Member Discussion

Off-Topic: The Challenger Disaster - Richard Feynman Quote - And More

""For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." Richard Feynman

I just watched the documentary/drama called "The Challenger Disaster". Physicist Richard Feynman made a few physics points that opened my eyes. Points and problem solving that we could use in various parts of our industry. I recommend this movie.

The Challenger disaster, as well as the Columbia disaster were the primary impetuses for my total loss of faith in NASA. Although I still firmly believe the human race needs to find ways to exploit space and settle on other worlds (assuring survival of the species in the event of a planet-wide catastrophe), I now follow private enterprise much more closely, like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Armadillo Aerospace, Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic.

Related, and also recommended if you can spare the 20 minutes:

Major Malfunction: Lessons from Challenger from Retro Report on Vimeo.

Thanks for sharing. That was a good short documentary!

I noticed at the end, they stated that this managerial style of NASA, during the Columbia and Challenger disasters, is very much what it is like in corporate America.

Not mentioned on the program were the series of impediments on the Shuttle placed by the Nixon administration and congress.

The original design did not call for SRB's. It called for a near-totally reuseable spaceflight system using SSME's (Space Shuttle Main Engines) in their place. The idea was that liquid-fueled engines were cheaper to operate and provided better performance. The OMB (Office of Management and Budget) pressed NASA to use SRB's due to their cheaper cost to develop despite their higher flight costs and environmental impact (SSME's burn liquid hydrogen with liquid oxygen whereas SRB's used aluminum powder (fuel), ammonium perchlorate (oxidizer), iron oxidized powder (catalyst) polybutadiene acrylic acid acrylonitrile (binder) and an epoxy curing agent.

Burning liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (O2) produces H2O (water) while burning the fuels in an SRB creates hydrogen chloride - which reacts with the atmosphere to produce chlorine, nitric oxide - which may convert in the air to nitric acid and cause acid rain, carbon monoxide, water and aluminum oxide. In fact, the aluminum oxide burned by the SRB's was more hazardous than you might think:

"NASA tells visitors attending Shuttle launches. . . that a powdery residue from the exhaust plumes could be deposited up to 10 kilometers from the launch pad . . . can irritate eyes and respiratory tracks . . . even damage the finish on your car"

The DoD also had a negative hand in the design process. Due to budget restrictions placed on NASA by the politicians (the same ones who cancelled continuing Apollo missions that would have had a space station long before the ISS and even settlements on The Moon and Mars long before now), the DoD's committment to use the Shuttle was enlisted to help pay for development and operating costs. The DoD and the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) gained primary control over the design process. For example, NASA planned a 40 feet-long and 12 feet-wide cargo bay, but NRO specified a 60 feet by 15 feet bay because it expected future intelligence satellites to become larger.

The Air Force also gained the equivalent of use of one of the shuttles for free despite not paying for the shuttle's development or construction. In exchange for the NASA concessions, the Air Force testified to the Senate Space Committee on the shuttle's behalf in March 1971.

The tiles used to cover the Shuttle were another example of "penny-wise, pound-foolish". There were other proposals for thermal protection systems but the tiles were chosen due to lower development costs. They were problematic from the very beginning - requiring up to a week for one worker to install one tile. They were brittle and could easily be crushed in ones hand. NASA also didn't foresee the amount of tile damage that would happen on each mission so a lot of turnaround time was wasted replacing tiles.

In the end, the Shuttle was basically obsolete by the time it was ready to fly. Onboard computers were so slow (based on 8088 and 80386 processors), that the astronauts took laptops with them to handle data. There was little attempt to incorporate COTS components so the Shuttle was a fine example of government waste. It's actually rather surprising the Shuttles were able to fly 133 successful missions (plus Challenger and Columbia) over 30 years.

NASA's goal of "a launch a month" was never realized, primarily due to underestimating the complexity of the vehicles and their turnaround time. NASA also never achieved the goal of lowering the cost of space launches - on average, each launch of the Space Shuttle cost a staggering $1.5 Billion with a "B" when you include development and other costs, although NASA estimated each individual launch cost approximately $450 Million.

Actually, liquid oxygen is called LOX and no, you don't put it on bagels ;-)

Onboard computers and laptop thing surprises me a little. You would think they would have ripped the old out.

Actually, not that surpising. All components of space hardware must be rigorously tested and certified and "hardened" against radiation. Programs that work on 8088-based computers would also have to be thoroughly tested - at great cost. I assume the cost was prohibitive since the original equipment obviously functioned for the purposes intended. Laptops were used by the astronauts for non-mission-critical functions, like gathering science data and personal use.

Still, it shows that NASA was particularly slow to adopt new technology despite their reputation for being "state of the art". A good reason to look more closely at private space ventures, who tend to be more "nimble".

The only thing about private space ventures is that they will charge me for my suitcase and the person in front of me will recline their seat into my knees. I had neither problem aboard a government bird even though my backrest was a cargo net:)


Seriously, there are potentially exciting things on the horizon for space enthusiasts - just probably not from NASA. Its glory days are long gone!

Check out Scaled Composites, aka Virgin Galactic, who plans to start sending civilians into space (barely - 60 miles up) in the next year or two. Check out Bigelow Aerospace, who plans to start building and launching inflatable habitats for science experiments, etc. - with the eventual goal of building a "floating hotel" in orbit.

SpaceX just revealed their new Dragon capsule - similar to the one currently delivering supplies to the ISS (and the only one capable of returning things to Earth). It will also be fully reusable and able to land with rocket power on land, instead of splashing down in water.

They are also getting ready to test-fly their larger Falcon Heavy launcher - the most powerful rocket since the Saturn 5 moon launcher and capable of lifting nearly 117,000 lbs to LEO (low earth orbit) and sending over 29,000 lbs to Mars. As a comparison, the Space Shuttle could only lift about 1/2 as much weight at around 4x the cost per launch.

SpaceX also plans to make Dragon and their launchers human-rated, which means they may well be the first U.S.-based entity to deliver and return astronauts to/from ISS since the Shuttle fleet was retired (we use Russia now, ugh!) They also eventually plan on a mission to Mars; again private-based.

Also of note is Planetary Resources, who plan on mining asteroids.