journal
    NASA's afternoon press conference today produced the Air Force photo [nasa.gov] and a helpful series of slides [nasa.gov] mapping the sensor failures over time.

Marvelous! The super-user's going to boot me! What a finely tuned response to the situation!