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Return To Flight...Almost by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Column  ISBN/ITEM#: AUG2005ED
Date: August 1, 2005 / Show Official Info /

Despite the beauty of Discovery's "Return to Flight" launch, it was filled with omens that any sailor would shudder at. Among other things, it evidentially nailed a bird a few hundred feet up (probably an albatross). Putting more cameras on the ship gave us all a great view of things we'd never seen before, and some we wish we hadn't, including a tile falling away from the ship. I heard that when Commander Eileen Collins learned that the ship had taken tile damage she responded, "I thought they'd fixed that." And that was before they discovered that two gap fillers between the tiles were unraveling.

I think Discovery and its crew have a pretty good chance at getting back to Earth in one piece, and I?ll have my fingers crossed all the way down?but I think NASA has crossed the line between dramatic entertainment and Russian roulette?and I'd very much like to see the shuttle fleet put into museums where they belong.

I?m really fond of NASA. I'm a child of the space age and have been excited about the endeavor since the first sub-orbital launch, or maybe even before. My memory gets fuzzy about stuff that happened when I was five or so. But over the years I've come to regard the big organization as a bad deal, created to industrialize the South, and standing in the way of mankind's entry into space. That's the problem with having heroes. You outgrow them.

I didn't much like the next phase of manned spaceflight when I first heard of it. The Crew Exploration Vehicle appears to be essentially an Apollo style capsule sitting on a big, dumb rocket, and while I dig retro?this seemed just too primitive for the new millennium.

Holding my breath as Discovery blazed its trail into the sky I decided I could get over it.

I'm a fan of technology, but not for its own sake. We knew the shuttle was dangerous from the first day it flew, but, addicted to progress as we are, we never considered going back when we found the way ahead blocked.

I'm glad the way ahead was blocked if it meant more space planes, and sad because the Delta X project got shelved, but we?ve already covered that in a previous article on the SSTO concept (Opening Space for the 21st Century by Yoji Kondo & William A. Gaubatz ) so I won?t go into it here.

What I will say is that sending humans into space makes sense for the foreseeable future, though using robots as effort multipliers and remote observers is important too. When you absolutely, positively have to get to orbit and back without blowing up or burning up, I'm all for using the dumbest, safest technology you can find. The Crew Exploration Vehicle seems just about NASA's speed at the moment, and if they hired a Sci-Fi Stylist to make it look a little more like what we expect a spaceship to look like, you know, pointier and with a few more fins, folks might be able to get excited about watching them launch every other week. Of course, this is the Agency that didn't want to put a window in the Mercury capsule, so I've got limited hopes about their ability to work with the reality that spaceflight is as much about entertainment as exploration.

I asked a panel of folks for input on the return to flight and the future of manned space exploration, even offering to leave their names off if they worried about the effects their opinions might have on their jobs?but they were all willing to stand behind their words.

Here then are comments from Allen Steele (Interview: The Tranquilty Alternative) , Travis Taylor (Interview), Homer Hickam (Interview: Rocket Boys ).


Allen Steele:
America is back in space again. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's only temporary; after a half-and-a-half year launch-pad hold, the shuttle fleet has been grounded once more, this time because an otherwise flawless launch was marred by a piece of foam detaching itself from the "Discovery."

What's been forgotten is that the shuttle's booster system -- an external fuel tank mated with two solid-fuel rockets -- was originally supposed to be a temporary solution; the shuttle was designed, at least in the beginning, to be sent into orbit by a completely reusable flyback booster. But temporary solutions have a tendency to become permanent, and now we're paying the price for stopping development of the flyback booster. Both "Challenger" and "Columbia" were destroyed because of problems with the present configuration, and it's going to be a long time, I think, before "Atlantis", "Endeavour," or "Discovery" "Columbia" flies again ... if ever.

So now NASA is developing the CEV as a second-generation workhorse. That's good news. The bad news is that, at least in the proposals we've seen so far, the crew vehicle will be a space capsule similar to those used during the "Apollo" program. In the interviews I've read with the "Apollo" astronauts, they've almost always said that the part of the moon missions that made them most nervous was the return to Earth ... because once the capsule detached from the service module and began to make its descent through the atmosphere, they had absolutely no control over the vehicle. If the parachutes failed to deploy or got tangled, if the capsule came down away from the designated splashdown area, if the floatation bags didn't work ... there was little or nothing they could do about it.

The CEV is supposed to be a temporary solution, too, until a more sophisticated vehicle is developed. And I'm afraid that history is about to repeat itself.

