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History Repeats

I know very little about what happened (even less than many of you, probably), because I just got up and heard the news. I got a phone call this morning from a friend on the east coast.

Like Challenger, this was not a survivable accident. There is no escape system in the Shuttle, for sound engineering reasons.

First my condolences to the friends and family of the crew, and to the nation of Israel, which has suffered so much during the past few years. It has to be a tremendous blow.

I hate to talk about good news/bad news in a situation like this, but let's just say that it could have been worse.

In the "it could have been worse" category, of all the vehicles to use, Columbia was the least valuable, because it was the oldest in the fleet, and the heaviest. For this reason, it was rarely used for ISS missions, because its payload capability was much less (which is why it was being used for this non-ISS mission).

Also, at least the mission was completed before it happened.

Because it was the oldest bird, if it happened as a result of a simple structural failure (e.g., keel or spar), that would have been the most likely vehicle to which it would occur. On the other hand, that would only explain it if it were a consequence of age. If it's cycle fatigue, I'd have to go look it up, but I don't know if Columbia had more flights under its belt than the rest of the fleet.


Here are the possibilities off the top of my head.

Terrorism: possible, but unlikely. If it were, it was a result of sabotage--not being shot down. It would be difficult for us to take out such a target under those conditions (though the missile defense system under test could probably do it). No one else has such a capability, as far as I know. If it were sabotage, it could have been something done to the vehicle before it left the ground, such as a pressure-sensitive detonation (e.g., something that arms itself when it goes into vacuum, and then goes off when it senses atmospheric pressure again). This seems too sophisticated for Al Qaeda. It could also be simply sawing through the wing spar before the flight, because most of the stress on that member occurs during entry.

Failure of TPS: It could be that it lost some tiles during ascent--sometimes ice falls off the ET during launch, and it could have taken some out in a critical area, perhaps along the leading edge of the wings. Since this flight didn't go to ISS, no one would have necessarily seen the damage from outside the Shuttle. This would result in burnthrough of a wing, which would quickly propagate through and then tear it off, after which the vehicle would break up from aerodynamic pressure.

I just heard the CNN announcer say that the airframe was "certified" for a hundred missions. Certification is not really the right word. "Designed to meet the requirement of" would be more accurate. Certification would imply that we had sufficient experience with such things to know that it was really capable of that, and we simply don't.

Next theory, as I already mentioned, would be structural failure due to age or cycles. I think that the primary structure is aluminum (though the spar and keel may be titanium--I don't recall for sure). I wouldn't think that this is a likely failure, but it's certainly possible.

The last one I can think of (other than alien attack), would be a loss of the attitude control system (either the flight computers, or an RCS valve stuck open, or an actuator problem on a control surface) which would result in a bad orientation, which again could cause aerodynamic breakup.

OK, one more. Somehow the hypergolics in the OMS/RCS system mixed and caused an explosion.

All of these seem unlikely, but it's probably one of them.

What does it mean for the program?

Like Challenger, it was not just a crew that "looked like America" (two women, one african american) but it also had the Israeli astronaut on board, which will have some resonance with the war.

Instead of happening just before the State of the Union, it occurred three days after. It also occurred two days before NASA's budget plans were to be announced, including a replacement, or at least backup, for the Shuttle.

The fleet will certainly be grounded until they determine what happened, just as occurred in the Challenger situation. Hopefully it won't be for almost three years. If it is, the ISS is in big trouble, and it means more money off to Russia to keep the station alive with Protons and Soyuz. The current crew can get back in the Soyuz that's up there now. They will either do that, or stay up longer, and be resupplied by the Russians.

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don't know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas--not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we're doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

Anyway, it's a good opportunity to sit back and take stock of why the hell we have a manned space program, what we're trying to accomplish, and what's the best way to accomplish it, something that we haven't done in forty years. For that reason, while the loss of the crew and their scientific results is indeed a tragedy, some good may ultimately come out of it.

I'm driving back down to LA today, but I'll have some more thoughts this evening or tomorrow, particularly as more details emerge.

[Quick update before I leave, about 9:25 AM]

Someone in the comments section asks if the vehicle will be replaced. No, that's not really possible-much of the tooling to build it is gone. It would cost many billions, and take years, and it's not really needed at the current paltry flight rate. Assuming that they have confidence to fly again after they determine the cause, they'll continue to operate with the three-vehicle fleet, until we come up with a more rational way of getting people into space, whatever that turns out to be. Unfortunately, because it's a government program, I fear that the replacement(s) won't necessarily be more rational...

[One more update at 9:49 AM PST]

Dale Amon has posted on this as well. To correct a couple of statements regarding me, however--I'm arriving in LA tonite--I'm leaving San Bruno this morning, and driving down.

And I never worked on the Shuttle directly. I worked for Rockwell, but in Downey, not Palmdale, and on advanced programs and Shuttle evolution, but not on the main Shuttle program itself.

[OK, one one more before hitting the road, at 10 AM]

Donald Sensing says in the comments:

I have read and respected this blog as long as I've been blogging. But today, Rand, I am sorry to say you blew it: ". . . but let's just say that it could have been worse" and etc.

I just don't give care about all that. This kind of "analysis" is not relevant at this point. It doesn't matter. This is a human tragedy in which seven brave men and women violently died.

