Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Phoenix Rising: NASA Out of the Ashes

I have looked forward to the day that the shuttle reached the heavens once more. Today is a glorious day. A new step into the greater expanse that awaits us as travelers amongst the starry expanse of space, this our limited stellar backyard.

Today's launch was imperative, even with its great risks and many delays, to return to our rightful place in space exploration--human space exploration. America cannot and will not be relegated to a has-been. It is our time once more to go boldly into our last frontier. Discovery is the first step back in the right direction...to bigger achievements on par with the Apollo years. I want to witness this history before our eyes and savor it the rest of my days. We should be proud in our accomplishments but not haughty, for we can be made lowly in an instance as Apollo I, Challenger and now Columbia has shown proven so evidently clear.

NASA is a Phoenix rising, out of its own ashes and into a new world of continued exploration. As I wrote in an English paper (of the same name as this post) in my first year in college on President Bush's new space plan:
Eugene Cernan, the last man on the Moon, said as he left, “We leave as we came and, god willing, as we will return, with peace, and hope for all mankind” (Bush). Space exploration has beckoned us once again, as in the distant bygone era of the "Space Race." We are not call to go there now just to visit but instead to stay, as Cernan said, "with peace, and hope for all mankind" (Bush). Although President George W. Bush’s new space initiative may need some financial reworking along the way, the stage has been set, which is the most important step of all. As an American people, all we can do now is dream, as before, the impossible dream.
Dreaming the impossible dream is what we as a nation need, for anything is possible if you only believe. That, my friend, is the first step. May God grant our astronauts safe passage back to Earth, back to their families, and back to their nation, returning home safe and sound.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Scuttle the Shuttle?

In remembering the Columbia tragedy of February 2003, I now reprint an op-ed piece I wrote for my high school paper, The Crusader, back in March 2003 in response to the tragedy and thus questioning of NASA's future. The title given above was that of what I originally wished to name the piece (and still do call it), but the newspaper moderator insisted that the word 'scuttle' wasn't proper for a spacecraft (despite the word having a definition in Webster's of "destroy, wreck; also scrap"). All of this coming from an English teacher, no less! Hmph! I personally like it better than that of her title "Shelf the Shuttle?" of which the article was printed as.

Without further ado, I give you my thoughts on the NASA program (circa 2003):

Scuttle the Shuttle?

Questions of NASA’s future are definitely not short in supply these days. The questions of the shuttle’s safety by those in NASA and elsewhere are not specifically on why the Columbia went down but on what happens next. The shuttle program is now in its twenty-first year since the first shuttle flight on April 12, 1981, and NASA is faced with a fleet of aging behemoth giants that the program must go on E-Bay to shop for shuttle replacement parts. What’s NASA’s recent solution? NASA wants to extend the life of the shuttle program for another ten to fifteen years past the original set retirement date of 2012.

In recent years, NASA has tried to develop various designs to phase out the shuttle but to no avail. The X-33 and X-34, eventually dumped by NASA for various reasons, were two possibilities for making space flight cheaper and phasing out the space shuttle. NASA’s solution for the moment is to stick with the aging, though remodeled, space shuttles that are becoming seriously outdated.

Funding for the agency has been top on the list of things that went wrong on and before February 1, 2003. Overall, each year for the past decade, funding for NASA has generally decreased with some exceptions, forcing NASA to go with the uncongenial slogan: “faster, better, cheaper.” The lack of funds for NASA has caused stumbling blocks for the agency notably in probe space exploration as well as development of new spacecrafts. The cause - the end of the Cold War. With no “enemy” to race against, NASA has been grasping for a new focus, which—for better or for worst—has ended up being the huge task that is the International Space Station (ISS). In light of the Columbia tragedy and the still incomplete construction of the ISS, NASA must focus their attention once more to the human element of space flight to stir interest and pride for the space program.

