1980 article called the shuttle a "death trap"

Photo: Cover of the April 1980 Washington Monthly featuring a story with the teaser title 'Beam us out of this death trap, Scotty!'

If you’re not familiar with Anil Dash, be sure to check out his weblog. In addition to the blog entries, he’s a constant source of interesting links, which appear in the left-hand column of his page. Credit goes to Anil for pointing to a 1980 story written in a magazine called The Washington Monthly. Titled 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … Goodbye, Columbia and given a teaser line “Beam me out of this Death Trap, Scotty!”, it starts off with an unflattering comparison of the shuttle to Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and from there sets out to prove that the shuttle is NASA’s answer to the Ford Pinto.

One of his main arguments is by making it reusable, the shuttle actually throws away one of the best safety aspects of the rockets it’s supposed to replace: space travel puts severe stresses on a vessel:

To truly grasp the challenge of building a space shuttle, think about its flight. The ship includes a 60-by-15-foot open space, narrow wings, and a large cabin where men must be provided that delicately slender range of temperatures and pressures they can endure. During ascent, the shuttle must withstand 3 Gs of stress — inertial drag equivalent to three times its own weight. While all five engines are screaming, there will be acoustic vibrations reaching 167 decibels, enough to kill an unprotected person. In orbit, the shuttle will drift through -250°F vacuum, what engineers call the “cold soak.” It’s cold enough to embrittle and shatter most materials. During reentry, the ship’s skin goes from cold soak to 2,700°F., hot enough to transform many metals into Silly Putty. Then the shuttle must glide along, under control, at speeds up to Mach 25, three times faster than any other piloted aircraft has ever flown. After reentry, it cascades through the air without power; finally thunking down onto the runway at 220 m.p.h. The like-sized DC-9 lands, with power, at 130 m.p.h. Rockets are throwaway contraptions in part so that no one piece ever has to endure such a wild variety of conditions. The shuttle’s design goal is to take this nightmare ride 100 times.

Like a lot of geeks, I find space and space travel fascinating and I’m old enough to remember watching some shuttle TV specials with rapt attention. One well-publicized problem back then — and one that’s resurfacing in the news — about the shuttle were the heat-resistant tiles. Even at only an inch thick, it could be thousands of degrees on one side of a tile, but cool to the touch on the other. The problem was that for all their ability to withstand high temperatures, they were fragile and NASA was having some problems getting them to stick to the shuttle.

Some suspect the tile mounting is the least of Columbia’s difficulties. “I don’t think anybody appreciates the depths of the problems,” Kapryan says. The tiles are the most important system NASA has ever designed as “safe life.” That means there is no back-up for them. If they fail, the shuttle burns on reentry. If enough fall off, the shuttle may become unstable during landing, and thus un-pilotable. The worry runs deep enough that NASA investigated installing a crane assembly in Columbia so the crew could inspect and repair damaged tiles in space. (Verdict: Can’t be done. You can hardly do it on the ground.)

The most chilling stuff the author saved for last: what happens when things go wrong. It’s eerie because he covers two scenarios that should give you a sense of deja vu. One is a possibility of a disaster at launch or shortly afterwards:

Suppose one of the solid-fueled boosters fails. The plan is, you die. Solid rockets can fail in two ways. They can explode; enough said. Or they can shut down spontaneously. If a booster shuts down, there will be 2.5 million pounds of thrust on one side battling zero pounds on the other. Even a split second of this imbalance will send the ship twisting into oblivion, overriding any application of pilot skill.

The other is a description of the landing cycle. The author doesn’t actually say what could go wrong, but he implies that there are lots of ways for things to go all pear-shaped. Landing the shuttle, as it’s becoming clear to the general public, is part technological miracle, part furious mathematical calculations, and part having serious cojones:

The shuttle starts rubbing air at Mach 25–25 times the speed of sound. At 250,000 feet, you have a little control with the reaction thrusters. By 80,000 feet, they’ve shut off, and you’re gliding. It’s silent in the ship. Just the air rushing by and the computers meeping to each other. Biting into the denser air, your elevators and speed brakes lend some control. You can still maneuver “cross range” — several hundred miles north or south relative to your approach from the west. But there are only 15 runways and lake beds in the world where you can land, so don’t get carried away.