The social context of these deaths, and the publicly spectacular manner of their deaths, raise the tragedy beyond the personal to a different level. This sad event is a "meta-event," whose significance is not quantitative (seven dead) but qualitative, striking close to the core of certain aspects of the American national identity. So it does not matter that Columbia was the oldest, or that its mission was completed (and the mission's cost money wasn't wasted) and all the rest. At least, it does not matter now, and it may not ever matter, even to NASA. The human scale of the tragedy far outweighs the technical scale.

Donald, thanks for the comments, but with all due respect, I disagree, and that kind of attitude is exactly why the manned space program has been such a disaster for so long. As long as we elevate the humans over the hardware, and emotions over rational discussion, we will never make significant progress in this frontier.

People die on frontiers, (and even in non-frontiers--more died in traffic accidents in the past twenty-four hours than have died in space since we first started going there) and if we can't accept that, then we have no damned business being there.

I'll expand on that in a post later this weekend. In fact, it may be the subject of a (perhaps coldhearted, to some) Fox column.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 01, 2003 08:00 AM
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Excerpt: My prayers for the families of the seven astronauts, Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, William McCool and Ilan Ramon. May they rest in peace. When Challenger blew up, I was in the 10th grade and...
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My condolences to the whole of the US and Israel.
Even if nobody else here (Sweden) has the common decency
to offer condolences I'm doing it. All of us arn't

Ursus Maritimus, usually on LGF

Posted by Ursus Maritimus at February 1, 2003 08:13 AM

Do they have any real hope of determining what really happened (barring some extraordinary circumstance)? Does the shuttle automatically send a stream of telemmetry back to mission control (which might have indications of problems at the last second)?

Posted by Matthew Picioccio at February 1, 2003 08:25 AM

Firstly, condolences to all family, and those involved with the program...

Rand, maybe this isn't a good time, but I can't help but notice that you're always downing NASA's plans for the OSP, and other launch platforms that have been proposed. Now, I would *HATE* to confuse you with American liberals (ie: ever critisizing, never proposing solutions).

I ask again: do you have any ideas for future launch platforms? I'm not trying to be facietous, I respect your knowlege on these matters, but I just haven't heard you propose anything, just critisize what *has* been proposed.

Also, any ideas from anyone about the possible outcomes from this vis a' vis NASA's future?

I sense that this may be 'crunch time' for NASA in a different way than in 1987...There's a chance, I believe, that the USA will rededicate itself to manned space flight. I believe we're starting to see this in the scientific field in general.

Anyways, it's my wedding anniversary today...and it's very sad.

Posted by Doc_Zen at February 1, 2003 08:29 AM

On, they had reported the following in their lead story about Columbia:

"On launch day, a piece of insulating foam on the external fuel tank came off during liftoff and was believed to have struck the left wing of the shuttle. Leroy Cain, the lead flight director in Mission Control, had assured reporters Friday that engineers had concluded that any damage to the wing was considered minor and posed no safety hazard."

As an engineer myself, I know how one man's "minor" can really be "major" when it comes to the laws of physics. This points towards tile damage and a subsequent TPS failure.

Posted by Rich Casebolt at February 1, 2003 08:31 AM

DocZen, I have a few ideas, but to focus on the vehicle design is to miss the point. A lot of people have a lot of good ideas, and we need to try a variety of things, as we did in the early days of aviation, to learn which is the right way.

The problem is that as long as we do it the NASA way, in which a single vehicle type is built for a single purpose, and flown rarely, we will never get out of the hole.

And yes, Rich, as early as it is now, if I had to put money on a cause, I'd say that it was damaged TPS. In a sense that's good news, at least relative to a structural failure. If it's the latter, the Shuttle could very well be out of business.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 1, 2003 08:37 AM

Another condolance from Sweden - and, as said above, we all aren't idiotarians.

Regards / GulGnu

-Stabil som fan!

Posted by GulGnu at February 1, 2003 08:39 AM

First my condolenses to the families of these Heros.

Reguarding "resonance with the war", per CBS radio apparently Israeli crew member Ilan Ramon flew in the raid of Osirak.

Posted by Vea Victis at February 1, 2003 08:42 AM

I had heard it broke up about the time the control surfaces started being used. If they had a stuck control surface this could result in a loss of control of the vehicle and the breakup of the shuttle.

I have also heard someone in California saw pieces depart from shuttle before the breakup.

Dick Swan

Posted by Richard Swan at February 1, 2003 08:45 AM

As Instapundit pointed out, there was an Indian astronaut aboard, making her second flight. This is a tragedy for that nation as well, and my condolences go out to them.

Posted by Bill Peschel at February 1, 2003 08:45 AM

Yes, it broke up on reentry right over us. There is a debris trail on the ground just south of where we live these days and several reports of buildings hit by debris (we live just north of Ft Worth) . And a number of fires reported. We didn't get up this morning to watch, so we were in bed , unlike the Challenger which I watched from my frontyyard in Florida . You've seen the video, which is as good a view as we normally have here on the ground. Apparently it was already breaking up as it came over the horizon. One bit of video shows two small objects tumbling to one side of the vehicle very early on. Was a bright clear morning.They can still see the debris trail on the weather radar, moving north over us, so it should be an eventful day. We've been told to stay indoors and call in to the sherrif with any reports of debris.

Local news is full of live interviews with folks who claim to have debris.

Posted by Gerry Parker at February 1, 2003 08:57 AM

The National Weather Service radar for Shreveport, LA here:

seems to follow the smoke and debris path of the shuttle's reentry.

