Monday, July 03, 2006

High on Crack: Put the Space Shuttle Out of Its Misery

We forget how safety concerns plagued the space shuttle even before it took its first flight in 1981. From a New York Times story on January 24, 1981: “The astronauts who are to fly the first orbital test mission of the space shuttle Columbia said here today that they had confidence that the new space plane was flightworthy, despite its years of development problems, and that they would be ‘140 percent trained’ by the launching day.” They were preparing to launch aboard Columbia. Of course they could be trained 10,000 percent: It wouldn’t make a difference to a one-pound piece of foam that could come undone and knock a hole in the shuttle’s fuselage, as one did, pulverizing Columbia on re-entry on its twenty-eighth flight and killing its 140-percent-trained crew. Just its twenty-eighth flight. Challenger exploded on its tenth. They’re prepping Discovery, the workhorse of the bunch, for its thirty-second flight, another one of those “return to space” crapshoots, this one on July 4. (Atlantis has had twenty-six flights, Endeavor is still a teen with nineteen).

NASA puts odds of a big accident at 1-in-100, which is, of course, sheer bull: there’s been one hundred and fourteen flights, two of which have ended in disaster. That puts the odds of a disaster at 1-in-50, but they’re actually much lower than that when you look at the flimsy things shuttle by shuttle. NASA is all but begging for a disaster with Discovery, a rickety mass of fixer-uppers that should have gone up last week but has been delayed, day after day, allegedly by weather and now more honestly, maybe, by new discoveries of cracks in the ship’s insulation foam. Read the rest...