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Another Great Book...Must Read!

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flying_silverad

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I'm just about finished with this book and I have to tell you, I think it should be mandatory reading for anyone who is remotely interested in the Space Program or NASA.

It's published by Apogee books. No, no the Apogee that sells RocSim, the other Apogee.
Columbia- Accident Investigation report doesn't sound like it would be great reading material, but trust me when I tell you, I couldn't put it down. Whether it was the technical aspects of the ramp foam, or the culture of NASA itself, the investigation board does a great job uncovering ALL of the suspect cause(s) of the accident and what COULD be done to get NASA on the right track again.
Sure, you can get the investigation report through the internet, but...A-I don't like to download stuff only to read it from my screen, and B- I don't want to print all those pages out!

You also get a great CD packed with all kinds of additional reading and clips showing the ramp foam impacting 80 seconds into flight.


I could really relate to a large portion of this book.
About a year before I left the Air Force, I spent alot of time working to improve the Isochronal Inspection process for the Lockheed C5A.
We had planned to visit a Shuttle recovery facility because at the time, we thought they probably ran a pretty tight ship and bench marking some of their processes seemed like a good idea at the time.

Please feel free to IM/PM or e-mail me with any questions.


Want to read more about the book? Go here>> Columbia Accident Report
 

illini

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I haven't read the entire thing. Skimmed most of it online and read some sections in-depth when it came out. I really need to get a copy, though, so thanks for the link.

I'd be interested to hear your take on the analysis that was done on the foam strike after liftoff and before landing. Specifically, do you infer that the analysis was just plain faulty (e.g., either bad assumptions, bad tools, or bad insight on the part of engineers), a case of giving managers the answer they want to hear (i.e., that there is no problem), or a case of bad communication (either managers or engineers not communicating all they could have to each other in order to get to the bottom of things)?
 

flying_silverad

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Originally posted by illini868891
I haven't read the entire thing.

I'd be interested to hear your take on the analysis that was done on the foam strike after liftoff and before landing. Specifically, do you infer that the analysis was just plain faulty (e.g., either bad assumptions, bad tools, or bad insight on the part of engineers), a case of giving managers the answer they want to hear (i.e., that there is no problem), or a case of bad communication (either managers or engineers not communicating all they could have to each other in order to get to the bottom of things)?
There probably isn't enough room here for a complete answer, but all of things you said I would answer...yes. It was all of those things. As a pilot, I would have to point a finger at management as the biggest problem. They were given the info of the post flight photo analysis and simply dropped the ball by slowly talking themselves into thinking the foam strike wouldn't have any real "safety-of-flight issues with the Shuttle's wing structure. They missed several, and I mean several, opportunities to make sure that strike hadn't breached the wings surface. They even started a request to have an On-Orbit photo taken of the wing and cancelled it because they willing to take a guess of "Even if these was a breach, it wouldn't be catastrophic." They were just too comfortable with taking unnecessary risks.
This is one of those cases, in my opinion, where you can arm chair quarterback simply because the attitude was what got them in trouble.
The book does a great job of taking all of the factors together and exposing how the actual "culture" of NASA leads to the accident, as it did with Challenger. At the end of the book there is a transcript of the press conference following the release of the report. Mr. O'Keefe (IMO) takes too casual a stance for me. Even if there is a launch this spring, it will be under the same culture, struggling to change.
 

illini

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Thanks. Your answer is pretty much what I inferred from the parts I had read, and it is very bothersome to me. Bottom line is that this culture didn't just "creep back" 17 years after Challenger. I don't think it ever went away. My experience at Solid Rocket Manufacturer "X" in the early '90s proved this to me and the CAIB report validates that. I saw first hand potentially disastrous situations that were just swept under the rug (PM me if you want details). I believe these types of unaddressed problems are routine - my experiences are not unique - and the foam strike is just the one that finally bit them in the hindquarters. It leaves us as taxpayers and space buffs with a real dilemma. What do you do with a space agency that draws $15B a year and can no longer pull the trigger? Bush's space exploration initiative is a nice try, but I don't think it addresses the fundamental cultural failures. I don't know how you fix it without scrapping the whole thing and starting over.
 

cls

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you can point fingers all you want about whoever not investigating the foam strike immediately after launch, but that just begs the question: what could have been done about it?? It's grisly but there was no way to get 7 people out of Columbia and there was no way to get Columbia back and there was no way Columbia could get to ISS and there was no way to support 9 people on ISS.

the astronauts knew the risks before they climbed in and they knew Columbia had taken a hit. two of them even joked about it as reentry commenced.
 