Posted by Christopher Johnson at February 1, 2003 09:16 AM

My condolences to all family, and all those involved.

How fast could they bring an OPS proto-type on line if they really wanted too? I cringe at the thought but could/would they order another shuttle in the interim?

Posted by Shawn at February 1, 2003 09:22 AM

Rand, NASA is currently looking to move the tooling for the Orbiters from its present storage location in California to surplus space at the much-lower-rent Michoud Assembly Facility.

It was my understanding that this is "all" the tooling, along with the remaining structural spares.

I was surprised that *any* of it still existed, so you're probably right that not "all" of it does.

Posted by T.L. James at February 1, 2003 09:40 AM

I have read and respected this blog as long as I've been blogging. But today, Rand, I am sorry to say you blew it: ". . . but let's just say that it could have been worse" and etc.

I just don't give care about all that. This kind of "analysis" is not relevant at this point. It doesn't matter. This is a human tragedy in which seven brave men and women violently died.

The social context of these deaths, and the publicly spectacular manner of their deaths, raise the tragedy beyond the personal to a different level. This sad event is a "meta-event," whose significance is not quantitative (seven dead) but qualitative, striking close to the core of certain aspects of the American national identity. So it does not matter that Columbia was the oldest, or that its mission was completed (and the mission's cost money wasn't wasted) and all the rest. At least, it does not matter now, and it may not ever matter, even to NASA. The human scale of the tragedy far outweighs the technical scale.

Posted by Donald Sensing at February 1, 2003 09:42 AM

Donald, with respect, keep in mind that this just happened. I for one have reverted to engineering analysis as a way to get a handle on it -- the emotional impact will catch up with me later and put it in proper perspective.

The same thing happened with 9/11 -- I watched the towers burn wondering when the steel would weaken and collapse. Now all I think of are the people jumping.

Give it time. We're all kind of numb right now.

Posted by T.L. James at February 1, 2003 09:53 AM

I watched the reentry from Mojave at 05:53 PST. Although it was low on the northern horizon, I could see through the light haze an orange speck leaving a glowing ion trail. At about the time of closest approach, I saw a flare in the brightness, and a dimmer spark dropped behind and vanished over about ten seconds.

Perhaps thirty seconds later, it flared again, but no debris was visible through 10x50 binoculars. It appeared intact until I lost in the dawn glow a minute later.

I won't speculate on cause and effect, or greater meanings, I just want to get my eyewitness impression down.

Posted by Doug Jones at February 1, 2003 09:55 AM

Regarding some kind of missile attack: (No one else has such a capability, as far as I know.)

Well, for darn sure no one has a stealth capability of doing this!

Posted by at February 1, 2003 10:12 AM

Sorry, Rand, but with respect, I'm with Donald on this one. I'd worry about us as a society if we didn't "elevate humans over hardware."

There's nothing wrong with wondering about the technical aspects, but saying "it could have been worse" because the ship was old and heavy anyway strikes me has pretty horrible less than 5 hours after 7 people died.

Posted by Spoons at February 1, 2003 11:12 AM

If you can get the NASA channel the Shuttle Program Director is going to have a conference at 2:00 p.m. CT. Which is right now but it still says they are waiting for the conference to start momentarily.

I see nothing inhuman in dealing with this disaster from a technical point of view. Consider the shuttle to be another person in this situation. Try to understand that if a person is carry someone else on there shoulders and they fall down, you can't help but wonder what caused that person to faulter in there task. Columbia was worked on and touched by many people here on Earth in order to give it life. When the Shuttle was lost the 7 astronauts were regrettably lost and along with them a little bit of all the engineers and technicians that worked on Columbia was lost along with it. Therefore there are many aspects to this situation that can pain an individual for a variety of reasons.

Posted by Hefty at February 1, 2003 12:15 PM

My condolences to the family and the friends of the astronauts. My prayers go out to them.

I am sorry Rand, but I think today should be a day of reflection. And of mourning. We shall celebrate the way they lived their lives in the coming days. And We will go forward.

Because we must go forward.

Posted by anon at February 1, 2003 12:17 PM

Rand, thank you for the compliment of responding to my earlier comment. I know that there is going to be a technical investigation, and there should be, of course. Hardware does matter. I have flown in enough military aircraft to know that a lot of product improvements in them were learned at the expense of crews and passengers who died in mishaps.

But we need to grieve some now, and cope with the humanness of it all before the cold calculation of hardware analysis can even be done. Right now, listening to the engineers briefing the media, it is obvious that they are handling the human side of the tragedy with difficulty.

I am deeply saddened by the deaths of these seven brave men and women, to the point that it surprises me. Their deaths are tragic. The loss of Columbia was unfortunate, but not tragic. We can buy more spacecraft, but we can't buy these people back.

Columbia was, in the final analysis, only hardware. And we will replace it with something, and we will learn from this day how to make hardware better. And probably some future space voyagers will not die because of what will be learned in the coming investigation.

But not yet. Now is a time for us to mourn.

Posted by Donald Sensing at February 1, 2003 12:58 PM

I fear this is much the worse disaster than
the "Challenger" one, as it would be incomparably
more difficult, if not impossible, to determine with certainty the exact cause of failure.
The last time it took 3 years of shuttles grounding for NASA to get its house in order. This time it may very well be the end of the shuttle platform.
The "holier-than-though" responces are not well-thought through. If one can't keep one's emotions in check, at least don't gang up on those who try to.

