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From the White Mountains to the stars: Part II

Twenty years ago, at this very moment, the United States space program suffered its single greatest tragedy to that date, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch.

Back in 1986, it was a tremendously exciting time here in New Hampshire. Our own Christa McAuliffe, a teacher at Concord High School, had won the role of Teacher In Space and was going up on the shuttle. School kids all across the state were excited, and classes were set aside so the students could see the launch live.

I was young, and blase, and stupid, and I skipped it. I finished up my class, went to lunch, and tried to ignore the whole thing.

Then I got the word.

I rushed back into my home room, joined my girlfriend in the back row, and stood beside her seat, my hand on her shoulder. And when they re-broadcast the moment the shuttle exploded over the Atlantic, my hand clenched down so hard on her shoulder I left bruises. I thought I had just seen seven people die. It was only later that we learned that at least some of them had survived the orbiter's shattering, only to perish when the crew cabin shattered after slamming into the ocean at about 200 miles an hour.

I remember the jokes, too. It didn't take long for the first tasteless Challenger jokes started going around. For a couple years, I greeted them all with a punch, a swat, a shove -- I didn't want to hear them. I still have that impulse.

Our statewide newspaper has several stories about Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger disaster in a special section today.

The lasting legacy of the Challenger disaster -- and, more recently, the loss of the Columbia -- was a reminder that space travel is dangerous.

There is a place for civilians in space. I hold a tremendous amount of respect for our armed services, but they can not, should not, and must not be our only representatives to the rest of the universe.

Some day, space travel and exploration will be for everyone. Leaving Earth may some day might be no more of consequence than we consider hopping on a plane and flying halfway across the country.

That day is far in the future, though. For now, two facts remain true, confirmed 20 years ago, and re-affirmed three years ago on February 1: space travel is not mundane, and it's not for wimps.

(Correction: the Challenger disaster was on January 28, not the 22nd. The newspaper choosing to observe it almost a week early threw me off. My apologies for the confusion, and my thanks to Jason for correcting me.)


Comments (15)

The shuttle program was a g... (Below threshold)
JohnAnnArbor:

The shuttle program was a gargantuan mistake from the beginning.

The shuttle program was ... (Below threshold)

The shuttle program was a gargantuan mistake from the beginning.

Well, the concept is a good one -- NASA's implementation sucks like a warehouse full of Orecks.

The Challenger disaster hap... (Below threshold)

The Challenger disaster happened on the 28th, not the 22nd.

At the time of its developm... (Below threshold)

At the time of its development, the shuttle program was perfectly reasonable, and relatively effective. Of course, its implementation was years after that aforementioned development, and here we are decades later, still using the same system.

It is not the system that is the problem - it is the iron-clad grip it has on the space program... Until we start using something else (feasible now, but not so much when it was first launched), we are going ot get nowhere in space.

I was getting ready for wor... (Below threshold)
PM:

I was getting ready for work, and watched the entire launch and explosion. I was in shock. The space program is one of the most worthwhile pursuits for humans, and I hope it continues.

At the time of its devel... (Below threshold)
JohnAnnArbor:

At the time of its development, the shuttle program was perfectly reasonable, and relatively effective.

No, it wasn't. You should see the propaganda NASA put out in the late 1970s. The shuttle would fly 60 times a year, it would have a 72-hour turnaround, by 1990 it would have flown almost 500 times, payload specialists would routinely be launched after only brief training, payload-to-orbit would be ten times less costly than any other system, etc. NASA actually told Europe not to develop their Ariane rockets, warning them that the Shuttle would make all other launch systems obsolete because of its low cost! Europe didn't listen, of course, and they were right that time.

All of it wasn't just wishful thinking. It was lies. They knew damned well there wasn't a chance in hell of getting such a complex system to be that cheap and reliable. But they lied to Congress and to America to sell the program.

And, to do it, they threw away everything we had learned from Apollo. Imagine the space station if we still had the Saturn 5 booster. Skylab was so large that astrounauts tested jet backpacks indoors! Dock two or three Skylabs together, and you've got a gigantic platform for research of all kinds, easily serviced by American or Russian capsules. Instead, we have the near-useless Tinkertoy space station with narrow compartments and limited ability to do anything but drive our flyboys insane with constant maintenance.

And it was inherently unsafe! The capsule has the escape tower to loft it away during ascent problems, and re-entry is only dependendt on hitting the atmosphere at the right angle--no tiles to fall off, no precise landing patterns required, no escape-proof launch like the Shuttle.

Hmmm.1. NASA has t... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

1. NASA has to go.

2. The Space Shuttle has to go.

3. The Space Shuttle was a stupid idea. The reason why it's so bloody expensive to operate is because they have to effectively tear it apart and rebuild it after each launch. Which is more expensive than just building a single-use vehicle.

