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The day after the Columbia

Please indulge me while I reminisce about the U.S. space program.
I’m not very old, but I’m old enough to remember the changes in attitude towards the program. I was born five years after the moon landing, so I have no recollection of that achievement. But like most kids growing up in the early 1980s, I was fascinated with space. I built model rockets. I subscribed to magazines about space. I was excited when I found out we would be studying outer space in my first-grade science class.

I remember playing outside in the early 1980s–it had to have been 1981 or 1982–when my aunt came out to the back porch and yelled, “Brian, David, come inside! The space shuttle’s landing!” So we ran in and watched the Columbia land. And I remember sometimes, when it happened on a school day, we’d watch a launch or a landing on TV.

In those days, all the takeoffs and landings of the Space Shuttle were televised. And I usually watched it, even when I wasn’t in school and didn’t have to. I loved this stuff.

But by the mid-1980s, the Space Shuttle became routine. You barely ever heard about it anymore. People took it for granted. They stopped televising it and it barely warranted mention on the news. The big news in the 1980s about the Space Shuttle was that the Soviets were trying to build one.

Then, in 1985, the Space Shuttle became newsworthy again. We were going to put a teacher onboard. And in January 1986, put her, along with six other astronauts, on the Challenger. None of our classes watched it on TV that day. It was too routine. It wasn’t news anymore when a Shuttle launched. There was a teacher onboard, but the launch didn’t look any different. The principal and the secretary and whoever was on break watched. I was in math class. I’d have rather watched the Challenger, but for all I know I was in the minority. Space wasn’t cool anymore. And, truth be told, the reason I would have wanted to watch the launch probably wasn’t for love of outer space, but because anything is better than math. It still is.

So there I was, sitting in math class, when the secretary called Mr. Ritter out of the room. A minute or so later, someone else came in and told us the Challenger had crashed.

I saw it on the news that night. One network showed the Soviet reaction. I remember that as vividly as I remember the tape of the Challenger. They were horrified. I was surprised. I guess I expected them to be partying. I thought they hated us.

There was an investigation. The Space Shuttle was on the news again a lot for a while, first with talk of finding another piece, later with talk about o-rings, and new designs. And when the Shuttles went back into service, it was a big deal again.

Then, for another decade and a half, it was routine again. You had to be a pretty hard-core space buff to give much thought to the Space Shuttle, and I wasn’t one. My interest in space had faded with my interest in dinosaurs.

I took space travel for granted. It wasn’t something I thought about. The Russians and the Chinese had problems sometimes, but the Russians didn’t have as much money as us and the Chinese hadn’t been doing it as long. I thought we had it mastered. I’ve heard people say we should get out of space and use that money to help the poor or fight AIDS or some other politically correct cause. I never agreed with that because money alone won’t solve either of those problems. I stayed out of the discussions that bemoaned the money we weren’t spending in space.

I’m not mourning the U.S. space program. If it’s important for us to be there, we’ll get back out there. It’s too early to tell if the Shuttle fleet is too old or if the design is too flawed or if it was just a matter of the Columbia’s tiles being damaged in launch and it not being able to withstand the temperature of re-entry.

Right now, I’m mostly concerned for the families of the seven people onboard. Overcoming setbacks is our specialty.

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22 thoughts on “The day after the Columbia”

  1. “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
    Ronald Reagan, addressing NASA employees

  2. It IS important for us to be there, and it’s important our governement realizes its limitations. After almost 40 years, NASA has become an aging, bureaucratic behemoth and is no more fit to put men into space than it would be to write an operating system.

    Imagine that, an OS written by the government…

    The space program needs to be turned over to private industry, perhaps with governmental INCENTIVES, to do for space what that same industry did for the country during the age of railroads.

    Maybe then history will record the 21st century as the Space Age.

  3. I suspect that there’s at least a grain of truth in what Jim Cooley has written. I once worked with the son-in-law of one of the engineers who tried to prevent the launch of the Challenger. Afterward, he was regarded as an enemy by many of the people in the small town where he lived and worked, which was essentially a company town.

    Things started happening. For example, he’d be out jogging and have cars swerve and almost hit him. Things like that. The message was clear: there was too much money at stake for people to care about the truth. It tends to get that way with very large government programs.

    Maybe Jerry Pournelle is right and we need more x-programs and out of the box thinking like seeing if we can develop single stage to orbit vehicles.

    I’ve been around long enough to see a dramatic transformation of the US military into a highly technological force with amazing abilities. NASA seems to me to have gone from state of the art technology to low-tech, high cost. I don’t know what it will take to achieve the kind of transformation in the space program that we’ve seen in the military, but I don’t doubt that we can do it. It’s tragic that this loss of life may prove to be the necessary catalyst.

    An essential first step would seem to be a shift from program orientation to results orientation.

  4. Hmm. It’ll be interesting to hear what a co-worker of mine will have to say about all of this tomorrow. His last job was at NASA. He’s a newer guy at the company, so we’ve only talked a little about what he did before. I’m sure that will change.