Posted by Boris A.Kupershmidt at February 1, 2003 01:03 PM


I have been blogging local Houston news coverage of "Columbia Down" on Winds of Change.

Posted by Trent Telenko at February 1, 2003 01:05 PM

This is a tragedy. However, some good could come of it. If there was ever a time for those concerned about NASA's space launch capabilities to effect change, it is now. It's likely that if the administration makes any changes, it will be to accelerate the OSP program, and that would be a poor decision for many reasons. The best chance for positive change is from outside the administration - both from space advocacy groups and others. Any thoughts on the chances of "real" change occurring, and ways to contribute to it?

Posted by James at February 1, 2003 02:29 PM

Actually, the Challenger was a survivable accident. The people on that died from the fall. T

This was not survivable. Going too fast and broke up.

Though from what I've read, if the sensors on the left wing went out 5 minutes before they lost contact, that would have been a warning sign. Probably too late by then. But NASA has tendancy to be stubborn and ignoring warning signs (same thing happened with Challenger...)

Posted by Jeremy at February 1, 2003 02:57 PM

I do not doubt the saddness and tradgedy of this event, even all the way from Australia I can understand the loss of such an incident. However in the understanding that space travel represents a huge risk to ones life it should not be suprising that these things happen. Shocking (as any loss of life should be) yes but not suprising. We had a train accident here in Sydney the other day. Nine people died. It's probably not a large thing on a global scale, most people would probably not know about it. I suppose the impact is multiplied in different events, by the perceived importance of the event in which it happened. Space travel is seen as one of the pinnacles of American technology and supremacy... train travel in Australia is not.

Posted by Ants at February 1, 2003 04:01 PM

[ It's likely that if the administration makes any changes, it will be to accelerate the OSP program, and that would be a poor decision for many reasons. The best chance for positive change is from outside the administration - both from space advocacy groups and others. Any thoughts on the chances of "real" change occurring, and ways to contribute to it? ]

My suggestion is threefold:

(1) Don't abandon the ISS. However, don't take any unnecesary people along for the ride. This sounds dangerous? Space flight *is* dangerous. ... Not that different from military service. NASA and the American public are going to have to adopt a tougher, more realistic attitude about Shuttle flights and space station operations.

It's a matter of keeping manned space travel alive. We3 can't let the International Space Station and the American manned space program grind to a halt, no matter what certain NASA-hating bloggers who affect Mr. Spock-like dissociation from human sympathy would like.

If ISS is abandoned and the Shuttles are grounded permanently, it will be hard, hard, difficult to re-start manned space flight.

I don't want to hear any bullshit about any hobby, a.k.a., private, manned space vehicles
right now.

(2)Build a cargo-only Shuttle Orbiter, a Shuttle-C. This Shuttle will have no crew cabin. It will have an improved thermal protection system, as well as structural improvements.

(3) Go ahead with the new manned mini-Shuttle, a.k.a. the Orbital Space Plane. However, develop a reusable launch system for the OSP. Don't try to plop the OSP atop an expendable missile.

Unfortunately, the OSP won't be ready for launch in less than, I dunno, several years. To keep from abandoning the International Space Station, we'll have to have either some Shuttle or some Soypuz launches in the meantine.

Posted by David Davenport at February 1, 2003 04:19 PM,2933,77303,00.html


Just a little over a minute into Columbia's launch Jan. 16, a chunk of insulating foam peeled away from the external fuel tank and smacked into the ship's left wing.



From "Space Tranportation: A Systems Approach to Analysis and Design," by Walter E. Hammond, 1999, pages 207-208:


4.3.3 External Tank Development

In 1971 ( that's the age of the Shuttle system's design! ), when the decision was made to go with the parallel burn, external tank (ET) configuration, several ET technical issues were not fully anticipated. Specifically, ice formation on the ET was not anticipated to be a problem, although ice formation on cryogenic tanks had been known to result. The ET RFP [ Request For Purchase] did not require insulation for the prevention of ice, but one of the bidders did address and highlight the potential problem of ice being dislodged during ignition of the propulsion systems and during liftoff causing potential damage to the orbiter's TPS [Thermaql Protection System].

In late 1973, a realization that ice forming on the external surface of the LO2 tank could be a serious problem resulted in considerable resources being expended to address the problem. In 1974, ice and debris prevention requirrments were levied, which specified a minimum of 1 in. of spray-on foam insulation (SOFI) on the LO2 and LH2 external surfaces. The objective was to prevent the formation and shedding of ice from tank surfaces and ground systems, as well as providing thermal protection during ascent.

The Et design that evolved serves several critical functions: the tank carries about 1.6 million lb. of super cold propellants within a skin not more than one quarter inch thick. ...

Posted by David Davenport at February 1, 2003 05:38 PM

When I say that we may have to toughen up our attitude about human flight on the Shuttle or on the Space Station, here's what I mean: the public may have gotten the impression that Shuttle trips are safe, happy-go-lucky fun for everyone. That's not the case. The Shuttle system is a risky ride.

I'm not saying that NASA has misled the public about Shuttle safety. It's just a part of America's national personality to be over-optimistic about some things, such as the safety of Shuttle flights.

