31 January, 2011

Space Shuttle Columbia and the Future of the Space Program

While reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger last week, I realized that Columbia's anniversary would only come a week later.
On February 1st 2003 the space shuttle Columbia was on its decent from a science mission in space when it broke up in the atmosphere. I was on my mission when this happened but I remember a member of the church bringing it up while we were eating at their house later that night. Even in a small town down in the Yucatan they follow our space program. After an extensive investigation it was revealed NASA had failed to heed the warnings of engineers who had pointed out on the that a piece of foam fell off the external fuel tank and nailed the shuttles wing on takeoff. All it would have taken was a space walk to asses the damage but NASA did not see how a piece of foam could punch a hole in a wing strong enough to withstand the incredibly high temperatures that the shuttle experiences on re-entry.

A rescue mission could have been conducted with the space shuttle Atlantis, which was preparing for a visit to the International Space Station. People started to question why NASA would make such compromises on such dangerous missions. My opinion is that it has to do with money. The agency receives about 0.5% of the national budget. That's about half a penny on the dollar. When you delay a shuttle mission it is costly and when you don't have much money you end up taking risks. Even space shuttle Challenger could have been saved. It blew up shortly after takeoff because of an O-Ring failure. NASA was urged not to launch the shuttle in such icy temperatures for exactly that reason but they went ahead anyway. As you watch this video you can hear the commander say "Roger.Go at throttle up." When he throttles up the challenger explodes.

With only 2 more space shuttle flights left NASA has contracted with Russia to carry our astronauts into space over the next 3 years. Under President Obama's new vision for space exploration, NASA hopes that the private space industry can pick up the workload while NASA works on developing a heavy lift rocket to take astronauts beyond earth orbit, something they have not achieved since 1972. SpaceX is a major contender for the replacement of a crew vehicle. They have already achieved 2 orbital flights with one making it safely back to earth on a re-entry test.

It is not the end for the US space program, it's just another step to creating something better. When the Apollo era came to an end there was a 5 year gap in US space flight before the Space Shuttle Columbia had its maiden voyage on April 12th 1981. As you can see here, this is the only time the external fuel tank is painted white for a launch. The memory of the incredible crew and vehicle Columbia will always be a reminder that space is dangerous. You cannot put a price on life.

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