Homer Hickam: (excerpted from from his editorial at SpaceRef.Com)
At the end of the movie "October Sky" which was based on my memoir Rocket Boys, there is a dramatic launch of the Space Shuttle. The director of the film wanted to show the transition from my small amateur rockets in West Virginia to the huge professional rockets of NASA as a metaphor for my own transition from coal-town boy to big-time space engineer. The scene works wonderfully. When I was at the Venice Film Festival, the audience rose to their feet after this scene and applauded me while tears streamed down their faces. When I go to the Cape and watch the Shuttle being launched, I still get a lump in my throat watching it soar aloft. Even though I no longer work for NASA, its thunder affirms my dreams for spaceflight. Still, when I put emotion aside, I cannot ignore my engineering training. That training and my knowledge as a twenty-year veteran of the space agency (and also a Vietnam veteran) has led me to conclude that the Space Shuttle Program may well be NASA's Vietnam. A generation of engineers and managers have exhausted themselves trying to make it work and they just can't. But why not? I believe it is because the Shuttle's engineering design, just as Vietnam's political design, is inherently flawed?

? I do not believe there is a NASA culture other than a willingness by its engineers to work their butts off to keep us in space. It might be said, however, that there is a Shuttle cult. It is practiced like a religion by space policy makers who simply cannot imagine an American space agency without the Shuttle. Well, I can and it is a space agency which can actually fly people and cargoes into orbit without everybody involved being terrified of imminent death and destruction every time the Shuttle lifts off the pad?

?Take a look at the Shuttle stack and what do you see? A fragile spaceplane sitting on the back of a huge propellant tank between two massive solid rocket boosters. The tank holds liquid oxygen and hydrogen and towers above the spaceplane. It is the foam off this tank that hit Columbia and knocked a hole in her wing. But why is there foam at all? Because without it, ice would form on the super-cooled tank and hit the spaceplane. But why would ice or foam hit it in the first place? Because of where the spaceplane sits. But why does it sit there? Because the Shuttle Main Engines (SME's) need to come back to Earth and therefore must be attached to the spaceplane to be returned. And why do the SME's need to be returned? So that they can be reused. And why do they have to be reused? Because, theoretically, it's cheaper to refurbish them than build new ones. Therefore, the spaceplane we think of as the Shuttle has to sit right in the middle of all the turmoil of launch because we once believed it would be cheaper to bring back those engines and rebuild them than to build new ones. That has not proved to be the case-far from it-but it has left us with a crew sitting in the most vulnerable position possible in terms of engineering design and safety. Simply put, had that spaceplane been on top of the stack, the destruction of Columbia would not have occurred because its wings would have been out of the line of fire. Challenger would probably not have happened, either. Had the spaceplane been above the explosion, it likely would have been able to punch out and glide back home?

(Homer wrote this all two years ago, but he says the only thing that?s changed is he didn?t think we could go cold turkey on the shuttle then?and that we have to now and that we've got to focus on the CEV ? Ern)

Travis Taylor:
My first thought was "Yippee were back up and running." Then my second thought was "Yay, we can't even do what our grandparents did!"

Hopefully, Dr. Griffin can do some serious good. He is a brilliant guy and I like him a lot. I only hope that he, as the head honcho of NASA, really has the power to do much since our nations space program is so politically wound around white collar welfare programs for powerful senators and congressmen. Most programs at NASA happen because of earmarks not technical need. We'll just have to wait and see.

As far as actually returning to space and doing something worthwhile, I'd like to see us have a goal -- a real goal -- and funding to achieve the goal. This minimally funded "nebulous" goal that we have of "the Moon and Mars then beyond" with no time frame, plan, or budget line is just a way that politicians can make sound bites without having to stand up, take a chance and fund it.

If we really wanted a space program we'd either give it to the Air Force and fire everybody at NASA (or just let NASA do the unmanned probe stuff) or give Burt Rutan their funding! Now Rutan might do something useful for $13B.

(It?s worth noting that Burt Rutan and Richard Branson formed a spaceship building company just a few days ago: Spacecraft Building Company)


So there you have it, more or less. We seem to be pretty much in accord on this. It's time (past) to shut down the shuttle and move on, even if it means moving back to where we once belonged.

NASA can have a great future doing research and exploration without having to be the world's most expensive long haul trucking company. Leave that to the rest of us and get back to working on giving us the knowledge we'll need to survive in space and on the moon?and the capability to reach for the stars.

Ernest Lilley
SFRevu August 1, 2005

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