(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth has been both fascinated and alarmed by NASA’s recent return to space.
(BARUTH) In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The cause was obvious: a 1.6- pound piece of insulating foam broke away from the fuel tank and damaged Columbia’s heat-resistant tiles.
The Shuttle Program was then grounded for two and-a-half years. You would expect that during that interval NASA would re-design the foam or the fuel tanks or both. But according to The New York Times, NASA “decided not to modify this section significantly.” And of course, when Discovery launched just days ago, a piece of foam more than half the size of the one that doomed Columbia did drift away from the shuttle, and other smaller pieces did strike the heat tiles.
In other words, one shuttle was lost because of a very well-defined problem; NASA spent two and-a-half years deliberating and finally not fixing that problem; and now the problem has happened again. As Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, put it, “We came to the wrong conclusion, I mean very obviously, because we don’t want pieces of foam like that coming off.” And the Shuttle Program is now off-line again.
But it gets worse, believe me. When engineers used high-powered cameras to examine Discovery’s underbelly for foam damage, they found something else: two strips of heavy insulating cloth, each protruding by about an inch. NASA calls these strips gap filler, and they basically plug holes between the heating and cooling tiles. The problem is that anything sticking out of the Shuttle’s flat bottom, by even a little, can increase the heat of re-entry in that area by as much as 25 percent.
But NASA is saying that the astronauts can fix the problem in space without much worry: all the astronaut needs to do is stand, in space, on the end of a 50-foot robotic arm and “try to pluck the tough material the rest of the way out, push it back into place or cut it off with a hacksaw.”
Is it me, or does all of this have a sort of desperately rushed feel to it? Dr. Griffin was very quick to point out to reporters that the new shut-down of the program wouldn’t last very long. Griffin made it clear that NASA is still eyeing two launch windows this year, one only five weeks away.
It seems clear to me that NASA is caught in a vicious circle: un- less they have spectacular televised success, their budget gets cut, and when their budget gets cut, spectacular televised suc- cess drifts further out of reach. So the desire to hit their limited launch windows this year has the Agency acting, in a word, irrationally.
And it’s a heartbreaking thing to watch, because, deep down, I still believe in all of the hard-core myths of the American Space Pro- gram: that guys with nerdy glasses and no biceps to speak of can hurl a rocket into space, take it to the moon, keep it safe and bring it home. I still believe that these rocket scientists can say something like “Failure is not an option,” and make it so.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.