February 2, 2003 - Reading time: 6 minutes

Note, 1 May 2020: As I look at this post, almost 2 decades after originally posting it, I no longer agree with a lot of what I said here.  In the intervening 17 years, I started working at NASA, the Shuttle fleet was retired, and then I stopped working at NASA (those three events are unrelated, I swear!).  Anyway, I have a lot to say about the Shuttle program (mostly good things) and NASA in general (a lot of bad things) but some get said in later posts, and some I will keep to myself for now.  Maybe I'll do another NASA post, or set of posts, in the future.

I spent most of this morning and early afternoon glued to the radio, listening to reports and commentary on the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. I tried sitting in front of the TV watching CNN as I had done in September of 2001, but CNN's coverage of the event was sickening. NPR ended up having more intelligent coverage than any of the other news sources I tried.

The train of events leading up to the disaster is posted in so many places that I'm not going to bother mentioning it here. I'm also going to refrain from speculating on the direct cause of the disaster, because I don't have the requisite competence in this area. However, there is one nagging issue that I feel bears a closer look -- that of the piece of insulation that fell off of the OV (Orbiter Vehicle) at launch and apparently impacted the left wing.

What bothers me is not that this appears to be a smoking gun -- as I said, I'm in no position to speculate on that. The part that bothers me is the fact that once the Shuttle had launched, NASA had no way of inspecting the wing to see if it was damaged.

In one of the press conferences, we learned that Columbia was not equipped with an arm, there was no method of getting a view of the sides or bottom of the OV, and EVA was out of the question because even if one of the astronauts could get to the wing (they couldn't), there would be nothing for them to do because the astronauts do not have the training or equipment to make repairs of that nature to the shuttle. Furthermore, if there was in fact visible damage to the OV, the astronauts could do nothing but float around in space, because Columbia would not be able to (for instance) maneuver itself to rendezvous with the ISS, and even if it could it is not equipped to dock with the station. Furthermore, NASA's most optimistic estimate of how long it would take to launch a Shuttle to respond to some emergency is 2-3 weeks -- as long as there is already a shuttle on the pad, ready to go, and there are no crew change requirements. Otherwise, your emergency could have to wait 3-4 months to prepare a vehicle and crew for launch. Hardly a viable option.

Yes, it's true: NASA, which makes backups of backups of backups and contingency plans for contingency plans, has no way of saving astronauts once they are in space. Not only that; they have left themselves a huge blind spot (the physical condition of the bottom of the shuttle).

This blind spot is the cause of much speculation now on the cause of the Columbia disaster -- was there damage to the left wing of the OV from a piece of insulation that fell during launch? We may never know for sure. Any method of showing an image of the Shuttle's wing -- EVA, a camera, whatever -- could have answered many questions, and perhaps saved the lives of seven astronauts. If there are any benefits to be gained from this event, I hope to see:

  • Improved EVA ability. This means better space suits for the astronauts -- suits that allow greater freedom of movement than the current ILC Dover suits (which weigh over 300 pounds). A suit designed for EVA should allow astronauts to move around without depending on tethers and handles to hold.
  • Visual diagnostic ability for a vehicle in orbit. A picture is worth a thousand words. As we learned today, it could also be worth 2-3 years of investigation, and perhaps seven lives.
  • Quicker launch turnaround. No amount of diagnostic ability will get a disabled vehicle safely back to Earth. It is shameful that after 30 years of developing the shuttle, it still takes about three weeks of work at the pad to launch an OV. In 1981, the United States amazed the world by creating the first reusable launch vehicle. What we didn't create was a practical launch vehicle. Twenty two years later, we still have a vehicle that weighs more than 4.5 million pounds at launch, and burns over 3.5 million of those pounds getting off the ground. When the Challenger blew up, Ronald Reagan promised us that we would build another Shuttle, and indeed we got a replacement Shuttle. What we need now is not a replacement -- what we need is a new Shuttle. One that is lighter, stronger, more versatile, and more agile. We need to shock the world again, with the first practical reusable launch vehicle.

    Alas, out of the three items on this list, this is the least likely to happen.

It seems fitting at this point to refrain from drawing any conclusions. Hopefully, we will know more about what happened and what could have been done to prevent it in the weeks and months to come. Only then can a backseat engineer like myself feel confident in providing direction for the future of the space program...