illini

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My point is a bit broader than just the aftermath of the foam strike. You're right. Nothing could have been done. However, the problems with management, analysis, and communication are indicative of much broader problems which we saw very clearly in Challenger and which I assert probably started long before Challenger and never went away after Challenger. My point is that NASA's failures are seen publicly in all their glory in the aftermath of these two events, but the same symptoms appear many times through lesser events. They don't often get public airing, but they are there. Given these failures, how do you fix NASA to better address problems and work more effectively in the future? Or is it even worth bothering to try?
 

flying_silverad

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The sad part is...something could have been done if the breach was discovered. Had they gone through with the on orbit photos, and been successful, they would have discovered the breach. Even if they did this on day six, NASA would have been able to generate Atlantis for a rescue attempt. The Columbia crew would have had 15 days of food and water if they stopped all of the experiments and conserved their energy.

It's all in the book. Don't fall into the trap that NASA did by saying,"Even if they knew of the breach, there was nothing they could do."
 

Chilly

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I was wondering that myself...there was some media attention paid the option of "quick turning" Atlantis for a rescue mission. Do you guys think that was really possible, or would NASA have just made matters worse by cutting corners. Would we have been likely to lose two shuttles by doing that?
 

flying_silverad

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Originally posted by Chilly
I was wondering that myself...there was some media attention paid the option of "quick turning" Atlantis for a rescue mission. Do you guys think that was really possible, or would NASA have just made matters worse by cutting corners. Would we have been likely to lose two shuttles by doing that?
I suppose one could speculate that in fact generating Atlantis quickly could in fact generate a whole new set if complications. However, if they knew the other shuttle needed a repair (assuming they had visual confirmation), perhaps the first option would have been to bring up enough food, water, and supplies to possibly do an EVA and repair the Columbia. Then, both would return. Option 2 would be simply to rescue the folks from Columbia and either leave that shuttle in orbit, or let it burn up during re-entry.
I like option 1 only because if Atlantis was damaged, supplies could have been provided for a "dual" repair. In any event, I think an EVA for "Preflight/De-Orbit" should become mandatory since this will be the only real way to confirm structural integrity (external) of the shuttle. If the remote arm could house a camera (I believe the actually did this on STS 85) then an inspection could be accomblished this way withoout EVA.
 

illini

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Originally posted by Chilly
Do you guys think that was really possible, or would NASA have just made matters worse by cutting corners. Would we have been likely to lose two shuttles by doing that?
Good question. Certainly the risk to Atlantis would have been higher than for a regular flight. However, if faced with the prospect of definitely losing one orbiter (and crew) vs. possibly losing two orbiters, which would you pick? Bird in the hand, or two in the bush? I think I would have definitely made the attempt to quick-prep Atlantis, but it would depend greatly on 1) the probability of successfully launching and recovering Atlantis on the short timeline, and 2) the probability of successfully executing a repair on Columbia.
 

Chilly

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I mentioned this in another book thread, but "Dragonfly" by Bryan Burrough is pretty interesting. Depressing, but interesting.
It's about the Shuttle/Mir program, and was a good immersion into NASA's acutely dysfunctional culture. It was hard to read, because even a history book needs to have someone you can root for. This was screwed up from top to bottom. It reminded me of some of the airlines I used to work for, all now bankrupt, one of which had its operating certificate revoked by the FAA.

By the way, if I'd been king I would've sent Atlantis after them. Seems to me they could've found a way to rendesvous and transfer crew with an acceptable safety margin (acceptable compared to definitely losing them if nothing was done).

But this begs the question: how hard is this stuff, really? A lot of the alt.space crowd insists this isn't as hard as NASA makes it out to be. Does NASA overcomplicate the simple things, and oversimplify the complicated?
 

illini

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I put that one on my read list based on your prior recommendation, but haven't gotten to it yet. Besides the public investigations, I've seen NASA's dysfunctional culture through 3 sets of experiences:

1) In grad school when I had a NASA fellowship from MSFC. I'd make an annual visit to Huntsville to talk to my Marshall adviser who always had interesting stories for me. He was a GS-14 then, but now manages an entire division and would probably deny everything he used to say. His bottom line message was, "we'd love for you to work here but the bureaucracy won't let us make you an offer and you don't want to work for us anyway for the following 100 reasons. Stay away if you know what's good for you."

2) Working for Solid Propulsion Company "X". Some interesting stories to tell there. Bottom line: its even worse than you think!

3) Vicariously through friends of mine who work at NASA.