I hope that we don't abandon the International Space Station. If we have to continue Shuttle operations in order to keep people up there on the International Space station, I say, launch more Shuttles, even if Shuttle flights are more dangerous than we the public thought.

Is this attitude sort of grim? Yes. It's also a realistic and heroic attitude -- and that's the way manned space exploration really is.

Posted by David Davenport at February 1, 2003 05:53 PM


I don't know what perspective, if any, that the personnel on the ISS had during the descent of STS 107. If they had a clear view I have to wonder if there is any film from above that we haven't seen.

Posted by Don at February 1, 2003 06:04 PM

Sure do hope the end was instantaneous. I hate to think of them lying there in the crew compartment, buckled in their crash couches, broken bones and ruptured eardrums from the g-force, watching the heavens and earth spin for thirty minutes til they hit. God...

Posted by The Sanity Inspector at February 1, 2003 07:58 PM

Considering that the orbiter was going about mach 18 when it started coming apart, the deceleration g's would have caused almost instantaneous death.

this link has good launch footage of the ice or insulation collision with the left wing:

Posted by G.Haubold at February 1, 2003 08:32 PM

I have to agree with Rand, and disagree with Donald -- and I say that even though I've lost a friend. I met Rick Husband, Commander on this flight, back when he was assigned to the X-38 (ISS "lifeboat") project. I accepted his invitation to watch the launch of his first flight, as pilot on Discovery three years ago; I'll always remember that launch, and I'll always mourn this crew... especially Rick.

But I'm an engineer with nearly thirty years' experience at designing and testing life-support equipment, and Rick isn't the first friend I've lost to equipment failure in that time. Learning from such loss cannot be put on the back shelf until we're finished mourning; far better, I think, to use the anger which always accompanies such deaths to drive still harder to eliminate them in the future.

I knew Rick well enough to know that his own response would be to keep on moving, to keep on trying -- he wouldn't just stop because of the humanness of it all. But then, I know that he applied four times and interviewed twice before he was selected as an astronaut, after deciding in childhood that someday he would fly in space. The continued push was why he was an astronaut to begin with.

Rick wasn't a "stopping" kind of man, and I think that we would truly honor Rick Husband and the rest of the crew by pressing on, even now. That's what Rick would have done, and our essential humanness will probably be better for it.

Posted by Troy at February 2, 2003 12:46 AM

Our condolences to India, Israel and the US. We mourn with all of you over the tragic loss of human life and also believe with you that there will be many lessons learnt from all of this that will make space travel much safer.

God comfort you and grant you courage and blessing to continue in your pursuits of this frontier.

Daniel K Wentzel
South Africa

Posted by Daniel K Wentzel at February 2, 2003 04:12 AM

James wrote:
> Actually, the Challenger was a survivable accident.
> The people on that died from the fall.

Well, except that the Shuttle didn't (and couldn't, really) include (1) a design for an evacuation system that could survive the explosion of the main fuel tank during launch, and subsequent destruction of the orbiter's glide ability. In case of emergency, the orbiter is the escape vehicle, and gliding is its escape route. If an incident shears the wings off the orbiter, that's probably somewhat beyond what any reasonable design could anticipate.

Furthermore, (2) there probably is no failsafe mechanism to reliably shut off the orbiter's main engines during launch, again because "main tank explodes" is really just an unreasonable scenario to try to defend against. Engineering efforts are almost surely better spent to prevent that scenario, rather than to try to recover from it.

And even if you somehow solved both (1) and (2) -- or, if we grant the rather miraculous assumption that "main tank explodes" will solve (2) automatically, yet leave the crew still alive -- then (3) the force of the explosion may kill or otherwise incapacitate the crew. So your (1) would have to not only survive the catastrophe itself, but also function autonomously.

All of this was barely possible back in the days of capsule flights, when the crew compartment was a tiny cone at the tip of a tall cylinder, and you could cap a dumb rocket to its apex and be reasonably sure that that thrusting straight up would clear you from danger. But when we went to a reusable orbiter with a huge cargo bay, we lost that configuration. A shuttle really isn't a suitable platform for independent ejection, any more than a jet airliner is. It's not a coincidence that no jumbo jet, at any time in history, has had an ejection system capable of saving the crew or any passengers. And we lose them, too, at a low but still painful rate, and almost always with everybody on board.

Posted by Eric Wang at February 2, 2003 04:31 AM

First, let me say my heart cries for the family and friends of those brave men and women who were willing to take the risks necessary to advance our exploration into space. May God give you comfort in the long days of finding your way through these losses.
Perhaps on the surface speaking of the'it could have been worse'scenarios sounds cold and unfeeling but that is an excellent coping strategy for the grief process. Having experienced grave personal tragedy (my only child and my husband,15 months apart) there were many times the only thread that kept me hanging on was looking at a worse scenario i.e. a mother coping with a suicide, and making the realization that my burden wasn't quite as heavy as their's.
We must continue on in our space program, whatever it takes.We must learn all we can from ever attempt, both sucessful and tragic,and use that knowledge to better the human condition.
While we certainly grieve the loss of any human being the real miracle is that we have ONLY had 3 incidents in the 40+ years of the space program that cost human lives. Let us not dishonor those courageous souls who knowingly, even anxiously, put it all on the line for the greater good.