No matter what the cause of the Columbia disaster, NASA must keep a trained eye to detail, a detail that includes not only that of continuing manned space flight but doing so safely. Ironically, all of America’s space tragedies, NASA’s most catastrophic failures in manned space flight, have coincidentally occurred during Cape Canaveral’s coldest month, January. The first was the Apollo 1 pad fire on January 27, 1961, the second was the Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986, and the third was the Columbia crash on February 1, 2003, with its lift-off on January 16, 2003. The coincidences of the two shuttle accidents are abounding, but one must keep in mind the factors that caused them.

With the exception of the Apollo 1 pad fire, both of the shuttle accidents occurred in part as a result of freezing weather and mainly because of the duration of the orbiters left on the launch pad. For the Challenger accident, the launch date was originally set for January 22 but was pushed back a whole week because of an array of weather and hardware delays. Although the cause of the accident was linked to the faulty design of the rubber O-Rings holding the external fuel tanks together, the lengthy amount of time that the shuttle weathered in unusually freezing temperatures (as low as 8°F) was a contributing factor causing the cracking of the O-Rings and the subsequent loss of the Challenger, the first of the shuttle program’s two deadly failures.

Although without the significant delays of Challenger’s fateful 73-second flight, the more recent Columbia STS-107 had the similar cold weather of its foregone counterpart. Officials now wonder if ice forming on the shuttle and on the very debris, the iced filled chunk of insulation from the left external fuel tank that was determined to be “harmless,” was the actual cause of the loss of thermal tiles or the punctured hole of the craft’s skin and the subsequent loss of Columbia. For now we can only speculate, wonder, and think what might have been.

The failures of the shuttle cannot be pinned to exactly one reason but to a plethora of reasons: the appearance of ice in the insulation on the cold January morning, the notorious flaking of large chunks of insulation that has been a problem for the shuttle program from its inception, and the failure to adequately check the problem before reentering Earth’s atmosphere (the orbiter’s arm, capable of checking the problem on the underside, had been removed in order to do scientific experiments on this mission). Therefore, NASA must find a better way to get into space. This way needs not to be cheap but only safe and reliable for any new crews going up in knowing that they will safely return.

The tragedy that has beset the nation has hindered our dreams of space exploration, but it has not stopped the determination of many to keep expeditions and crews from touching the heavens and returning to Earth safely for all of us to benefit from. We must continue onward.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Fire in the Sky...

I found this song written by Jordin Kare shortly after the Columbia disaster in February 2003. It was reported that former astronaut Buzz Aldrin was moved to tears after receiving an e-mail the Saturday after the Columbia tragedy and reading the lyrics on NBC.

You can listen to it at Prometheus Music's web site by either streaming Real Audio or downloading it in MP3 format.

In honor of those fallen and those yet to go beyond "riding fire in the sky" I give you the lyrics to Fire in the Sky:

Prometheus, they say, brought God's fire down to man.
And we've caught it, tamed it, trained it since our history began.
Now we're going back to heaven just to look him in the eye,
and there's a thunder 'cross the land, and a fire in the sky.

Gagarin was the first, back in nineteen sixty-one,
When like Icarus, undaunted, he climbed to reach the sun.
And he knew he might not make it, for it's never hard to die.
But he lifted off the pad and rode a fire in the sky.

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed we'd reach it soon.
And we gave ourselves a decade to put fire on the moon.
And Apollo told the world, we can do it if we try:
And there was one small step, and a fire in the sky.

I dreamed last night of a little boy's first spaceflight,
Turned into me, watching a black and white TV.
There was a fire in the sky, I'll remember until I die.
A fire in the sky...a fire in the sky!

Then two decades from Gagarin, twenty years to the day.
Came a shuttle named Columbia, to open up the way.
And they said she's just a truck, but she's a truck that's aiming high.
See her big jets burning, see her fire in the sky.

Yet the Gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made.
And with Challenger and seven, once again the price is paid.
Though a nation watched her falling, yet a world could only cry.
As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky.

Now, the rest is up to us, and there's a future to be won.
We must turn our faces outward, we will do what must be done.
For no cradle lasts forever, every bird must learn to fly ---
And we're going to the stars, see our fire in the sky.

Yes, we're going to the stars, see our fire in the sky!
There's a fire in the sky, I'll remember until I die.
A fire in the sky, a fire in the sky!