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Shedding Shuttle


Once again NASA is dealing with shuttle damage caused by a chunk of foam. And, as a result, once again we’re pondering the state of America’s space program.

The cool website How Things Work reminds us what was done in the wake of the Columbia disaster a few years ago:

One hundred and seven cameras (Infrared, High Speed Digital Video, HDTV, 35 mm, 16 mm) have been placed on and around the launch pad to film the shuttle during liftoff.

Ten sites within 40 miles of the launch pad have been equipped with cameras to film the shuttle during ascent.

On days of heavier cloud cover when ground cameras will be obscured, two WB-57 aircraft will film the shuttle from high altitude as it ascends.

Three radar tracking facilities (one with C-band and two with Doppler radar) will monitor the shuttle to detect debris.

New digital video cameras have been installed on the ET to monitor the underside of the orbiter and relay the data to the ground through antennae installed in the ET.

Cameras have been installed on the SRB noses to monitor the ET.

The shuttle crew has new handheld digital cameras to photograph the ET after separation. The images will be downloaded to laptops on the orbiter and then transmitted to the ground.

A digital spacewalk camera will be used for astronauts to inspect the orbiter while in orbit.

Finally, engineers and technicians have installed 66 tiny accelerometers and 22 temperature sensors in the leading edge of both wings on the orbiter. The devices will detect the impact of any debris hitting the orbiter’s wings.

So, as proved during each of the missions subsequent to Columbia, engineers are going to see what falls off during ascent. What then? According to “How Stuff Works,” options include applying pre-ceramic polymers to small cracks or using small mechanical plugs made of carbon-silicone carbides to repair damage up to 6 inches in diameter.

In this case, according to AP, views reveal that “the first foam fragment came off at 24 seconds after liftoff and appeared to hit the tip of the body flap. The second was 58 seconds after liftoff with a resulting spray or discoloration on the right wing. The third came almost three minutes after liftoff, too late to cause any damage to the right wing.”

As an aviator its hard for me to imagine flying a craft I knew had a high likelihood of shedding parts after every launch, but I guess that’s why astronauts are still considered a breed apart (diaper jokes notwithstanding). I have faith in folks like my friend and former squadronmate “Grace” Kelly (the pilot on the current mission) but at the same time I wonder if it isn’t time to move past this 26-year-old platform.

More details surrounding the current situation at Military​.com.

– Ward

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicholas Weaver August 14, 2007 at 11:48 am

The question: is it time to move beyond manned space flight altogether, at least for the next decade (except for tourists willing to shell out a multimillion-dollar check to Richard Branson, of course).
For example, on the Columbia disaster, a “scientific” mission, the only science could have either been done by robots or presumes continued, near term, long duration spaceflight.
For the price of ONE shuttle launch ($1B+ easily), you can launch 4 Atlas V rockets in heavy lift configuration, each carrying 10 tons of payload to the LEO that the shuttle operates in, with no risk to human life. With the shuttle only carrying 25 tons, and having about a 1/50 chance of killing 7 people in the process, you do the math.
Likewise, the “Science” produced by the ISS is nonexistant, it is a creaky Motel 6 in low earth orbit, serving only as a resource for NASA contractors.


Roy Smith August 14, 2007 at 12:32 pm

Since it is so dangerous to put men into space with the Space shuttle,then manned flight to mars,much less the moon,is totally out of the question.Sending more rovers like Spirit & opportunity is the answer.If they can work on robotic aircraft that can land & take off from both Mars & the moon,that would be worth it.If they can get robotic spacecraft to take off & land,then later they can discuss manned flight.Why no research & development on this?


Camp August 14, 2007 at 12:48 pm

Personally, I thought the X-33 should have been finished, but that’s just me. The Project was supposed to have been around +80% complete. I wonder what they did with the vehicle & launch center. I recall an article stating that the Air Force was looking at taking over the project? Eh, guess not.
“Lockheed Martin X-33″
“Aerospike engine”
“Lockheed Unveils Shuttle Replacement - A PM Exclusive”
“Crew Exploration Vehicle”
And because so many people are killed in car wrecks, then nobody should be allowed to drive. And since the outside world is filled with scary things… maybe I shouldn’t ever leave my house. j/k ;p


el mossomo August 14, 2007 at 1:49 pm

Aren’t they to retire the shuttles in 2009.
The anti-gov’t lean this site has recently taken detracks from what this site used to be.


Solomon August 14, 2007 at 1:53 pm

How is the presentation of information thats in the public realm “anti-government” or even political? Amazing! Simply Amazing!