    For now, let me simply comment on the “low-tech” and “government incompetence” inferences above. The software on the space shuttle, in software quality circles, is generally regarded as the best-built software *in the world*. And it runs on hardware equivalent in complexity to an old Commodore 64, or in today’s frame of reference, a microwave oven. The hardware has double redundance, but the software is quite simple. Why? Because with mission critical software, you can’t have errors, and complex software – by its nature – has a higher probability for bugs. So if “low-tech” means “not complex”, give NASA a pat on the back. They’re doing that *right*. I’m only speaking of the shuttle software, and of course, you can’t help but wonder about testing and simple competence with reversed telescope lens and lander software written in mixed metric and English units. It should be expected that they’d get those kinds of things right.

    The cause of the break-up remains to be seen. The early clues point to heat shield failure, and there’s mention of the flight software compensating for drag. Whether or not the shuttle’s software came into play (ala the Ariane disaster) remains to be seen, but my bet would be strongly against it being a factor.

  5. I just want to add to Jim Cooley’s comment. I, too, have found myself wondering if the government should play less of a role in the space program for these reasons. I think turning it over to private industry, however, may be akin to remedying a headache with a shotgun.

    Look at what problems ‘for-profit’ healthcare has caused. Now that more hospitals are being run as businesses we are seeing new, horrible problems being created.

    Businesses inherently have to show and maintain a bottom line. This frequently leads to compromise.

    Is there a middle-road?

  6. Even though I no longer work at JSC, I did spend most of the last 15 years at JSC in the hardware/software integration world and Steve is correct about the software. The code IBM (Primary S/W) and Rockwell (Backup S/W) developed may be “low-tech” but it works predictably and every time. When something needs to run every 10 milliseconds it does, no questions asked, try that with Java or another “modern” language.

    During my time at NASA I worked with the APU’s and Hydraulics, some of the features of those systems are absolutely stunning engineering accomplishments. The people that developed the shuttle hardware and software were some of the brightest people America had, don’t think just because the design is dated it is by any means low-tech. Realize, we went to the moon on 8k of memory, the shuttle flies on 128k of memory (doubled from 64k in about 1990) and station is going to be controlled by space rated IBM 386’s (may have go to 486 by now). Flying any state of the art equipment is something NASA just can’t risk. NASA has not been state of the art since Apollo when the idea of losing astronauts was not as unacceptable as long as we beat the Russians to the moon.

    In my opinion, turning the shuttle over to private business just about guarantees more days like Saturday. Government bureaucracies may not be the best way to run space programs but in today’s environment I believe private business would be an absolute disaster. As Ford showed with the Pinto and HMO’s prove regularly, companies but a dollar value on life and are willing to make decisions based on it. NASA has already turned a lot of the running of shuttle to a private company, USA, and we will see if that decision in any way helped lead to what happened on Saturday. I personally do not believe it did but I know friends who still work at JSC have started talking about pressure to launch like they experienced leading up to Challenger.

    It is really unfair to compare NASA to the military, especially the Air Force. If the Air Force screws up a design the pilot at least has a chance of bailing out of the aircraft and while it will get a little run on the news, nobody will seriously suggest we stop flying and disband the Air Force. Meanwhile NASA lives under the constant cloud that the next accident might be the last.

    Knowing at least a dozen of the current astronauts and more of the retired ones, these people love what they are doing and the risks are a known and acceptable part of the job. America needs to decide if we want to be in space and if so we need to allow NASA’s astronauts and engineers to get on with their jobs and accept the fact that periodically we will have to accept disasters like Saturday. We also need to pay these people better, it is hard to keep great programmers and engineers when you can only pay him 45 or 50K while the equivalent job in industry is paying 80-100K.

    Sorry for the rambling comment but this is something that hits close to home even though I no longer work in the space industry.

  7. Interesting comments all. I don’t doubt that the software is well written, nor that there are a lot of brilliant designs and people involved.

    I have read comments also about the heat tiles and rocket engine designs being not very state of the art. See Time Magazine Online. I don’t know how accurate this is, but it’s thought-provoking.

    However, I’m thinking more in terms of our approach to space exploration. As they say about running for President, it’s the “vision thing” that tends to be critical. We probably have fairly good managers, but not many visionary leaders.

    There are doubtless some good experiments done on shuttle flights, but I’m not sure what doing the same thing for 20+ years is doing to get us to the next step in space exploration.

  8. I guess that either html tags won’t work, or I messed up. The article that I tried to link is an op-ed type piece by Gregg Easterbrook dated Sunday, Feb 3 in Time online.

  9. I spoke today with the co-worker I mentioned above. A couple of corrections (and hopefully I can accurately relate how he described the system to me).

    NASA wasn’t his *last* job, but he worked on the shuttle ascent software for nine years. The primary shuttle software runs on four parallel CPUs. The CPUs vote out any funky calculation result. e.g. If three calculations reasonably match, but the fourth doesn’t, the fourth result is discarded. If a primary CPU fails, this vote becomes a 2 out of 3. If it gets any worse, the astronauts can manually switch over to the backup software, which is less robust and requires more manual intervention from the astronauts. These CPUs were originally 8086s; they’re now 286s, and they’ve always been milspec, out of obvious necessity. You don’t get much more harsh than space for hardware.