Virginia USA

Posted by T. Stephens at February 2, 2003 05:20 AM

Today in Flower, Tomorrow scattered by the wind-Such is our blossom life. How can we think its fragrance lasts forever. Good Bye Dear Columbia

Posted by Dan Steelman at February 2, 2003 05:43 AM

In reply to Richard Swan,Kalpana Chawla was Indian by birth but became an American citizen.So she is as American as any of the others.
But we Indians are proud of her and deeply mourn over the loss.

Posted by vedha at February 2, 2003 05:52 AM

You said that you thought the Orbital Space Plane (OSP) would be a step backwards. I am curious what we SHOULD pursue.

IMHO -- and I know only that airplanes have wings -- we should not stop short of a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) concept. The OSP is not SSTO, and therefore it is not conceptually very different from the existing shuttle.

Are they still testing hypersonic engines? Is SSTO completely abandoned?

To me, if we could build the SR-71 in the '60s we could build a similar orbiter in the 2000s.

Best Regards,

Posted by Joel at February 2, 2003 07:24 AM

It is truly a tragic loss.

It does appear that we had a slow burn through of the left wing- evident by the progressive loss of data from left wing systems.

However, it is also my understanding that the older shuttles made more extensive use of tiles- as the later shuttles used latger sheets that would be less prone to loss.

I do remember seeing photos of shuttles that lost tiles does not see unreasonable that a piece of insulation my of dislogded a tile or perhaps cracked one.

What could of been done? Had they inspected before reentry could a repair been done on a space walk?

During reentry could of a hard right turn protected the left wing or at least slowed the burn through (if that was the real failure)?

These will be hard questions to answer.

Posted by Steve Heckman at February 2, 2003 07:28 AM

Steve Heckman wrote:
> What could [have] been done? Had they inspected before
> reentry could a repair been done on a space walk?

Asked during NASA's press conference, answered by Ron Dittemore (, search for "repair").

QUESTION: ... was there any consideration ... that perhaps an EVA would be necessary ...

DITTEMORE: We do not have the capability to perform a space walk and do tile repair. We do not have the capability -- as you know, when we go out of the spacecraft, we operate really within the confines of the payload bay. ... We have no capability to go over the side of the vehicle and go underneath the vehicle and look for an area of distress and repair a tile.

We know we have no capability. If, for some reason, we thought we had a tile problem, the risk you take when you launch is that you may suffer a tile issue. We have no capability to repair it. All we can do is, before we launch, design robustness into the system so that a loss of some tile capability will not result in loss of crew or vehicle.

Does that answer your question? We have no capability to do that today.

QUESTION: Do you have the capability to inspect it?

DITTEMORE: There is no capability to inspect it. We are not able to look on the underside of the vehicle.

Posted by Eric Wang at February 2, 2003 08:31 AM

I did not read the entire text provided above, and apologize if this question has already been covered. Can someone provide an explanation to the following statement .. "But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards)"? Can someone explain to a space novice .. why is this a step backwards?

Posted by Kurt Bohnert at February 2, 2003 09:34 AM

Can someone explain to a space novice .. why is this a step backwards?

Briefly, because doesn't take us toward routine or affordable space operations, since such a vehicle still goes up on an expensive expendable launch system.

Posted by at February 2, 2003 10:48 AM

Having read Rand's blog and several of the negative responses I have 3 comments:

1. If you are old enough, experienced enough, and mature enough to have known of death, war, terroism, loss, natural disaster then you understand that despite the desire to insist on everyone dropping everthing and joing you in mourning that it is imperative to survival that some set of people remain with logic and begin to forge the future, to protect the right of those of us who need to mourn to do just that: to mourn. It is assuring to me that engineers, like Rand, by design or disposition are doing just that. Critical analysis is imperative to make the lives of the heroes just lost worth the loss. These were scientists and career military people. These were people who by the level of success they achieved probably did not suffer fools lightly. If there is a heaven it would seem to me that their first question at the gate is "what happened?" and "can we look at the data."

2. Many of us are reading everything we can at every site in what may be some hope of validating our sense of loss, sadness, and horror. If that is your real objective then select sites appropriately or better yet...I give you the power to recognize that what you are feeling is real, is valid, is honourable. It is more powerful than any feeling that anyone else has because it is yours. Honour this loss by howling at the moon if need be. I am.

3. Finally, I watched a CNN journalist(?) interview an engineer consultant yesterday. The consultant was trying to make the point that although there is a formal and extensive checklist process in place for launches that sometimes things are signed off as being completed when, indeed, they are not. This kind of analysis was not part of the journalist's(or the network, or the right, or the left, or whom or whatever is controlling the truth on CNN) agenda and he quickly cut off the consultant and lightly admonished him. On this blog Rand has preserved freedom of speech for those of us resonding. This no longer exists in mainstream jounalism. Thanks Rand.....

Posted by Pamela Watkins at February 2, 2003 11:57 AM

What is the operational ceiling for the B-52? You have four engine hard points on the B-52. Mount 2 or 4 modern engines on two of the hardpoints to launch the airplane and 2 or 4 high altitude engines to loft the B-52 + OSP to 100,000+ feet for launch of the OSP. Refuel the B-52 soon after launch to keep the take-off weight down.

Posted by Peter Schiavo at February 2, 2003 03:04 PM

I have a comment to make, and then I'll reread this excellent page more carefully, as I think it touches on fundamental problems, aside from our great loss, and being numb with grief myself at the moment.