Each of these points directly to one conclusion for me: NASA is far more concerned with its public perception and doing whatever is necessary to garner political support than it is with breaking new ground or technical achievement. In the wake of the CAIB I keep waiting to see some signs that NASA has changed, but I see no concrete signs of improvement.
 

rebar_rocketry

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IMHO, I think NASA probably knew about the problem, but wanted to keep it quiet and act like they didn't know anything and was willing to sacrifice lives to keep it quiet so the general public wouldn't know just exactly how "alone" our astronauts are when they are on a mission like this. It takes something like 15,000 people and months and months of work just to turn the Shuttles around for another flight. They are a bureaucratic dream. I'm not anti-shuttle, just anti-bloated bureaucracy and the shuttles are an end product of what an ever-growing bureaucracy will produce. The DC-X and Y programs demonstrated what can be done with a lot fewer people with only 4 desktop computers for ground control. I know the DC-X never made it to space, but the Venturestar was chosen over it and that would have been another bureaucratic dream had it not been mercifully killed off.The shuttle program, IMHO, was developed to ensure that NASA's budget and bureaucracy could be preserved after the end of the Apollo program. I'm through ranting now. :D
 

illini

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Originally posted by rebar_rocketry
The shuttle program, IMHO, was developed to ensure that NASA's budget and bureaucracy could be preserved after the end of the Apollo program. I'm through ranting now. :D
You're exactly right. IMHO, what happened was that in NASA's infancy a bunch of motivated and highly qualified people were hired to fulfill the objectives of a mission. NASA wasn't a bureaucracy yet (or at least they didn't realize it yet) because everybody was new to the thing. Once the mission was completed many people left, and those that didn't entrenched themselves giving birth to the NASA bureaucracy we know and hate today. Now the mission wasn't going to the moon. The mission was self preservation. What should have been done with NASA at the end of Apollo instead of giving it a low priority, low budget boondoggle to implement?
 

illini

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Originally posted by Chilly
But this begs the question: how hard is this stuff, really? A lot of the alt.space crowd insists this isn't as hard as NASA makes it out to be. Does NASA overcomplicate the simple things, and oversimplify the complicated?
Well, it depends on what "stuff" we're talking about. Suborbital flights and sending men to Mars are two very different things. However, there is no question that two things lead to NASA making things more complicated than they need be:

1) The public eye - Because of public scrutiny and funding, NASA must maintain a track record of success. Therefore, they tend to reach for lower hanging fruit. And, since lower hanging fruit is by its nature less risky and easier to reach, they tend to lull themselves into complacency and a sense that things are actually easier than they are.

2) Requirements creep - The most innocuous appearing of requirements can have the most adverse effects. Especially when combined and balanced against other requirements. The shuttle is a big white elephant precisely because it was sold as inexpensive payload deployment, crew transport, research platform, and perfectly round ball-bearing factory. On the other hand, if they hadn't made all those promises they probably wouldn't have gotten the funding to build it and, implicitly, to keep NASA alive.
 

powderburner

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Back in the 70's when I worked at Vought, I had the chance to observe the manufacturing process for the RCC components. Those personnel told me that if any one of the RCC pieces had so much as a crack, that the shuttle would be lost. (This even included the T-seals.)

What many people don't realize is that the main, structural portion of the RCC components is basically pure carbon. This carbon will burn when exposed to high-temperature erosive flow. There is a thin layer of chemically-treated carbon on all surfaces of each RCC part that is there specifically to seal and protect the part from the plasma generated at re-entry. If there is a chip or a crack in that layer, the RCC substrate becomes exposed and will be destroyed.

If there is a penetration through all layers of the part, like on the leading edge breach, there is simply no way to survive.

Back then, I was told that there was no repair for a damaged RCC component. To repair the part, it was replaced. I suppose it is possible now that some material could be 'foamed' into place that might withstand a single re-entry, but back in those days there was absolutely nothing available. This is one application where duct tape just won't cut it.
 

illini

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Originally posted by powderburner
Back then, I was told that there was no repair for a damaged RCC component. To repair the part, it was replaced. I suppose it is possible now that some material could be 'foamed' into place that might withstand a single re-entry, but back in those days there was absolutely nothing available. This is one application where duct tape just won't cut it.
I have a hard time imagining how a repair could be done. Maybe something ablative to withstand, as you said, a single re-entry? Might be possible, but seems like it would be very risky. I'm not a materials guy so I'm in no position to speculate. But from a heat transfer perspective, any cracks, kinks, corners, joints, etc., would only serve to act as points to concentrate extreme heat.

My guess is that if you could've launched Atlantis then you would be moving the Columbia crew to Atlantis for recovery. Then maybe you could park Columbia in a slightly higher orbit to buy you some time to come up with a fix to be implemented in a later mission.
 

JStarStar

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My own completely uninformed gut reaction is that many of the problems with the shuttle program are the direct result of shortcuts and corner-cutting mandated by political and budget considerations in the early 1970s when the program was still under development.

