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« As For The Light Posting | Main | Complex Failure Bleg »

Grounded Fleet

Just a few random thoughts before crashing.

I haven't had time to read much about the fleet grounding thing, but I've often said that when government occasionally does the right thing, it's almost always for the wrong reason. If we end up retiring the Shuttle now, it won't be because it costs too much for what it does, and soaks up a lot of money that could (at least in theory, though probably not in practice, given the way our space policy seems to work) be used for something more productive in terms of moving humanity into space. It will be because we got better cameras so that we could finally see the rain of debris that's been falling from every ET every time we fly, and we're nervous about killing astronauts (even though taking such risks is, at least in theory, part of their job description). Ignorance was bliss, at least if you make a healthy living off operating Space Shuttles.

I frankly think that it's a dumb reason, but if it happens, I also think it's a good outcome, so I won't complain too much. But here's the problem. There's an old saying about some businesses being "too big to fail" (e.g., Lockheed, various banks in the eighties, perhaps GM)--that is, the political consequences of letting them go out of business are viewed as sufficiently dire that the government will continue to prop them up, a la Weekend at Bernies, even when the carcass begins to stink. Shuttle, I'm afraid, is like that.

What I suspect is going on is that the declaration of fleet grounding is to piously show NASA's contrition over Columbia, and to demonstrate that they have a new "safety culture." What it really means is that they'll do some kind of kabuki dance to come up with another "solution" to the foam-falling-off problem, and then launch again. And when it falls off again, they'll say, "time to ground the fleet again, back to the drawing board." And then they'll do another test flight. It could plod along in this manner for years, if JSC and Huntsville are lucky, and the rest of us (those who pay taxes and care about a serious space program, anyway)...less so.

Anyway, off to bed, and (oh, joy) another airplane ride at the crack of dawn.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 28, 2005 10:44 PM
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"And then they'll do another test flight"

I watched the NASA news conference yesterday; they are still calling the Shuttle an "experimental" vehicle. Sheesh.

After a dozen... heck, even a few dozen flights over a couple of years, I can see it still being experimental. After nearly a quarter century of operation and over a hundred flights though? Give me a break.

Posted by Ed Minchau at July 29, 2005 04:00 AM

Could they go back to the old foam? I've never heard a definitive answer as to whether the old stuff had this same problem.

Posted by Michael Mealling at July 29, 2005 05:56 AM

The big pieces that have fallen off *are* old foam.

Posted by Paul Dietz at July 29, 2005 06:19 AM

How about a NASA fact sheet, Paul:

I have found nothing that backs your claim that the "old" foam was used on STS-107. The best I can say is that even the "old" foam had shedding problems (see CAIB report - History of Foam Anamolies). I'll also agree that CFC's (particularly CFC-11) are still used, just a different mixture.

You may be right that it wouldn't matter which foam mixture, it's just random chance that the debris will be big enough and hit a critical component. But the foam for STS-107 was not the same used throughout the history of the STS program.

Posted by Leland at July 29, 2005 07:32 AM


I have a question:

Why don't the implement a Project Moose type orbital bail-out system like this?

Then you have the ability to abandon ship and return to earth without a rescue craft.

Posted by Mike Puckett at July 29, 2005 07:52 AM

The problem with the argument that we can't end the space shuttle program now because we can't afford to lose the expertise, is that it would still be worthwhile to retire the program even if we kept paying all the workers their full salaries.

Posted by David Jones at July 29, 2005 08:38 AM

The problem with the argument that we can't end the space shuttle program now because we can't afford to lose the expertise, is that it would still be worthwhile to retire the program even if we kept paying all the workers their full salaries.

It also ignores the opportunity costs of having those workers waste their time on the Shuttle when they could be doing something useful.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 29, 2005 09:32 AM

But the reality is that politics is about cowardice. Opportunity cost means nothing to a politician and paying people to not work (which does seem to be a typical government program when you think about it) would result it ton's of embarrassment (yeah, it'd be Bushes fault!)

OTOH, a lot of technical workers out of jobs usually results in a lot of new technical startups in the following years.

Posted by ken anthony at July 29, 2005 09:46 PM

Why is NASA ignoring the simplest solution: go back to the original foam formula that uses CFCs? Can it possibly be that NASA is more interested in genuflecting to the Eco-Nazis than flying a safe orbiter?????

Or is this the excuse they have been looking for to get funding for a new vehicle?

I worked on the Space Station power system at a time we were proposing 20KHz AC power distribution.... As soon as the tech advocate at NASA-Lewis retired we dropped it for the DC system that is flying now, so I have seen first hand how cynical and self-serving NASA can be.

Posted by Rick T at July 31, 2005 02:11 PM


Although I don't quite agree with Paul Dietz assertions, the foam has always had problems with shedding beginning with STS-1. STS-7 even had foam shedding from the same area as STS-107.

NASA has already received an EPA waiver for CFC. If simply reverting the formula worked, it would be done. Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple.

I do wonder if Minnow Seine could help (I would think a few Cajuns would consider this).

Posted by Leland at August 1, 2005 06:57 AM

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