I'm very interested in the concept of safety and completeness or correctness of design intent and execution. An architect, for example, would be sued out of existence if he or she built a building that performs as demonstrably poorly as the shuttle does in the course of normal operation. My feeling is the engineering process is deficient when it comes to flight parts and systems, and is just going through the motions of design, drafting, programming, change orders, testing, ISO-9001, whatever, without really getting in and rigorously posing, much less solving, the problems of manned space exploration completely. If you have any insights, please post!

"We're going to fix this problem and we going to launch shuttles again," Mr Dittemore said. BBC,

Posted by Toph at February 2, 2003 05:50 PM

Toph wrote:
> An architect, for example, would be sued out of existence
> if he or she built a building that performs as demonstrably
> poorly as the shuttle does in the course of normal operation.

Well, that's hardly a fair or reasonable comparison. Buildings experience far less extremes of stresses over their lifetimes than a space vehicle does (particularly a *reusable* vehicle). Architects don't have to design buildings to (a) survive 3000 degree heat and (b) glide. Even the Egyptians and Mayans could build stone structures that still stand after 3,000+ years.

Expand a bit to consider a broader spectrum of built things, which must withstand somewhat more demanding forces than most buildings. One vastly significant one, which we tend to take for granted, is the freeway overpass. Major cities have hundreds (thousands?) of miles of such, which provide a vital service of mobility for the people. Rarely do these ever fail, and then usually only when caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Next up the spectrum is the bridge. This is generally far more demanding than an overpass, because it usually spans something that you can't easily build on or drive over, e.g. water or a ravine. Hence, designing it to support its own weight properly demands more of a trade-off between safety and cost. (In contrast, an overpass designer can overdesign a relatively higher safety margin by adding additional support columns wherever he wants them.) Also, bridges, by their ribbon-like shape, introduce thermal expansion and aerodynamic lift issues that markedly affect their performance and lifetimes, which building designers rarely have to consider at all. So we could expect that bridges tend to fail more frequently than buildings do, which indeed seems to be the case.

The shuttle is fairly unique, and thus isn't easily addressed by the concepts of manufacturer liability. First, it's exploratory engineering at the limits of our understanding, where we simply don't understand (yet) all of the things involved. Secondly, the shuttle is not an economic success, hence its construction and funding is rather more motivated by sheer national will than the bottom line. Suing the "manufacturer" doesn't solve that problem. The purchase cost you could recover is a pittance compared to the total cost of the space program, and thus won't influence whether you could afford to continue funding it. Also, shuttles were essentially 1-shot purchases, with neither intent nor capability to produce more. Hence, there is no public interest to be served by driving a negligent manufacturer out of the market.

> My feeling is the engineering process is deficient
> when it comes to flight parts and systems ...

The only way you could really establish that is to (a) build your own shuttle, (b) fly it 200 times without incident, so that your safety record is better than NASA's, and then (c) show how your process, design, support, or operation is different from theirs. Then you could legitimately argue that you are the standard, and they are deficient compared to you.

If you don't have that kind of data to back up the claim, then your Plan B would be to identify an error in NASA's engineering. But probably the people who are best qualified to do that are the NASA engineers themselves, and to my knowledge, they have done exactly that. One legitimate concern, which is now surfacing as an issue in the investigation, is the contention by numerous NASA insiders that recent budget crunches have affected maintenance.

> solving ... the problems of manned space exploration completely ...

Sheesh. You're not asking for much, are you?

Look around the world today. Who has an operational solution that's any better than NASA's? And if the collective braintrust of the world's space agencies over the last 3+ decades has gotten us only this far, then perhaps you could assume that the problem is an inherently difficult one, which will not be solved by wistful thinking.

Posted by Eric Wang at February 3, 2003 09:57 AM

I have heard no mention of possible human error. Is this simply not a considerable cause?

Posted by PATHAS at February 3, 2003 03:32 PM

Who has an operational solution that's any better than NASA's?

Who's been funded to provide one?

The fact that NASA hasn't done better does not imply that it cannot be done better. NASA operates under significant political constraints.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 3, 2003 03:41 PM

> The fact that NASA hadn't done better does not imply
> that it cannot be done better.

True enough, and certainly this will arise as a legitimate issue of some serious soul-searching among both NASA, for its future direction, and Congress, for their funding decisions over the past few years.

Nonetheless, it does tend to imply that nobody else has had the resources, or the commitment, to try. And the point remains that there is no better solution in operation today. We may have better ideas in development for the next generation, but they've drawn heavily on the lessons we learned from the shuttle (and rightly so), and even then, they're several years away.

Exploratory science (and engineering) is never perfect. You could reasonably demand near-perfection from a mass-market commodity that has existed for decades. But to demand the same success rate from a pioneer is unrealistic. We compensate for what we don't know by overdesigning safety measures, redundant sensors, and the staff to run them 24-7 during a mission, with the unspoken understanding that sometimes all you can do is to record what went wrong, and learn the hard way from that. Space travel, even after "8 decades", is still like that today, and will probably remain in that mode for the next few decades.

Posted by Eric Wang at February 3, 2003 11:28 PM

PATHAS wrote:
> I have heard no mention of possible human error.
> Is this simply not a considerable cause?

Possible, but not likely. Both shuttles were lost during computer-controlled flight, when the human crew and ground staff are not directly involved in flight decisions. Challenger was lost due to mechanical failure (of an O-ring), which might have been averted by human alertness, but wasn't directly caused by any human. Columbia appears to have been lost from the stresses of re-entry. (Peril of the air? Certainly, of moving through it at two-digit Mach numbers.)

