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NASA’s solution for the moment is to stick with the aging, though remodeled, space shuttles that are becoming seriously outdated.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.

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