The Space Shuttle Needs an Escape Capsule
by Vince Page
On Saturday, February 1st, 2003, I did not turn on the television until 10:00 am, and then I did so to catch Fox News, one of the staples of my day. The headline on the bottom third of the screen said, "Shuttle Breaks Up Over Texas" and images of the Challenger disaster almost 17 years ago to the day started flooding through my mind.
I remember that day very well. It was icy cold. Icicles were hanging everywhere on the launch structure. The night before, I made a phone call to another engineer in which we were both concerned that ice dislodged during a launch under such conditions would inevitably damage the shuttle. We were wrong. A group of managers did what the ice could not by authorizing a launch below the minimum allowable operating temperature for the booster rocket o-rings.
During the launch of the Shuttle Columbia, some small pieces of the aircraft broke free and struck a wing, but NASA declared after a review of camera footage that the mission was good to go and would not be foreshortened. After the mission in outer space had been completed, something then happened on re-entry that caused the shuttle to break-up, and many man-hours will now be expended determining the exact nature of the cause. Do not look for a complete answer in less than one year. That's the average timetable for such investigations.
What we can already say, however, is that the Columbia disaster points up some unfinished business from the Challenger disaster. There are many engineers who believe that there were three causes for the Challenger disaster. First and foremost were managers who were making engineering decisions. This, of course, can ruin your entire day, as the Challenger crew found out. Second on the list of importance was the lack of an escape capsule in the Shuttle design. And last on the list was the o-ring design, which would have worked properly if managers had not operated it below its minimum design temperature of 50oF. In the end, it was decided to improve the o-ring design in large part so that the management staff could save face. Engineers did improve the design, because engineers can improve anything if they are given enough money and time.
I do not bring these issues up to point fingers, but rather to emphasize that space travel is inherently dangerous for various and sundry reasons. It has ever been so and it will always be so. No amount of assurance, no regurgitation of reliability statistics and no sun-shiny platitudes will ever change that. Accidents are possible in all phases of flight and will eventually occur in all phases of flight. What we need is an insurance policy against such events.
It was a depressing day when NASA announced after the Challenger disaster that incorporating an escape capsule into the Shuttle design would be too difficult, and so therefore a capsule would not be incorporated. Excuse me? What kind of a motto is that for a space program? It's too difficult, so we won't do it?
To show you the absurdity of this statement, protective escape capsules are now used in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing and many other forms of boat racing. In other words, the technology used in the sporting world has exceeded the technology used by NASA to protect our astronauts, not to mention the ever-growing population of civilians in space.
NASA did implement a ridiculous bail-out system for astronauts after the Challenger disaster, where astronauts must blow a hatch and exit their protective surroundings. But during a mission, the shuttle rarely travels at less than 10,000 miles per hour. The wind will rip you apart at such speeds, and the altitudes involved will deprive you of oxygen. NASA's bail-out system is laughable and was only implemented to show that NASA had done something. NASA's position? Flying is inherently dangerous and astronauts accept those risks.
I beg to differ, especially when we are sending civilians - including another Teacher in Space - back into orbit. After 1986, the public rightfully expected that everything was done that could be done to protect civilians in space, but on February 1st of 2003, an Israeli civilian lost his life in another disaster. I do not mean to discount the lives of service personnel here. They too should be able to expect that everything has been done to safeguard their lives. And remember, it is generally agreed that the Challenger crew lived until their compartment impacted the water. Their capsule really could have used a parachute that day. I don't see what's so difficult about that. I don't see that everything has been done to safeguard the lives of astronauts until such a system is deployed.
The President of the United States now has an opportunity to correct the situation by ordering that an escape capsule shall be designed for the Space Shuttle and that the shuttle is grounded - except for those flights specifically authorized by the Commander and Chief - until an escape capsule is incorporated into the shuttle. With oxygen, a protective capsule, and a parachute on that capsule, 80% of possible accident scenarios can be made survivable. The president needs to mandate that it will be so. History has taught us that we cannot leave the decision to NASA. In short, the president must lead.
Vince Page is the Communications Director for the Texas State Constitution Party and is a District Deputy for the Texas State Knights of Columbus. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com
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