4. The ISS is a stupid idea.

5. The only worthwhile thing the ISS has done is give Russia the opportunity to make less than $100 million in tourist fees while costing American taxpayers over $1 trillion dollars in construction and support costs.

6. One big problem is that NASA is vulnerable to PC and enviro-weenee bullcrap. There have been a multitude of changes wrought in the Shuttle program and many of them were because of environmentalists objecting to the use of this chemical or that.

while costing American t... (Below threshold)
JohnAnnArbor:

while costing American taxpayers over $1 trillion dollars in construction and support costs.

It hasn't cost THAT much. More like several tens of billions. NASA's budget is about one-half of 1% of the federal budget.

One big problem is that NASA is vulnerable to PC and enviro-weenee bullcrap. There have been a multitude of changes wrought in the Shuttle program and many of them were because of environmentalists objecting to the use of this chemical or that.

100% true. The o-rings originally used with the shuttle solid boosters worked down at cold temperatures, but used some asbestos. They replaced them with inferior o-rings, and seven astronauts died. The foam used to be applied to the shuttle tank's exterior with Freon or a related compound. They now use something much less effective (but not ozone-depleting!), and killed seven more astronauts.

I remember challenger-I was... (Below threshold)
Just Me:

I remember challenger-I was in school, and we watched the launch live, we saw it blow up, and I remember watching over and over again the rest of the day the shuttle blow up. It is one of those images I won't forget.

You should see the propa... (Below threshold)

You should see the propaganda NASA put out in the late 1970s. The shuttle would fly 60 times a year, it would have a 72-hour turnaround, by 1990 it would have flown almost 500 times, payload specialists would routinely be launched after only brief training, payload-to-orbit would be ten times less costly than any other system, etc.

And if NASA could have made it work, it would have been beautiful. Unfortunately, NASA had an image from the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo years as a can-do agency, something it had ceased to be.

I'm right with those saying we need to get rid of the space shuttle and NASA -- but the future does lie with reusable spacecraft. Developed, built and operated by the private sector.

NASA blew a good idea.

NASA blew a good idea.</... (Below threshold)
JohnAnnArbor:

NASA blew a good idea.

It was a good idea, but the technology wasn't there yet. And once they saw that, they should have backed off and reassessed their approach. They never did.

You know those big, heavy wings aren't really necessary. Much smaller wings would have worked, except the military wanted more performance on re-entry (more flexibility in landing strip once re-entry begins). That was another problem: the shuttle was supposed to be a military vehicle as well. Discovery was supposed to be the military shuttle, based out of Vandenburg Air Force Base. Some paintings even show that shuttle in Air Force colors. Trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for disaster.

Yes, it's just awful how th... (Below threshold)
Chris:

Yes, it's just awful how those enviro-weenies killed the astronauts. Because you know, if you can't make o-rings that work, you just have to use ones that don't work. I mean, what other choice do you have? Give me a break.

The problem with the shuttl... (Below threshold)
Jay:

The problem with the shuttle - ignoring the fact that the government is doing space being an overriding problem - is that it's an amalgamation of incompatible goals rolled into a vehicle format that can't safely or efficiently support all of them.

Is it a truck or a passenger car? Why yes, yes it is. A shuttle-like system for passengers and minimal supporting cargo only, or a variant reusable like the ones finally getting off the ground commercially, is viable if it's not being designed also to do the massive cargo flinging job of a Big Dumb Booster. Separately you explore alternatives to the BDB as mass haulers, but you don't make them the major ride for the folks commuting to orbit. Who knows; maybe the efficient heavy lifter would be a massive lighter than air craft for the first stage, launching the rest of the way from miles high. Maybe nothing will ever be better than a massive, unmanned boost to orbit in a traditional rocket.

Whatever; there's a distinction between getting cargo to orbit and getting people to orbit. There's value in simplicity, and in making sure you get your money's worth in return for giving up any simplicity. The shuttle combined functions in the worst and most complex way.

Ultimately all because the government was doing space and the shuttle was a politically motivated and expedient design.

Yes, it's just awful how... (Below threshold)
JohnAnnArbor:

Yes, it's just awful how those enviro-weenies killed the astronauts. Because you know, if you can't make o-rings that work, you just have to use ones that don't work. I mean, what other choice do you have?

In a normal world, you'd use the o-rings with the asbestos, because no normal person would be worried about asbestos in such a high-risk application. But OSHA and environmental rules are often irrational and fail to give exceptions for cases like this. (NASA's at fault for not fighting for the exceptions, too.) But blaming the engineers, like you do, is the typical reaction of managers and environmentalists. Engineers have to deal with reality, something managers and environmentalists are unfamiliar with.

"Roger. Go with throttle-u... (Below threshold)

"Roger. Go with throttle-up."

*tears flow*

Everytime I hear the words.




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