Thursday, July 28, 2005

Space Shuttle Grounded

Who exactly is in charge at NASA these days? Willy E. Coyote?

From the New York Times:

NASA suspended further flights of the space shuttle fleet on Wednesday after determining that a large piece of insulating foam had broken off the external fuel tank of the Discovery shortly after liftoff Tuesday morning, the same problem that doomed the Columbia and its seven astronauts in the last mission, two and a half years ago.

The manager of the shuttle program, William W. Parsons during a news briefing said:

"Until we fix this, we're not ready to go fly again,"

NASA Has spent the last 2 and a half years and hundreds of millions of dollars working on the foam problem. Even after identifing the area of the booster that lost the foam as a trouble area they decided not to redesign it.

"We decided it was safe to fly as is," Mr. Parsons said. "Obviously, we were wrong."

So what exactly has NASA been doing the last 2 years? Teaching the shuttle how to do backflips?

From the front page of NASA's own website:

Discovery has arrived at the International Space Station after performng an unprecedented "backflip" to allow the Station crew to photograph the Shuttle's heat shield. Shuttle astronauts will make three spacewalks as the Station is resupplied and upgraded.

Commander Eileen Collins and her six STS-114 crewmates are testing out new techniques and equipment designed to make Space Shuttles safer.

OK, the shuttle crew are testing out new techniques and equipment designed to make the shuttle safer. It's too bad that NASA didn't bother to fix the known existing problems.

Apparently no one at NASA read the Columbia Accident Investigation Report You can download it here.

I warn you this report is 341 pages and much of it is rather dry. I tried to read major portions of this report right after it was released in August of 2003. Chapter three is interesting reading if you're aa engineer, or having trouble sleeping. For most folks the executive summary on page 9 will cover most of what you need to know.

The physical cause of the loss of Columbia and its crew was a breach in the Thermal Protection System on the leading edge of the left wing, caused by a piece of insulating foam which separated from the left bipod ramp section of the External Tank at 81.7 seconds after launch, and struck the wing in the vicinity of the lower half of Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel number 8. During re-entry this breach in the Thermal Protection System allowed superheated air to penetrate
through the leading edge insulation and progressively melt the aluminum structure of the left wing, resulting in a weakening of the structure until increasing aerodynamic forces caused loss of control, failure of the wing, and break-up of the Orbiter.

OK we know that NASA didn't do much about the physical problem that caused the loss of the shuttle Columbia. But did they do anything about the culteral problems in the organization that were just as much to blame for the loss of the Columbia

Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop, including: reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices (such as testing to understand why systems were not performing in accordance with requirements); organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion; lack of integrated management across program elements; and the evolution of an informal chain of command and decision-making processes
that operated outside the organization╩╝s rules.

News Update:

NASA has just said that the backflip that allowed the space station crew to photograph the underside of the shuttle and it appears that everything looks good. Their not declaring the shuttle safe to re-enter the atmosphere yet. But ar first look, things look good. But that should have been expected. The video of the foam blowing off the booster showed it didn't hit the orbitor.

Final thought (for now):

I've been a fan/supporter of the space program since July 20th 1969. But I just don't see the current incarnation of NASA supporting a viable space program. They have lost their focus. In the 1960s NASA was a gathering of the most brilliant engineering and scientific minds available to take a man to the moon.

Now NASA seems to be focused on getting into low earth orbit and home again without losing their funding.

There are still severe problems at NASA and I'm not talking about one third of our grounded shuttle fleet sitting parked in orbit at the international space program. I'm not worried about Discovery eventually making a safe return to earth. That will happen. I'm worried about the future of our space program as a whole

On the upside - that video of the shuttle backflipping with the earth in the background is really cool.

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