    Some other things of note. Shuttles are basically disassembled and reassembled between missions, and the perverbial “fine-toothed comb” is an understatement. Everyone involved knows that this is a high-risk industry, much more so than terrestrial flight. These are incredibly smart people that work hard, and disasters like this devastate them. This guy’s been out of the industry for almost a decade, and this incident still had him pretty bummed. He thinks the fact that a fleet of five orbiters has been reduced to three is a cause for concern.

    My co-worker attributes incidents like the Mars lander fiasco to budget cuts, and Golden’s “better, smarter, faster” push (aka cutting corners) in the 90’s. (I don’t recall, but I assume from context that Golden was NASA’s director in that timeframe.) One of the reasons he left NASA was that every year, come October, they’d basically be told to stop working. They were never sure if any particular project would have funding the next year. Needless to say, besides being wasteful, this wasn’t good for morale. That’s no way to run a space program, and privatizing NASA isn’t going to change a dearth of money or workload. Consider that NASA was 6% of the US budget in its heyday. It’s a fraction of that today.

  10. Steve M, you have a point about vision. Another thing my coworker mentioned is that he felt they didn’t aim high enough, that mediocre goals were acceptable. And that frustrated him to no end. It seems that NASA’s aspirations dwindled with its budget.

  11. Steves description is pretty much correct about how the computers work. IBM wrote the primary software and during ascent and entry it will be running on 4 seperate computers working in a set. The backup software was developed by Rockwell and is running on a 5th computer. During orbit, they change the set and pretty much run two computers with Flight Control and Guidance and Nav info while a third runs Systems Management software. The other two are powered down mostly but are brought up for certain maneuvers.

    In reality, we never had a fleet of 5 orbiters, it was not till after the Challenger accident that the Endeavour was built. It was built from engineer pieces and structural spares Rockwell happened to have on hand.

    As far as the tiles go, I was out to Calif. during for the refit of Atlantis (3 or 4 yrs ago) and was shown a new tile that was Lighter, Stronger & had a better impact resistance. Due to budget concerns, NASA has not had the ability to replace the older tiles with the newer ones. From what I understood they were only replacing damaged one with the newer ones.

    I understand the vision problem but it is hard to aim high when you are just barely scrapping by due to budget cuts and the fact is was really hard to keep trained people during the .com boom.

    The yearly budget process is also a big problem, it is hard to have a long range vision when every year you are fighting Congress for money.

  12. OK, let’s be generous and say we have 10 shuttle flights a year (the fleet definitely won’t support that now) at the Russian rate of $20M per. That’s $200M for space shuttle operations out of… lessee, $3.28B (using the President’s proposed 2002 budget figures). That’s about 6% of the space shuttle budget proper. Sure, nothing to finger your nose at. But then there’s $2.6B in mission support costs, over $6B in space science research, and $2B towards the ISS (International Space Station). So out of the (again proposed) total 2002 NASA budget, these rich folks would be paying (generously) about 1.4%. Of course, NASA could charge more than the Russians, but the point is that flying rich folk isn’t going to keep NASA afloat. Sure, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as long as these people are willing to train to be competent – i.e. not dangerous to the mission. But let’s also be realistic about the major source of revenue here.

    *After going through this exercise, I checked the 2003 NASA funding estimate. I used $14.5B as the 2002 budget (from an earlier budget estimate), but the 2003 estimated number of $15B would only decrease the proportion of rich-folk funding.

  13. Joe Hartman

    >>We also need to pay these people better, it is hard to keep great programmers and engineers when you can only pay him 45 or 50K while the equivalent job in industry is paying 80-100K.

  14. I’ll try pasting this again…

    >>We also need to pay these people better, it is hard to keep great programmers and engineers when you can only pay him 45 or 50K while the equivalent job in industry is paying 80-100K.

  15. well, it ain’t working and I ain’t gonna try…

    Wait — I’ll turn off Auto-BR

    Joe Hartman

    >>We also need to pay these people better, it is hard to keep great programmers and engineers when you can only pay him 45 or 50K while the equivalent job in industry is paying 80-100K.

  16. So out of the (again proposed) total 2002 NASA budget, these rich folks would be paying (generously) about 1.4%.

    If the reduction is “only” 1.4%, we taxpayers will take what we can get.

    Of course, NASA could charge more than the Russians, but the point is that flying rich folk isn’t going to keep NASA afloat.

    If by “afloat” you mean “in the style to which it has become accustomed”, then you’re correct. But why do you assume NASA should have some sort of divine right to unlimited amounts of other people’s money?

    Steve, whether its budget is $200M or $15B, the essential point is that NASA has no more inherent right to extract its funding at gunpoint from your (or anyone else’s) pocket than I have.

    But aside from just money, there are political aspects too.

  17. Dave, I can’t find your e-mail address, so would you please delete this comment and the previous one? As you see, I screwed up the HTML and I’d like to repost.

    E-mail me if you’d like confirmation.


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