The one tiny comfort I take from Challenger and Columbia is that they were lost at the two most stressful phases in a shuttle flight, liftoff and re-entry, due to catastrophes that were not caused by humans, and could not have been avoided once the flight was underway. We knew even back during the shuttle design stage that re-entry would be a high-stress event, and that any kind of structural failure at this time would probably result in loss of ship and crew. That's the risk you take as an astronaut. Once re-entry begins, the crew is committed, and is essentially trapped. We don't have an ejection system that works at Mach 18 and can survive that 3000 degree heat.

My own worst-case outcome would be something like a crash during landing, due to pilot error. That would be profoundly demoralizing precisely because it would seem so banal. It happens distressingly often to normal planes, in all walks of life. More to the point, we can directly minimize that risk, by selecting good pilots, training them thoroughly, and then giving them a solid airframe. Note that once a human did take over the controls during final descent, the shuttle has a perfect 100% success rate. That suggests that the shuttle is a sound flying machine, and its crews are properly prepared. So we've covered what we can cover.

It appears that Columbia will now teach us something we didn't fully understand before about re-entry stresses. It's a hard lesson at a bitter price, but this, too, is a pioneer's fate.

Posted by Eric Wang at February 4, 2003 12:15 AM

Eric, I think the two major sources of problems with the Shuttle design are political -- mostly Congress' fault -- and NASA's own arrogance.

Congress placed performance requirements on the design which are absurd, with the military's help: having a single vehicle to do a huge range of tasks isn't the way to make a cost-effective, reliable vehicle, but that's exactly what Congress demanded. Then they proceeded to cut funding several times, just to make success less likely.

As for NASA, they have long thought they're the best and refused to listen to others, even when the others clearly have a better grip on the issues (Not Invented Here is NASA personified). And they prefer high-tech to low-tech solutions, so they're continually pushing the ragged edge of what's possible -- and they often fail to achieve success, especially since they don't supervise the contractors appropriately (a whole rant in itself).

I think it would be possible for private enterprise to produce many designs which are cheaper, safer, and more productive than the Shuttle. But NASA and the government won't let them, and furthermore they do all they can to discourge private investors from supporting such projects.

...and I think Rand has said all the above several times on this blog.

Posted by Troy at February 5, 2003 02:02 AM

People need to take a deep breath. The biggest part of this whole thing is balance. Too many people focusing on the "human" side of the argument could effectively end our push for space for years to come, we saw that happen when the Challenger broke up after launch. If too many people focus on the hardware, they'll forget that ultimately, frontiers are won or lost by the people who, knowing the risks, take them anyway.

It is a tragedy that we still go to war and lose promising young people. It is a tragedy that children are the targets of crime in a blasť world that thinks "not here, not my town." And it is a tragedy that we have lost seven brilliant people from their assorted fields of science, who knows what their lives could have meant to us?

The greatest tragedy of all would be to lose sight of the fact that these brilliant people, and their predecessors from the shuttle Challenger and other space related accidents, found the space program a worthy thing to invest their lives in.

Let's not fail them by wasting time in petty arguments. Let's do the research, test new things, weed out the failures, and make the space program better than it has ever been. We owe them no less.

If my own children were to begin a rigorous course of sciences and maths in an attempt to become the next generation of space explorers? I would cheer them on, I would buy books and provide opportunities, do everything in my power to make their dreams happen. Perhaps I, too, would mourn. But those who forge ahead have always taken the greatest risk for the sake of those who followed.

One thing we can do is recognize that we are (for the most part) the voting, tax-paying citizens who fund both the government in general and the space progam specifically. We have the power to be heard. Anyone remember a few years ago when congress almost snuck through a bill that would've put severe regulations on homeschooling? The homeschooling parents of this country shut down the capital switchboards, and not just for an hour or two either. Those of us who believe in the push for space could do the same thing if we half tried.

Posted by Kismet at February 10, 2003 09:02 PM

I agree with Kismet and many others on this Blog. We need to send an outcry to our representatives and make our voices heard. We can not afford to be set back by this. Instead, we must take advantage of it and learn from our mistakes. the important thing is not to repeat our mistakes and I think NASA's done a damn fine job of it.


Personally, I don't care how expensive the program gets, it should be funded adeqautley; no more of this cutback-BS. I know we need homeland protection, but this nonsense coming from "Mr. Daddy-can-have-my-own-war-please?" (As if filling his own pockets with the money he'll make off of his stocks in Texas crude oil industries weren't enough!) is driving me up the wall and is a sociological setback that should not happen.

Granted, there's no pleasing anyone, but there sure as hell is more useful things we can spend our government dollars on than bullying everyone into what could potentially become the next world war.

As for the Shuttle project and it's experimental status... I find it ludicris that our government does not support the kind of advancement that NASA needs to end the Space Shuttle's experimental status and make it into a safe and proven vehicle through an evolution of sorts. And damn congress for setting the obsurd standards of the shuttle program. What do these people know about rocket science anyways!?

I don't ask for a perfect mode of stellar transit right away, I only ask that the provisions for the progress towards that goal be made. Afterall, who doesn't want to see their grandchildren or great-grandchildren board a ship bound for Mars or the Moon for colonization?

Posted by NeoRaven at February 18, 2003 01:30 PM

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