Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Shuttle Launch

NASA Launch Debris Images

I remember visiting Cape Canaveral about three years ago, during a vacation. When we passed by an old external fuel tank, the hostess told us that they used to have the whole thing covered with metal, but when they figured they didn't need the covering, they saved thousands of dollars in fuel.

Then came that wintery Saturday in 2003, when I turned on the TV and saw Mission Control looking as it usually does, but a voice-over said they'd lost contact with Columbia. Sure enough, I turned out to be the first to tell a group of people there the news, in part because many of them had been there the night before and I just got there.

Turns out the unprotected insulation (protection removed to save fuel during launch, it turns out) punched a hole in the leading edge of the left wing of the Columbia. The shuttle didn't have a chance (although once again the cockpit was the last item to fall apart, in a cruel twist of fate leaving the humans to know they were doomed).

So now I'm watching the prelude to today's launch (would be at work; as it turns out I had something else to do) and I notice there's been an adjusted form of the last setup. While they supposedly didn't have any foam in the area from where the chunk that hit Columbia fell, they still had the insulating foam sitting naked on the launch pad.

With eight million changes supposedly done to make sure things were better, the one change that I wanted to see -- the whole thing covered with heat-proof solid shielding -- was the one thing not done. How long before the next deaths? I see NASA puts the risk at 1 per 100 launches. Add the cover, you can increase that number to at least 1 in 250, maybe better.

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