I have a totally different perspective about Columbia than most of my friends.
See, the non-classified version (which happens to be the only one I know) is that a relative of mine was one of the geniuses on the Risk Analysis and Assessment Team (RAAT) for Challenger back in 1986. This meant I knew about the o-rings a hell of a lot sooner than most kids my age, and I got a weird crash course in learning about the space program. Basically, RAAT’s job was to figure out where the failure was, had they been following guidelines and stayed within ‘acceptable’ risk boundaries, and was there anything they could have done differently.
As we all know today, there was a fuck of a lot they should have done differently. For those who don’t know, I can break it down simply.
First, as Richard Feynman (a fellow regarded by Einstein as a genius) pointed out in the hearings, when it gets cold, rubber gets less flexible. Anyone who lives in a cold state knows this. Also, as most people know, if you heat up something cold very fast, it’ll break. This is because objects actually change state when you cool them down or heat them up. It’s simple physics. It’s why your house creaks at night and why a Concord Jet gets longer during flight.
Anyway, look at the pictures of the space shuttles. There’s the airplane-shuttle sitting on a huge orange rocket, and two skinny rockets on each side of the orange rocket. Now, the skinny ones are booster rockets and are filled with rocket fuel, which isn’t a problem. The problem is that the boosters are made of many interlocking ‘rings’ that are bolted together. Given that metal expands when it’s hot, they came up with the idea to fit rubber rings (the o-rings) around the metal where the join is, to prevent leaks. Great idea. Of course, the o-rings had failed once before, but since the back-up o-ring was okay, NASA went with it.
So here we are. It’s a cold day, there’s ice on the launch pad, the o-rings have been known to have problems, and we’re loading up a teacher. The o-rings failed, fuel leaked, and it melted into the orange rocket, causing it to explode.
And NASA knew. They did. And they considered it an ‘acceptable risk.’
Same thing with Columbia. They knew something had happened, but even so, there was no way of knowing what the end result would be. Did a piece of foam insulation hit and break a heat shielding tile? Possibly, though I suspect they’d have noticed weird heat readings during the rest of lift off. If the tiles were at fault, could the astronauts have space-walked to fix it? No, there were no repair tools. Could they have gone to the space station and waited there for a pick up? No, they had no way to dock. Could they have been picked up by another shuttle? Maybe.
That last one is the weird bit. It takes about a month to get a shuttle off the ground, and that’s skipping a lot of safety checks. I’m not sure anyone wants to do that.
But the end result of all this is that the shuttles are not safe. They’ve never been safe. You’re sticking 7 to 9 people on top of a hydrogen bomb! What? You didn’t know that the big ass orange rocket is a fuel tank filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen? 154 feet long, 27.6 feet in diameter, it weighs about 1.7 million pounds when full. It’s used for less than 9 minutes in flight, and is jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere. That’s why Challenger blew up so big. The hydrogen chamber hit the oxygen chamber and there was a the typical reaction. Boom. Big boom.
NASA predicts a 1 in 400 risk for shuttle accidents. I think that’s exceptionally generous. So far we’re 1 in 50, give or take, and that’s pretty fucking amazing.
Space travel is dangerous. No one’s died ‘in’ space, but it’ll happen. Look at how many people have died in shuttles (I’m not counting training accidents in airplanes). Okay we have Apollo 1 which blew up on the launch pad in a simulation when they filled the compartment with 400% oxygen (enough to make Velcro spontaneously combust) and had the door set to swing the wrong way. Challenger blew up over a minute into lift off. Columbia blew up on landing.
Here’s the thing, though. We’ve been to the moon, and we chose to do it because it’s hard (tm Kennedy’s speechwriter). We’ve sent unmanned probes to Mars. We’ve taken pictures of Saturn and Jupiter with Voyager. There’s more to be done, however. Man is an explorer, constantly pushing boundaries and limits to see what else is out there. I refuse to believe we’re alone in the universe, and there has to be a way to reach out. But first, we need to master escaping the boundaries of our own planet.
The space program needs to keep going. We’ve worked too hard and too long to give up now, and so long as we’re aware of the risks and take every possible precaution, then we’re doing pretty good.
NASA needs to clean up their act, do what’s right instead of what’s political, and then, maybe, we’ll live in the stars.
I know if I was invited today to go on a shuttle mission, to orbit the Earth, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Don’t let the people who’ve given their life for this project have had their lives wasted in vain. Let their death carry on the meaning of a promise. We can succeed at this, and given time we will.
Rest in peace, crew of the Columbia.