What Went Wrong


Here's some disturbing background to the Columbia crash, courtesy of whistleblower Don Nelson, a 36-year veteran of the space program who helped design the original shuttle. If his charges pan out, a lot of officials at NASA may soon face bad news of a different kind.

Here's Nelson's website.

Here he is two years ago, telling the AP that we'll "lose another crew someday. And we will. The warning signs are all there."

A prescient voice in the wilderness, or a fretter whose fears finally happened to come true? I don't have the engineering knowhow to say, and I invite anyone who does to post their thoughts on the comments page.

NEXT: Terror Connection?

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  1. I thought this was a particular interesting statement on Nelson’s page:

    NASA has refused to develop a escape module system for the crew in the event of catastrophe (perhaps not this one, but maybe, since have been reports a problem during take-off) because of political considerations. An escape system – with its weight – would require the replacement of the equipment to manually pilot the shuttle with lighter (and safer) computer autopilot. But NASA, which has long maintained the need for professional pilots, doesn’t want the public to realize that the shuttle can be piloted entirely by machines. Says Nelson:

    “Although, piloting is not a mandatory requirement for flight safety, it is a requirement for NASA to satisfy their internal and external political agendas. If the piloting function is removed from flight operations, it will become “painfully” evident that 17,000 people are not required to “operate” the Shuttle. It will become evident that the Space Shuttle can be operated in the commercial market and for a “profit.” … and therein lies the key factor for not having a Space Shuttle crew escape system!”

  2. It seems to me that the Space Shuttle–as miraculous as it is–ended up being a political creation rather than a technological or scientific one.

    It was sold as a one-sized fits all means of continuing manned space exploration, something that would all at once serve as an orbiting space laboratory, satellite launcher, public relations gimmick, technology incubator, and space truck to ferry astronauts from a space station.

    Unfortunately, scientific research about weightlessness would have been better served by another Skylab (or something like it) with more interior cubic footage.

    If the aim was getting astronauts into space on re-usable rockets, vertical lift rockets using enhancements on old 1960s technology would have worked fine at far lower cost. Furthermore, given the massive amount of refitting that was required for each orbiter, one questions whether the “re-usable” concept was even applicable to shuttles at all.

    If the aim was making a radical new kind of space plane, we would have been better served by building on the technology of the X-15 and other like concepts.

    Sadly, the Space Shuttle is a giant engineering compromise between all these goals, a relic of the Nixon era when NASA was going to operate on a shoestring budget in lieu of 1970s malaise and earthbound problems.

    The very design of the shuttle almost defies belief. When I was a kid I saw pictures of it and I wondered “you mean they’re actually going to FLY that THING??!!” It is far from sleek and aerodynamic and, while I am not an engineer, the bizarre fusion of the external tank, solid rocket boosters, and orbiter just seems intuitively clunky. It reminds me of a thing in search of a goal, a cart pulling a horse.

    All those points of contact between the various components are surely exposed to unimaginable stresses during launch and re-entry. The more parts, the more possible faults. The more faults in a complex system, the more fault propagation and risk of disaster.

    I definitely think that it is time to put these gloriously foolish bureaucratic creations to rest, and allow space exploration to proceed in a more goal-oriented fashion. Yeah by all means build hot spaceplanes. Make them to be space planes. Send up space labs and modules. But build them to be space labs and modules.

    Most importantly, take the shackles off private industry and allow commercial manned space flight to take off. Then watch them leave poor NASA (as much of a space enthusiast as I am–it hurts to say this) in the dust.

  3. Following up on Jonathan’s excellent post, one can be a space enthusiast without being a NASA enthusiast!

  4. As far as knowing whether the whistleblower’s comments are right or not. We don’t know what happened so we don’t know if a smaller workforce hurt or if an escape capsule would have helped any.

    As far as the weight of the escape system forcing the use of an autopilot is bunk. The two do not preclude each other. To say otherwise is nonsense.

    Dick Swan

  5. The Shuttle is absolutely a political creation, as is much of NASA. Politics made a major (though not often mentioned) contribution to the Challenger disaster. Before Challenger, the Air Force was going to have its own Shuttle flying out of Vandenberg AFB. Its solid-fuel boosters were going to be manufactured in one piece at the launch site, which would make them lighter and stronger, and they wouldn’t have the seam+gasket design that leaked and destroyed Challenger.

