Monday, January 30, 2006

Challenger +20

It's profoundly depressing to think that, 20 years after Challenger and even longer since the Shuttle was promised to be the next great leap in space exploration, we've effectively gone nowhere in Space Exploration. If anything, we've regressed. Launching one space shuttle in the last three years isn't exactly inspiring.

And that's kind of the point - inspiration. I'm just as wowed by SpaceShipOne and the potential for space tourism as any nerd, but none of the commercial plans thus far call for anything really exploratory. Bush's plan for a new plan of exploration is about as bad as his father's was, and is just as doomed.

Almost 40 years after Apollo 11, and almost 35 years after Apollo 17 (the first and last lunar landings, respectively) there is no serious manned exploration program.

Anyway, my personal Challenger story is kind of an odd one. I was all of 4 years old when the first Space Shuttle disaster happened, and was attending kindergarten at a Catholic School in Ottawa. Bizarrely, the day after the shuttle blew up the teacher (an honest to God habit-wearing nun) decided to teach us all about God's majesty and power. She asked us all to name things that happened in the world, to which she responded "God made that happen." Whatever we named, God made it happen.

(I've never understood how this would be effective at teaching Christianity, but whatever...)

When it came to be my turn, I asked if God made the spaceship blow up. The nun immediately said "yes, of course."

I'm not sure many people can trace the exact moment when they started down the road to atheism, but I can. That answer made no sense to me as a four-year old, and it hasn't gotten clearer since.

If you're interested, James Oberg (an excellent author of space exploration, with unfortunate wingnut tendencies on other matters) has a piece talking about the 7 big myths of the Challenger explosion. Aside from the creepy fact that the explosion didn't kill the crew (they lived almost another three minutes until the crew cabin hit the Atlantic ocean) this myth is probably the most obnoxious form of ass-covering from NASA, an organization that excels at ass-covering:
Myth #7: An unavoidable price for progress
Claims that the disaster was the unavoidable price to be paid for pioneering a new frontier were self-serving rationalizations on the part of those responsible for incompetent engineering management — the disaster should have been avoidable. NASA managers made a bad call for the launch decision, and engineers who had qualms about the O-rings were bullied or bamboozled into acquiescence. The skeptics’ argument that launching with record cold temperatures is valid, but it probably was not argued as persuasively as it might have been, in hindsight. If launched on a warmer day, with gentler high-altitude winds, there’s every reason to suppose the flight would have been successful and the troublesome seal design (which already had the attention of designers) would have been modified at a pace that turned out to have been far too leisurely. The disaster need never have happened if managers and workers had clung to known principles of safely operating on the edge of extreme hazards — nothing was learned by the disaster that hadn’t already been learned, and then forgotten.

1 comment:

Westacular said...

While I won't argue with that article, it's worth noting that the Shuttle program has since its start been a mess of conflicting, impractical objectives from political sources.

Whereas, say, Apollo, and any number of probe missions, have had clear, specific objectives for what they were meant to achieve -- goals which they could be designed for from the ground up -- the Shuttle's raison d'etre was to do everything for everyone, reusably. A premature attempt at generalization, whose requirement specs were (quite necessarily) compromised to the point of questionable utility, that ultimately has been plagued with problems and done not much for anyone (yes, that last part is a gross and cruel exaggeration).

It's like they wanted a car to replace trains, and couldn't wait for someone to invent the internal-combustion engine.

Yes, the shuttle was a noble idea, and it's had its succeesses. I just can't help but wonder where NASA would be now if it had continued to focus on (or had the support to focus on) real goals.