Sunday, February 02, 2003

"Blowups Happen"

A good meeting last night, not as somber as I expected. We went to see Chicago afterwards - (soundtrack here). Another member who happened to be in advertising just lost her job a few days after her car was stolen. One or two people there are working temp after not finding anything else.

Afterwards I wanted to relax with something to read and decided it would be good to read something from Heinlein.

Someone years ago found that all engineers at NASA had read Heinlein as a child. I had The Past Through Tomorrow - his collection of early stories that is a good place to start. Planning on reading "The Man Who Sold The Moon" I saw its immediate precursor and read that instead.

"Blowups Happens" deals with bright engineers under pressure at a large atomic plant. Always a step away from disater they face psychological problems.

"Blowups Happen" in conjunction with "The Man Who Sold The Moon" has an important lesson for today. A disaster in space that takes place right after "Blowups Happens" did not slow down a space program but the cessation in orbital flight instead inspired one person to use his influence to launch a moon program.

I hope yesterday's disaster and the loss of the crew who died doing what they loved inspires someone else.

I hope that a look at the Columbia disaster will help people realize that the principal cause is that we have been trying to do manned space flight on the cheap. Ever since Nixon, our space program has been under funded for what we hope to do. According to many reports, this has only gotten worse in the last decade and particularly in the last several years.

Now, my father's new house is on the perimeter of a hundreds of square miles debris field of scrap and human remains.

What many people don't realize is that a realistic appraisal of shuttle launchings yields a goal of about a 1-200 chance of disaster. With this unexpected blowup it looks like we are somewhere around 1-100. Whatever lessons we learn from this may take us to the next level.

I, and all the astronauts, thinks 1-200 are acceptable odds and the bigger problem is the lack of an active program. They have cut manned space flight to 5 or so flights a year instead of the anticipated tens. As experience increases, the chance of a disaster goes down and with a larger fleet of space vehicles the loss of one is easier to handle.

A replacement smaller space plane is already on the drawing boards but we need a space truck like the shuttle to complete the space station. We also need a much cheaper satellite launch system. Once those are in place we can decide on the next steps.

Westbrook in TIME is urging an end to both the shuttle and the International Space Station and that NASA be reestablished with new, unspecified, goals.

I disagree and think the problem is underfunding.

The space program has run up against the main trend in government today which is to cut taxes and reduce spending. I think there is a purpose for taxes and the advance of science and man's reach should be one of those purposes. The loss of the crew of Columbia should inspire us to do more, not less.

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