Mac August 14, 2007 at 2:18 pm

Shortly after the Columbia disaster I went to a major computer-industry tradeshow which included a lot of R&D exhibits. One company was demonstrating an automated system which monitored and evaluated multiple simultaneous video feeds and alerted ground control to potential problems.
What was interesting is that they fed it imagery from the Columbia launch and it flagged things which they claim would have indicated the O-ring failure to the ground crew, potentially preventing the disaster.
I don’t know what became of that company or how valid their claims were, but I do wonder if automated monitoring of video feeds is part of the launch process these days.
As an aside, I’m laughing at commenter Nicholas Weaver’s choice of words. “Move beyond manned spaceflight” makes it sound as if backing down from that frontier is somehow a kind of progress.


Dennis August 14, 2007 at 3:37 pm

Am I way out of line or did the problems with the foam start after they stopped painting the tank?
From what I remember, they found there was something like 80 pounds in painting the tank, so they decided to lighten up by not painting it. After all it is just going to burn up after it is jettisoned…..
Could the paint have been holding the foam together?
Just thinking out loud…….
As for giving up on the shuttle, NASA like most Federal bureaucracies cannot seem to get out of its own way.
The shuttle is a relic, no matter how much upgrading they have done. I hate to say it but they should have a new vehicle on the drawing board every decade.
They could reuse parts that work well, like rockets, but come on, with the speed at which technology is progressing any vehicle they build is hopelessly obsolete ten years later.
Instead of spending all the money upgrading parts on existing vehicles, they should just start over.
As for giving up on manned flight, that will just take all the fun out of it. NASA is a spectator sport, so I do not see that happening soon.
It would be really nice if they actually spent money on alternatives to rocket power. It is still much to expensive to go into space.
But since NASA is in charge, so I assume the Chinese will be the first to put together a non-rocket or hybrid system of getting into space. After they steal the technology from a small U.S startup that is.


George Skinner August 14, 2007 at 3:56 pm

In many ways, the shuttle is still a technological wonder: the biggest spacecraft capable of atmospheric re-entry ever built, capable of carrying a huge payload to orbit or returning one to Earth, and nominally reusable. The design has got too many flaws, though, and it’s time to replace it with something better. The design pushed ’70s technology right to the edge, meaning that the vehicle has never been robust, making it expensive to operate. It lacks a credible escape system for the crew. It has features that were never needed and make it less efficient (i.e. big delta wing.) Mike Griffin was right in 2006 when he commented that the shuttle was a dead-end for NASA - too bad that he recanted when he got slapped with the emotional backlash from an organization that has invested years into making a flawed design work. Too bad NASA’s budget has been consumed by the shuttle and station for so long. It would’ve been brilliant if NASA could’ve proceeded to prototype stage with all of the X-33 proposals instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket with the LockMart design. They probably would’ve had a shuttle replacement by now - the McDonnell-Douglas design had already been proven in concept form with the DC-X, and the Rockwell design was an evolutionary advancement on the shuttle that almost certainly would’ve worked.


James August 14, 2007 at 6:03 pm

wtf is wrong with nasa DCX was awsome they get it say hmmm and boom it messes up and burns so lets look at it this way
shuttle=small foam brakes off tank dooms flight
dcx9=(pre nasa screwing with it)suffers small explosion(SMALL EXPLOSION!!!!!!!!!!!!!)aborts returns to earth safly
dangit what is wrong with them shuttle was ok for the 70 maybe 80s
nasa is obbsessed with hightech future stuff high cost basicly
heres the facts space=dangerous=only way to save our planet from disaster=$$$$$$
nasa just wants to keep its head down and not worrytake it slow things might go wrong then we’ed look bad damn politicians. look at half there experiments there not worried about manned spaceflight.
ask a nasa administartor about the replacment for the shuttle hell say im sure itll be here in 50yrs or so and not to worry about so little time being tested itll be safe we think…dont quote me.
nasa needs to wake up realise it dosent have 20 or 30 yrs to find a change for the spaceshuttle we need a replacment now
hehe sorry im just a little frustrated
but hell we asked them a good way to go to the moon we get…what…an upgraded appollo spacecraft fttt nm stupid uptight nasa ppl


murc August 14, 2007 at 7:17 pm

I think the author of this has diarrhea of the mouth, he is cleary rambling on and on about something he knows nothing about.
I’ll keep this short and simlpe.
Th shuttle will be retired in 2010, we need it until then to continue construction on the International Space Station. By around 2012-2014 we will have the Shuttle’s replacement ready for flight. And before 2020, we will be on the moon, and begin building a permanent moon base…and maybe 10-15 years beyond that…….man will finally reach Mars.


