Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Truth About the Shuttle

I've had a lot of time to spare lately, so I used a lot of that spare time to closely follow the recent flight of the space shuttle Discovery. In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I'm quite a spaceflight expert.

Anyway, I tracked Discovery's progress using NASA TV and all the usual web-based outlets; I was gleaning all the same information fed to the media. And yet I came to one conclusion—and the general media came to a completely different conclusion.

Here's the thing.

  • This flight was easily the most flawlessly flown in the history of the program
  • The orbiter arrived on orbit and landed in better condition than ever before
  • The STS is, and always was, an experimental flight program

There are always analogies associated with spaceflight—to help the great unwashed get a handle on it (this pump could drain a swimming pool in five seconds; that engine could power a small town). Here are some more to help you appreciate what's involved in flying the shuttle: If getting an airliner to cruising altitude can be compared to driving your car from home and down the onramp to the freeway, launching a shuttle to orbit is like taking a top-fuel dragster, not a quarter-mile, but all the way up a ten mile hill. De-orbit and landing can be compared to the world's longest ski jump, only on tarmac instead of snow, through a slalom, at night, flawlessly.

That it works as well as it does is a testament to the genius and hard work of everyone involved.

As a test flight vehicle, every flight is cleared to go only after open items are understood from the preceding flight; open items are either solved, or worked around, or mitigated—factoring in acceptable risk. So it's not the end of the world if a shuttle program manager states that "obviously we won't be making any more flights until we better understand the foam problem."

Gap fillers are great for lessening tile chattering during ascent, and they are, at worst, a nuisance during re-entry as they could cause localized heating and scorching of downstream tiles—requiring early and expensive tile replacement. Like stones stuck in the tread of your tires, pull them out if you have the opportunity but don't lose sleep over them.

This post is getting way too long. The point is that the shuttle is not a clapped out death trap; it is in fact a fantastically successful high performance well understood thoroughbred.

I've now given up on the "press version of events." It reminded me of that "Planet could be wiped out by asteroid at any time!" hype-fest of recent years. Even after the California landing, jerks with microphones made an issue about the cost of ferrying the orbiter back to Florida.

Don't believe everything you read in the papers...

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done Andrew. The media NEED to create stories to prove themselves, and the public are just waiting to hear about a diaster. I say steal the shuttle and leave this god forsaken planet.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NASA always go space what language using? Maybe need language learning software speeking to aliens using! Star Trek Rock, Bon...

2:22 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home