Cross-range maneuvering is no longer possible by 50,000 feet. You’re locked in, wherever you’re going. Now you have company. Fighter planes — “chase planes” — have picked you up. They’re swarming all around you, snooping around the hull for damage. Eighteen miles from the runway, you finally slow to subsonic speed. Now you really have some options. At this low speed and altitude, you could punch out safely.

At 12,000 feet, the plummeting begins. Nose down at 24 degrees to the horizon, 30 degrees in some flights. Feels like a dive bomber. That DC-9, the one that makes your knuckles white on commercial flights, comes in at three degrees. Thirty seconds out, you can raise the nose back up. Now you have one and only one chance to lower the landing gear. No time to cycle them. If the gear don’t lock, that’s it. The chase planes are coming right down to the strip with you, following your every move like baby ducks. They snoop around the landing gear. Locked? If not, the chase pilots have a couple seconds to tell you to bail out.

Only a few more seconds. The ground isn’t coming up; some prankster from Hell is throwing it at you. Whack! Down at 220 m.p.h. Hope the rubber in those tires didn’t blow from that long cold soak. Crack! You bounce along, you roll to a stop.

Keep in mind that this is an extremely pessimistic article; I’m sure that someone could’ve easily written a similar piece about the Wright Brothers’ Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, or even the “safer, more depedendable rockets” that the author seems to say are a better choice than the shuttle. Still, it’s a pretty interesting read.

Other reading

An amazing slideshow of plans for space shuttles. A fascinating history of plans for all kinds of reusable spacecraft, complete with illustrations that would look at home in any 1960’s sci-fi paperback. Although it weighs in at a hefty 125 pages, it’s not as oppresive at you might think. There’s an interesting page on the pros and cons of shuttle economics.

It’s not a pleasant thing to have to think about, but… If you lived somewhere along the path of the shuttle’s approach and your property was damaged, NASA has a page that tells you how to file a claim.

Here’s the press kit for Columbia’s final mission, STS-107 [Note: Huge! It’s a 13 MB .PDF file].

Shuttle crewmember Colonel Ilan Ramon has been getting a lot of attention since he’s the first Israeli in space and because of the Current Situation. He was also part of a daring mission in which the Israeli bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was under construction, probably saving Israel from becoming the world’s largest smoking hole in the ground. He was quite gracious in his CNN interview:

O’BRIEN: Let’s close with Colonel Ramon. I have an e-mail question for you, colonel. This comes from Great Britain. “Don’t you think it would have been a powerful evocation and image of humanity if you had flown with a Palestinian or an Arab crew member?” And he wishes good fortune to you. Have you thought much about that?

RAMON: Well, as you probably know, an Arab man already flew in the ’80s. So I am not the first one from there. And I feel like I represent, first of all, of course, the state of Israel and the Jews, but I represent also all our neighbors, and I hope it will contribute to the whole world, and especially to our Middle East neighbors.

(I’m aware that NASA is very PR-aware and that they screen all the questions, but I’m sure that the astronauts have better things to do than memorize answers for interviews.)

I’d like to turn your attention to another astronaut, Kalpana Chawla, who is a hero in her own way — I’ll let the New York Times tell the story:

In the early 1960’s, when Kalpana Chawla was born, the birth of a boy in this north Indian city prompted celebrations and congratulatory visits.

The birth of a girl was met and still is, often — with quiet disappointment.

Kalpana, the youngest of four children, and the third girl, seemed to sense that reality, her brother, Sanjay, said, and from early on was shaped by it.

“She was determined, “`I’m going to tell these guys I’m not just another girl,”‘ Sanjay Chawla said on Saturday. “She was going to be better than the boys.”

And indeed she was.

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