James Lloyd August 14, 2007 at 9:00 pm

From a retired aerospace quality engineer: O-rings were not in my baliwick. Do remember a basic warning: they do not perform well in cold weather. Should have waited for a better day? Really good-hindsight.
Spent years working on better methods of inspecting poly-foam thermal blankets on ET. Cryo-pumping and monococal vibrations are inherent in the launch process. Evaluate and fix-whatever it takes. Make sure you have a backup.
Are we suffering from the Dumbeth Syndrome?


Piotr S. August 14, 2007 at 11:25 pm

So they installed a gazillion cameras, but are still using that eco-friendly foam that Greg Katnik wrote about?
That’s not improving safety, that’s sick voyeurism.


Sam Adams August 14, 2007 at 11:44 pm

> I hate to say it but they should have a new vehicle on the drawing >board every decade.
>They could reuse parts that work well, like rockets, but come on, >with the speed at which technology is progressing any vehicle >they build is hopelessly obsolete ten years later.
Actually the opposite is true. We need a simple system that we refine over decades, but workes correctly from the start with saftey designed in. Look at the Russians…that’s what they have done. Same Soyuz craft for over 30 years, while we’ve had two big gaps as we transitioned from Apollo to Shuttle, and soon from Shuttle to CEV.


Thomas L. Nielsen August 15, 2007 at 1:37 am

My 2 cents worth:
1. Should the shuttle be replaced ? YES! It is, was and will continue to be a failure. Not in the sense of blowing up or incinerating itself on re-entry (although it has done both), but in the sense of never having become what it was suppose to be: A cheap, routine access to space. Last I heard, launching a pound of mass into orbit on the shuttle is actually more expesive than any expendable launch vehicle you care to name. Conclusion: Time to move on, but don’t count on NASA to do the moving. Look at NASA’s “next generation” CEV! Little more than a glorified Apollo. We must do better than that, and we can, if we get private industry involved. What we need is for space to become a business rather than an esoteric government science project.
2. As for “Just use automated probes” ? No way! Space is far too exciting to leave to robots. Was it one of the Apollo astronauts who once said that “Only a human can interpret space in terms that other humans can understand”, or some such thing ? And furthermore, IMNSHO, getting people into space, to the Moon, to Mars, to the outer Solar System and beyond, is the very reason we have a space program at all. Why ? Well, have you seen any Dinosaurs around recently? NO, because they got wiped out by a gazillion tons of rock smacking into the planet! That could happen to us too, you know.
So onwards and upwards.
Regards & all
Thomas L. Nielsen


Robert Chambers August 15, 2007 at 6:00 am

The original shuttle tanks did not have this problem because they were tiled. They abandoned this due to the weight. But the foam insulation was protected from the wind sheer by those tiles.
Why can’t NASA come up with a lightweight plastic coating to cover the external tank with?
Just my two cents…


James August 15, 2007 at 4:33 pm

ok first sorry murc to have offended you with my arse mouth i just feel kinda strongly about some things
heres what gets me though nasa i think kind off suffers from the same thing USAF does about aircraft this isnt against usaf or anybody just way things are
check this link out
just though it showed something
look at the A-10 no general wanted to touch it only the engineers so what do we get? the best ground attach aircraft ever built if ya ask me. I think nasa has the same problem try to put to much stuff into one vehicle look at todays cars there isnt a margin for error its so complex that if they messup now you cant work onem without 15 special tools.
And realy as for move beyond manned space flight
all i have to say to that…..imagine a world without tang!!!
no seriously that kinda defeats the perpose of it dosent it just turnes it into another big science experiment
one more question though isnt there a subsitute to the tiles that isnt so fragile?


George Skinner August 16, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Unfortunately, there isn’t really any alternative to the tiles that wouldn’t require a complete vehicle redesign. The tile construction has been upgraded over the years, but silica tiles just aren’t robust. Anything more durable would be too heavy. The X-33 program was going to evaluate a metallic heat shielding system that promised to be much more robust, but I think it required a lighter design that would encounter its peak heating higher in the upper atmosphere, and may also have needed a hot vehicle structure design (i.e. titanium instead of aluminum) because it wasn’t as effective as the silica tiles.
Also, the shuttle external tank was never tiled. The tank on the first two missions was painted, but the paint really didn’t contribute anything to foam integrity. The foam pops off due to cryopumping between the foam & tank, and structural flexing during liftoff. If something like painting the tank or wrapping it in plastic would help, NASA would’ve done it after the Columbia disaster. The foam’s probably going to pop off one way or another, so a better approach would be to come up with a design that tolerates it. That’d mean putting the spacecraft on top of the tank so that it can’t be hit by foam or ice, rather than the shuttle design where we hang a vehicle with a non-robust TPS on the side of a tank shedding debris on launch!


