Friday, July 29, 2005

Praying for the Shuttle Crew Tonight

I'm disturbed by the reports about the space shuttle Discovery. Here's why, from ABC/AP:

SPACE CENTER, Houston Jul 29, 2005 - Space shuttle Discovery escaped damage from the potentially deadly chunk of foam that broke off from the fuel tank during liftoff, but may have been struck in the wing by a much smaller piece, NASA said Thursday.

Even if the small foam fragment did hit, engineers believe the impact caused no damage of concern, said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale.

In the past, NASA's word was enough for me. But I have two pretty bad memories of shuttle disasters, the first of which I sort of saw coming. Let me explain.

The space shuttle Challenger was originally set to launch January 25, 1986. But on January 23, the shuttle suffered its fourth one-day postponement, and the launch was pushed out to Sunday because of bad weather in Florida and at the emergency landing strip in Dakar Africa. The shuttle also has a landing strip in Spain, but the Challenger was carrying a giant communications satellite worth $100 million that was so heavy the shuttle couldn't have made it to the strip in Moron, Spain. it was described as the "largest privately owned telecommunications spacecraft ever built."

As time went on and the dust storm in Dakar was not clearing, the emergency strip of choice became one in Casablanca, Morocco. But that runway had no lights, so the flight had to be delayed so a landing could happen during daylight hours in Morocco. The Dakar strip had been an issue in the record seven delays of the previous shuttle mission, by the shuttle Columbia.

But Sunday, there was a storm in Florida, and the low clouds were set to break Monday, so the launch was rescheduled yet again.

Monday, the Challenger sat on the pad with additional problems. It had been scheduled to go up at 9:36 am Florida time. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, although the public was told "strong winds" were grounding the shuttle, in reality, a four-inch bolt on an outside Shuttle door handle was stuck, and ultimately had to be drilled off. It would have stuck out, affecting airflow. AFTER the launch time was missed, strong winds did cover the site - up to 17 miles an hour. So that became the official story.

The launch was rescheduled yet again for Tuesday. And because the shuttle tanks had already been filled, they had to be drained until just before launch the next day, which cost NASA an additional $300,000. The temperature Monday was in the low 40s, but the weather was expected to dip below freezing by Tuesday.

Monday night, the temperature in Florida had dropped to the 20s. The contractor responsible for the booster rockets, Morton Thiokol, had urged NASA to postpone the launch. Engineer Roger Boisjoly voiced concerns that in the icy conditions, the O-rings might not be sealing properly.

Tuesday morning, January 28, the launch was delayed a final time for a couple of hours due to icicles on the structure supporting the shuttle. Or so we were told. At 11:38 am Florida time, the Challenger finally lifted off the platform. 75 seconds later, the Challenger exploded in midair. The O-rings had failed, and the tank blew up, taking the shuttle out.

I was at work that morning, and we had a TV there, and I've watched launches since childhood. I was as enamored of the space missions as anyone. But that day, the world changed completely. This was the first airborne space flight disaster. Our innocence was gone. And I was so angry. I didn't know the details of the delays, but I had heard about the ice, and knew NASA was trying hard to get this shuttle up, and said to myself as I saw the explosion, if only they hadn't rushed. If only they had taken the time to be safe.

The press had made such a hero out of Christine McAuliffe. And I remember a teary Tom Brokaw talking about how he had dated the other woman on the flight, Judy Resnick, and how he had brought her beer and roses. (She didn't have much use for the roses, as I recall, but appreciated the beer.)

One can't help but wonder if the fact that President Ronald Reagan was to give the state of the union address that night had any effect on NASA's schedule. After the disaster, President Reagan postponed the state of the union speech for a week.

The next shuttle disaster occurred on February 1, 2003. This time, the star aboard was the first Israeli in space, Col. Ilan Ramon, who carried the scroll of a holocaust survivor. NASA hired extra security to protect him. A crack had been found in the plumbing, but was not deemed mission-threatening. The year before, NASA had grounded its entire shuttle fleet due to cracked fuel lines. This was nothing, in comparison.

At 10:39 am Florida time, January 16, 1986, shuttle Columbia had "a perfect launch and perfect climb into orbit, and everything is in great shape," according to Rod Navias, a spokesman at Mission Control in Houston.

But by January 23rd, Mission Control knew the shuttle had been struck by foam insulation that flew off the external fuel tank at launch. Mission control wrote the following to two of the crew members in an email:

There is one item that I would like to make you aware of for the upcoming PAO event on Blue FD 10 ... This item is not even worth mentioning other than wanting to make sure that you are not surprised by it in a question from a reporter.

During ascent at approximately 80 seconds, photo analysis shows that some debris...came loose and subsequently impacted the orbiter left wing...The impact appears to be totally on the lower surface and no particles are seen to traverse over the upper surface of the wing. Experts have reviewed the high speed photography and there is no concern for RCC or tile damage. We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.
In the movie Apollo 13, we saw how the people at NASA in those days wracked their brains and did all they could to ensure their astronauts came home alive. But for the NASA of 2003, the Houston Chronicle reported:
Even if the tiles were damaged upon liftoff, Dittemore said, there was nothing the astronauts could have done in orbit to fix them, and flight controllers could have done nothing to safely bring home a severely scarred shuttle.
On February 1, 2003, on reentry, shuttle Columbia entered that window where no contact can be made as the shuttle enters the Earth's atmosphere. Unlike all other missions, however, the shuttle never again made contact, and eventually reports of the shuttle blazing across the sky over Texas and the debris told the tragic story a second time.

So now we hear - if you read this story carefully - that foam debris appears to have again hit the wing of the shuttle. The shuttle did an "unprecedented" backflip to expose its underbelly to cameras at the International Space station, meaning, someone had cause for concern and wanted pictures of the critical heat-shielding tiles.

All we hear from NASA currently are assurances that Discovery is safe and should make it back without incident. But as you see, I've heard NASA's assurances before, and twice they were most tragically wrong.

Me, I'm going to try a little prayer in advance this time. I hope you'll join me. Our spaceworkers need all the help they can get.


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