Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Can you believe that another January 28 is upon us?

This year I am thinking about a new era for the US government— especially with respect to one of my favorite government agencies, NASA. Our friends in the spaceflight industry have been spooked by the new President's lack of a clear position on funding for NASA, and Obama has freaked everyone out a couple of times by, for example, suggesting that the moon-to-Mars project could be pushed back five years in order to free up money for troubled public schools and asking how much would be saved by canceling the Ares 1 project altogether. The verbs are important here: he is not "announcing" or "demanding," but "suggesting" and "asking." I think Obama is testing the waters, trying to figure out whether we the people who elected him would like to see expensive space projects canceled in a show of frugality, or whether we want to see money spent that will create jobs and build pride in the nation. And this "pride in the nation" thing is not an abstract concept I'm throwing about— the United States has achieved more in spaceflight than any other country, and with VERY few resources—we are taking about half of one percent of the federal budget. And don't let the false either-or about spaceflight vs. school funding scare you, either. For instance, we could SPEND MONEY ON BOTH. We have the money to spend.

Last week, everyone I knew was fired up by an inauguration in a way that I have never seen before in my life. Even those who are completely cynical about politics and the federal government are peeking out of their irony caves to sniff the air, and scholars, they are picking up the scent of hope. Be the Change? Yes We Can? These should sound cheesy, but they don't, because they are delivered with sincerity and because those messages are badly needed right now. President Obama: now is a great time to show the world that our government respects SCIENCE once again. Now is a great time to spend money that will create and maintain jobs in many fields in many states, and now is definitely a great time to give us all something uniquely American to be proud of.

Most of the Challenger astronauts stated at one time or another that, should they die in an accident on a flight, they would want spaceflight to go on. So today, with this in mind, I'm going to use the swanky new contact tools on to share my views on this.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Columbia Accident Report

This is more interesting than I thought it would be.

The language has a strange combination of bluntness and evasiveness that readers of the Kerwin Report on Challenger will find eerily familiar. Readers of The Time It Takes to Fall will remember that Dr. Kerwin examined the wreckage of Challenger's crew cabin and the crews' remains in order to speculate on the possible causes of the crew's deaths. Before this report was released, everyone assumed that the astronauts had died instantly at the moment of the explosion, but the Kerwin report exposed the fact that they (probably) survived the explosion and (probably) were still alive when the crew cabin impacted the surface of the ocean. The suggestion that the crew all blacked out instantly from depressurization is, while comforting, far from certain—the report includes this disturbing passage (actually a bullet point, because NASA loves the bullet points):
  • The crew seats and restraint harnesses showed patterns of failure which demonstrates that all the seats were in place and occupied at water impact with all harnesses locked. This would likely be the case had rapid loss of consciousness occurred, but it does not constitute proof.
The new Columbia report reflects the same fascination with consciousness or lack thereof; once again we are told that the crew blacked out when the cabin depressurized, possibly sparing them the suffering of being thrown about in the crew cabin, exposed to heat or cold, and knowing what was to occur. Students of Challenger can be forgiven for being skeptical about this comforting possibility. What went wrong with Columbia probably developed gradually (re-entry is a very slow process) and it's hard to imagine that the crew somehow escaped understanding what was going wrong.

In DailyTech, which you might have missed if you aren't an enormous geek, a debate emerged in the Comments area over the funds and effort expended on this study. Many readers felt that there's no point in pinpointing exactly what went wrong and why. These readers especially questioned the Report's deep interest in the crew's pressure suits and restraint harnesses, both of which seemed to have failed badly. Nothing to be gained by this further information, these readers say, and some go a step further to speculate that this report is timed to make NASA look bad just as Obama takes office in order to justify his slashing of their budget. (Question to DailyTech conspiracy theorists: wait, why is NASA releasing this report to justify their own budget slashing? Please advise.)

To me, the reason the expense and effort are justified seems obvious. But I'll let N. Wayne Hale, Jr., a former head of the shuttle program, answer for me. He said in the Times:

“I call on spacecraft designers from all the other nations of the world, as well as the commercial and personal spacecraft designers here at home, to read this report and apply these lessons which have been paid for so dearly.”

THAT'S why.