Ken August 16, 2007 at 4:56 pm

Certainly no expert, but did have a slight Shuttle connection when I worked as an intern with McDonnell-Douglas in the early nineties on the defunct Aerobrake project in Huntsville (which would have been launched from the Shuttle).
Here’s what I would like to see:
1) A true internodal space transportation craft, something to stay in space permenantly to carry explorers between heavenly bodies. It would almost certainly need to be nuclear powered. Something fast, like a four week voyage to Mars at closest approach. Have maybe three or four of these crafts.
2) A small reusable winged craft that can reliably get from the ground to LEO and back. Something big enough to carry a pilot, co-pilot, 6 or so passengers and a couple tons of supplies. This would service the internodal vehicle and the space station. Why a reusable craft instead of a one shot deal? Just because dammit.
3) Continue unmanned exploration, especially of the outer planets.


Dennis August 17, 2007 at 8:01 am

Sorry George,
“The tank on the first two missions was painted, but the paint really didn’t contribute anything to foam integrity. The foam pops off due to cryopumping between the foam & tank, and structural flexing during liftoff. If something like painting the tank or wrapping it in plastic would help, NASA would’ve done it after the Columbia disaster.”
I just don’t have that much faith in NASA. I am probably wrong, but in the twenty or so years they were flying the shuttle with the tank painted I do not remember them having these issues. The removed the paint and now this foam is smashing the tiles.
My faith in NASA would be a little stronger if they did not at first shrug off the foam as being the cause of the last shuttle disaster and and the fact that they have been flying this thing for over twenty years and still haven’t worked all the bugs out.
Even as corrupt as the military procurement programs are, they would have changed designs, manufacturers and did whatever they had to do to get out from under a design that did not live up to expectations.
And for the fellow that thinks we should have created a simple system that is cheap to operate, I don’t disgree. But only to a point.
That thought is based on the idea that rockets are the way to go. At this point they are, but in the near future (and arguably even now) there are systems that could be cheaper, and much safer.
NASA after all, is supposed to be pushing the boundaries of technology to get us into space. As far as I can tell they are failing in that mandate.


j house August 17, 2007 at 11:21 am

Poor design doomed the Space Shuttle from the start.I always wondered why they didn’t apply the foam to the interior of the tank, not the outside of it.That should have kept temperatures high enough on the outside of the tank to prevent ice from forming.It would then have not been subject to the dynamic pressures it does being on the outside of the tank and the integrity probably wouldn’t have been compromised.
I also never understood why the RCC leading edge of the orbiter wasn’t backed by the same material the shuttle tiles are made of, instead of a hollow space behind it within the aerostructure. That spaced should have been stuffed with an insulating material, like the ceramic foam, in case of a leading edge breach.That may have given the crew of the Columbia time to re-enter without a catastrophic break-up of the spacecraft.
Probably the most suprising thing to NASA safety engineers is why the turbopumps never had a catastrophic failure in 150+ flights.Those are really marvels of engineering and have held together every time.


George Skinner August 17, 2007 at 2:56 pm

They only painted the ET for the first 2 shuttle missions. Even on STS-1 and -2 they found tile damage on the orbiter. NASA just normalized it over the years - it hadn’t led to any serious problems over a couple of decades of operation, how bad could it be? As it turns out, that was a bad assumption. The foam shedding problem is so fundamental to the design of the vehicle that there’s really no cost- or time-effective fix. This isn’t the only problem they’ve had with the shuttle design either. The Challenger o-ring failure is notorious, but then there were the problems with frayed wiring discovered on STS-99 that required a complete inspection of the fleet, ongoing issues with the SSME that were only resolved with a new turbopump design in the ’90s, aging hydrazine-powered APUs, obsolete flight control computers, a borderline braking system on landing (hence the drag chute), no viable escape system, etc. etc. It’s hard to blame NASA for all of this because the shuttle is such a complex system that you could fly for another 25 years without figuring out all the interactions. The focus has always been on getting it working and trying not to mess with it once it’s working. From the outside, the picture always looks like NASA and contractor incompetence, but once you get involved in a real technology development program, you realize just how tough this stuff is. Not to say it couldn’t be done better, but I’ve got more sympathy now.


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??? August 7, 2008 at 8:51 pm

The question: is it time to move beyond manned space flight altogether, at least for the next decade (except for tourists willing to shell out a multimillion-dollar check to Richard Branson, of course).


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