The Estes Orbital Transport, of course, is a "space fantasy" model - a vision of a ship that was never built. But in the beginning - in 1969/70, right after Apollo 11 - it was very accurate to many of the proposals that were being put forward for a fully reusable launch vehicle.

Developing the technologies and hardware necessary to create a fully reusable vehicle which would make space travel simply an advanced variation of air travel, would have required another initiative which would have been the near-equivalent of the Apollo program, and the nation either could not afford, or certainly didn't have the will to do it.

At approximately the same time, the SST development program was also shut down, for budgetary reasons and environmental reasons which may not really have had much validity.

The SST and a fully-reusable Shuttle design were somewhat related, since of course a fully-reusable Shuttle carrier stage would have basically the equivalent of an uprated jumbo-sized SST.

So instead of developing a completely new, fully reusable and recoverable vehicle, the Shuttle was cobbled together using as many "off-the-shelf" materials and technologies as possible.

The result, of course, being the ungainly, hodgepodge design of the eventual Shuttle. Which has, of course, proven to be generally highly reliable - but in two cases, tragically not.

The use of the strap-on SRBs and external fuel tank in my (again not really informed) opinion, creates an inherent condition of high structural stress on the entire shuttle assembly, and also raises the probability of external surface damage from falling ice as we saw in Columbia.

If you go back and watch the launch-pad footage of Apollo launches, there are literally tons of falling ice fragments sheeting off the vehicle as it takes off. As far as I ever read, there was no damage resulting from this ice, since the vehicle was a vertical cylinder design and no critical components of the structure were displaced laterally into the fall path of the ice fragments. Plus, I don't think the external surfaces of the Saturn V lower stages were as fragile and vulnerable as the shuttle tile surfaces.

The SRB assemblies are another parallel to our own model rocket adventures - it just seems, again totally intuitively, to me that the segmented SRB design with O-ring junctions just has to be somewhat subject to disastrous blow-throughs (CATOs) as seen in Challenger.

Finally, the parallel-stack construction of the Shuttle rendered any serious escape system almost impossible to implement. Any launch escape or ejection pod system would have probably been so costly in weight so as to almost eliminate the effective payload of the vehicle.

At this point, major redesign of the Shuttle is probably not likely - but after Challenger, I would have suggested a major rebuild of the orbiter vehicle providing for an ejectable crew module with separate parachute recovery, and sufficient heatshield protection to survive ballistic reentry on its own. With such redesign, a crew could realistically survive either a boost-phase or reentry structure failure, something which is not feasible under the current shuttle design.

To acommodate the additional weight of this modification, I would have added one or two additional SRBs to the external tank to provide additional lift capacity - to get the heavier vehicle off the ground - and probably lengthened the external tank to provide additional fuel capacity for the Shuttle main engines.

This major rebuild would have been very costly in both the redevelopment costs, and of course made the vehicle itself more expensive for each launch (using 3-4 SRBs for each launch rather than 2). Of course also the per-launch risk of SRB failure would increase by a proportional amount as well.

Plus, it would have meant probably a 5-year gap after the Challenger disaster, before the shuttles could have returned to service, rather than the 18-month gap we did actually see.

But providing a realistic means of crew escape from a launch or reentry failure would have made the vehicle viable, IMO, for many more years in the future.

It would have been a tradeoff - accept a 5-year delay in getting the shuttle program back in operation in exchange for making both the vehicle itself, and the program as a whole, a more survivable entity.

Suppose the mods had been made, and instead of what actually did happen last February, Columbia breaks up on reentry, the crew module ejects and parachutes to the ground, and a $2 billion vehicle is lost, but the crew survives.

Instead of a 2-or-3-year delay in getting back into service, it might be 6 months. As it stands now, the shuttle program will not survive another flight failure.

Well, NASA never called and asked me what I thought they should do. Like Bruce Willis says, they have guys whose job it is to sit around and think this $#$# up. Hopefully they did think about it.
 

illini

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Originally posted by JStarStar
My own completely uninformed gut reaction is that many of the problems with the shuttle program are the direct result of shortcuts and corner-cutting mandated by political and budget considerations in the early 1970s when the program was still under development.
Not as uninformed as you think. Basically, NASA's political survival was tightly linked to its ability to make good on the promise of routine space transportation. Just about everything was subordinated to that goal...including logic. Requirements creep. The shuttle had to do everything for free...they claimed unbelievably low launch costs. After Challenger, somebody should have stopped to think about whether it has fulfilled its promises. Instead of adding more requirements, making it bulkier, adding SRB's, etc., someone should have realized that it wasn't worth fixing.

Fortunately, in the wake of CAIB that message seems to have been delivered. However, I still think it is a case of too little too late. Now we've given the right mission to the wrong NASA.
 
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