OV-102 Columbia

First of the line…

Today is the anniversary of yet another dark day in space exploration. On this date in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia (OV-102) broke up during re-entry, killing all seven crew members. A hairline fracture in the leading edge of the port wing, caused by falling ice during the January 16th launch, allowed superheated plasma to enter the superstructure of the shuttle during re-entry, causing it to break up.

The names of her crew were Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

In contrast with the loss of Challenger, seventeen years earlier, my reaction to the loss of Columbia was one of outrage and anger. Columbia failed because of bad management and political inertia, things that were theoretically corrected after the Challenger accident. As I understand it, for almost the entire 16-day mission, mid-level engineers at NASA (and it’s contractors) were frantically trying to inform mission control about possible damage to the orbiter’s leading wing edge, and were trying to come up with alternatives, but to no avail. The high level executives at NASA were more concerned about their political positions and their professional reputations than with the welfare of the astronauts.

On top of this, the loss of Columbia showed that the Space Shuttle system, while an amazing piece of engineering, was a fundamentally flawed and unreliable system. There were just too many places where things could go wrong. In truth, many people, including many aerospace engineers who helped develop the system, had been saying this for a long time. Many have since stated that the space program should have chosen a different avenue back in the 1970s, and gone with something other than the shuttle.

The shuttle program is now finished, and at the moment, the United States is currently developing a replacement system. A lot of space development is now being handled by the private sector. This may actually turn out for the best, at least for now. Even so, I can’t help but be skeptical. But at the same time, I’m not hopeless.

I have one rather flippant question to pose. The worst accidents in the history of the United States space program have all taken place in late January. Why does NASA still launch manned vehicles during this time period?


OV-099 Challenger

Lest we forget…

Today is another dark anniversary in the history of space exploration. On this day in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger embarked on it’s tenth mission, and the twenty-fifth mission of the shuttle program overall. On board were a collection of scientific experiments, a specialized communication satellite, and the first civilian chosen to fly in space, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe.

Exactly 72 seconds after liftoff, the external fuel tank exploded, destroying the shuttle and killing all seven crew members.

Their names were Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, and Ronald McNair.

It was later determined that a faulty o-ring on one of the solid rocket boosters caused a runaway fire that ruptured a liquid fuel line, resulting in an explosion.

This was one of those events where you remember what you were doing and where you were. I was watching the launch from the common room of the Robinson-Falconio dormitory at St. Bonaventure University, where I was a freshman computer science major. At the 72 second mark, the room suddenly went deathly quiet. We couldn’t believe what we had just seen.

According to NASA legend, there was a shuttle astronaut who warned that eventually one of the shuttles would be destroyed during a mission, and cautioned NASA to not get complacent in managing the program. The astronaut’s name was Francis “Dick” Scobee, and he was Challenger’s final commander. There is some evidence to suggest that in the last seconds of the flight, Scobee and pilot Michael Smith were initiating the emergency detach procedure, which might have saved the shuttle and her crew, but we’ll never know for sure.

The effects of this tragedy are still felt today. At that point the space program had found a new role in our culture, and it carried a “can do” mindset that was infectious and inspiring. The loss of OV-099 (Challenger) dealt what proved to be a mortal blow to that view. Today, the space program is a shadow of what it used to be, and the collective response seems to be “no great loss.”

It’s a tragic and saddening loss that is difficult to describe. And the tragedy isn’t restricted to the space program. The adventurous, determined “can do” attitude that defined much of our nation’s history, and which the space program had come to represent, appears to be dying. Now, as a people, we seem more concerned with our own selfish personal agendas and no longer giving a toss about the common good. We’ve become more interested in doing what is profitable rather than what is right.

Those concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but they usually are.

The loss of OV-099 isn’t the sole reason for this change. A lot of things contributed to this collective change of heart. Where did things start to go wrong? There are several possible answers for that, and they all have some validity. I won’t claim to know when it started, but the assassination of John F. Kennedy may be a good place to start. Other key points could be the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the energy crisis of the 1970’s, to name a few.

Personally, I believe the loss of Challenger was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. This computer scientist turned historian will go so far as to suggest that in the aftermath of January 28, 1986, it became clear that the United States had somewhere, somehow, and at some point, lost it’s way.

But I’m pretty sure we can find it again, if we work at it. As a former president once said:

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
-Bill Clinton

I hope he’s right.

Apollo I

Today is the anniversary of one of the darker days in the history of space exploration. On this day in 1967, three astronauts boarded an Apollo command module to conduct a series of launch and training drills, in anticipation of a February 27th launch. Tragically, the module suffered an internal fire that killed all three astronauts and destroyed the spacecraft.

Their names were Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee.

The name “Apollo I” was the unofficial name of the mission, chosen by the crew. In commemoration, the name was made official by NASA historians in April.