    If one-piece boosters are better, why did NASA choose the two-piece design, and stick with it even after Challenger? Because the two half-boosters are then small enough that they can be manufactured in another state (Utah, to be precise) and transported via rail and barge to Florida, so the money for running the Shuttle can be spread across more Congressional districts.

  6. Now Nasa is showing data that the autopilot performed a roll to the right in response to rising temperatures on the left wing just as contact was lost. If Columbia already had a back-up autopilot correcting for possible structural damage or (what it thought was) incorrect angle, how would a primary autopilot system have changed the outcome? I don’t think this man’s suggestions would have prevented the outcome of either this disaster or the last, unfortunately.

  7. Hmm. . . what happened to that piece Tim wrote the other day on the 17th anniversary of the Challenger accident? Boy, he must be yucking it up right now.

  8. It’s incredibly unlikely that any of these systems would have saved the crew of STS-107.

    When the shuttle disintegrated, it was moving at arond 13,000 miles per hour. Egressing an aircraft above Mach 1 is very dangerous. Above Mach 3, it’s not considered surviveable. 13,000mph is about Mach 18.

    Only way you’re going to let a crew survive that is to turn the entire crew compartment into a ridiculously overstrength escape capsule, so heavily armored that now you can’t actually deliver a payload.

  9. Great comment Brian. Unfortunately, the media is SO ignorant of the technology, they will report what any whistleblower has to say. Pretty clear at this point there was a catastrophic structural failure that probably resulted in the instant deaths of the crew members.

    Escape systems for the current generation of spacecraft are about as useful as the escape mechanisms we had aboard the submarine I served on. It made the wives and mothers feel better. that’s about it.

    Let’s give NASA the opportunity to investigate this before we start runnin’ off at the mouth about things of which we know little.

  10. Of course Nelson was right. Of course we were going to lose a shuttle. You know what? We’re going to lose another one, no matter how many safeguards are in place or how careful we are. We lose cars, we lose trucks, we lose trains, we lose boats, we lose planes … it is impossible to build a completely accident-proof method of transportation, particularly one dealing with such extremes of nature as the space shuttle.

    But acknowledging that an accident is inevitable is not the same as saying ALL accidents are inevitable. Many can be avoided — and if we fail to do so because we’re negligent, lazy, careless or more beholden to political concerns than safety concerns, then that’s where the true tragedy lies.

  11. As a former Thiokol employee (the company that makes the rocket boosters with the infamous o-rings), I can definitely agree the reusability benefit is dubious at best. The only part of the booster that gets reused are the metal segments themselves, and even then they require extensive reconditioning & inspection, which if they don’t meet the engineering criteria they will be scrapped anyway. Not sure what the scrap rate is but having seen the reconditioning process I’m not sure it saves any money compared to just making new ones.

    The tank is a total loss, it burns up in the upper atmosphere, so only the space shuttle itself is reusable to a large extent. It seems to me that it would have been better to develop either a true spaceplane that takes off and lands complete, or a less expensive disposable rocket system similar to what is currently used to launch commercial and military satellites.

  12. lose another crew someday. And we will. The warning signs are all there

    And a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    You want to know what the only warning sign we ever needed was? That were were launching space shuttles! There is no such thing as a machine that is immune to catastropic failure. Launch enough of them, one will crash and burn.

    I’m not arguing that the shuttle was or is safe or well-designed, but “we’ll eventually lose a shuttle at some undisclosed future date” is nothing more than weasel words.

  13. Early on, NASA or one of the more-clueful network science reporters cited NASA’s own odds of catastrophic failure at one in 75 for each mission.
    I think STS-107 was actually the 144th mission. 2 in 144 is a pretty good fit to the predicted data. Every mission is a dice roll. (And the astronauts knew it; and flew anyway. So would I).
    The real question is, what are we doing flying 20+-year-old vehicles built to a nearly 30-year-old design?
    …The X-prize (for private spaceflight) cannot possibly be won soon enough to suit me!

  14. Sadly, our space program probably would have been better off if we had gone the same route as the Russians, with next generation Apollos and Skylabs through the 80s and 90s. It probably would have been more cost effective, even with non-reusable spacecraft.

  15. EMAIL: pamela_woodlake@yahoo.com
    URL: http://digital-photo-album.online-photo-print.com
    DATE: 01/20/2004 06:20:37
    You cannot learn without already knowing.

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