A cause for the fire was never conclusively identified, but an analysis of the command module did discover a large number of design flaws. The consensus was that the fire was the cumulative result of several small problems. Development of the Apollo program was delayed for twenty months while the flaws in the command module design were examined and corrected. The first successfully manned flight of an Apollo spacecraft was in October of 1968, by Apollo VII.

This tragedy almost ended the Apollo program. During the follow-up investigation, there was evidence of political corruption and poor project management by both NASA and it’s relevant contractors. These issues were eventually deemed to be separate from the engineering problems that doomed Apollo I, and the Apollo program was allowed to continue. However, stricter quality review protocols were put in place. The Senate oversight committee had concluded that NASA had become over-confident, and by extension, careless. This has proven to be a pattern that NASA periodically falls into.

The Apollo program would later carry humans to the moon, and became the backbone of the Skylab program. The Orion program, currently in development, is in many ways an update of Apollo.

Moving to the stars?




It’s flashback time! This editorial was originally posted on DeviantArt.Com, on December 8, 2006. Keep that in mind when reading this, because a lot of this may sound dated.


hawkingLast week, Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of the most intelligent men on Earth, announced that humanity needs to start expanding to other planets in order to preserve the species and secure our future. A single asteroid, freak disease, or extreme natural disaster could erase humanity from creation. He’s ultimately right, but I think he’s jumping the gun.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I am a strong supporter of the space program. One of my earliest memories is the Apollo 11 landing. The future of humanity does involve outer space, on some level. I honestly believe that, and I would love to see humans building new lives on Mars, the Moon, or some other place. But with all due respect to Dr. Hawking, it’s not likely to happen soon.

The technology to travel to other planets has been around since the 1980’s. Dr. Robert Zubrin, is his book The Case for Mars, outlines how humans could – in fact must – colonize the red planet. The trip wouldn’t be as difficult as many people think. It would be time consuming, and uncomfortable, but it can be done. Such an operation would also be very expensive, but given enough time and proper management of the project, the money can be pulled together. So why haven’t we followed Zubrin’s and Hawking’s advice?

Robert Zubrin, while brilliant, has blinders the size of Jupiter. Because the technology to travel to the other planets exists, he can’t understand why we (as a species) aren’t doing it. Zubrin, like many “Spacers” – Hawking included – doesn’t take the human element into consideration when making proclamations. We haven’t built moon bases or colonized Mars for a very simple and very human reason: We don’t want to.

The idea of migrating off-planet is a concept that most humans can’t (or won’t) psychologically accept. For many, the concept of life without Mother Earth is too alien to even consider, while others see it as an ultimately pointless exercise (“There’s nothing worth while out there, so why the hell would I want to go?”). Not everyone feels this way, but indications are that the majority of us do. It’s not hard to understand why. This world is rife with starvation, war, plagues, injustice, and various other ills that are probably going to keep us occupied for some time to come. Space development – on any scale – is seen as a complete waste of time and a diversion from far more pressing issues. However, if space can be used to directly address everyday concerns that effect the average Joe and Jane, it might start gaining greater acceptance.

My own suggestion, for what it’s worth, is to send out more Voyager-style probes to further examine the Solar System, and have them concentrate on specific types of resources. One popular Spacer mantra is the idea of mining the asteroid belt for its mineral wealth. “OK,” says the skeptic, “what mineral wealth?” I suggest we send a group of probes – robotic prospectors – to the belt and find out what those rocks have to offer. If they have useable ores, then we can talk about mining. Remember, the California gold rush happened after gold was discovered.

Another example is Lunar Helium-3 for use in fusion reactors. That’s a great idea, but we don’t have fusion reactors yet, let alone ones that need He3! That idea isn’t likely to get widespread support until a prototype is taken off the drawing board and demonstrated, or at least built and given base tests. Now, if some folks were to put together some prototype reactors, and then convince NASA (or whoever) to let them go to the moon, load up with He3, and test-drive the things, public interest is likely to follow. Especially if one of them works!

[Sidebar: Does anyone want to send a ship to the moon and fill a hopper with Helium-3 rich regolith, then bring it back to Earth for use in fusion research? That is a good idea, and it is something we can do!]

I could come up with other examples, but you probably get my drift. If space resources can help the problems of the here and now, then by all means let’s go for it! But let’s concentrate on short term, tangible results to real, current problems, before we start embarking on a grand scheme like trans-planetary migration or interstellar travel.

Dr. Hawking is a brilliant man, and I agree with him that we need to move out into other planets. But not today.


The opinions expressed in this essay are mine, and mine alone. Dr. Hawking and Dr. Zubrin would probably take umbrage at what I’ve said, and they would be entitled. But, this is the opinion of a librarian from North-central Virginia, so I’m probably not worth their time.

Also, things have changed. With the Orion program starting up, the possibility of moving into space appears more likely now than it did when I originally wrote this. But even so, I still think it’s a bit early to start planning a mass, species-encompassing trans-planetary migration.