Sunday, December 9, 2007

Rep. Weldon Needs New Staffers.

And you thought the Emperor was the only one sending our space program down a dusty trail? Read the Conference Amendment Text below and see how ignorant our Congressfolk and/or their staffers can be:

SEC. ____ . (a) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall take all actions necessary in fiscal year 2008, including renegotiating necessary prime contracts and subcontracts and ensuring that they do not expire, in order to ensure the option of operating the Space Shuttle beyond the currently planned Shuttle end-of-operations date in 2010. These actions shall be accomplished using existing funds made available by this or any other Act, and shall include --

(1) permitting no contracts necessary for such operation to expire;
(2) keeping all necessary production facilities active, or readily available; and
(3) conditioning any turnover of Shuttle facilities to programs other than the Shuttle program so as to ensure that such turnover will not affect the option to operate the Space Shuttle after 2010.

(b) Actions taken by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under this section shall not negatively affect Constellation program development, schedule, or delivery.

(c) Not later than March 1, 2008, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall report to Congress on how it intends to implement actions under this section within existing funds. Such report shall include a description of the proposed disposition of facilities and how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will keep all Shuttle operations operating while still maintaining the schedule for the development of the Constellation program.

Keep flying Shuttle past 2010 and maintain the schedule for Constellation? Putting the technical issues associated with flying almost 30 year old spaceships aside, just where does Weldon think the budget will come from in this zero sum game to do all of that? We would like to suggest that Weldon buy a couple of gift cards tomorrow and throw a going away party for his space staffers, least he embarrass himself further by pursuing this unenlightened path.


Space said...

Here’s a couple eye-opening references about how many unsafe unknowns are still lurking in the complex and aging Shuttle system.

From an Aviation Week article that quotes directly from Wayne Hale (Shuttle program manager) emails about the ECO issue that has been stalling the current mission:

“It [the ECO system] is designed to protect against an oxygen rich engine shutdown that would cause a catastrophic explosion.

Hale cites past flight data that indicates that could be very risky and that it is “likely that this system has been unreliable all along.”

He also says in the emails that “post flight reconstructions point to a few flights where it is possible that we were close” to using the ECO system.

“It seems to me likely that we have been flying the entire history of the program with a false sense of security and that we have never had reliable protection from LH2 (liquid hydrogen) low level cutoff,” says Hale. “That is a really sobering thought,” he says.

Hale adds at the end of his email that he is considering ordering other major reviews of space shuttle safety systems that could be subject to “smart failures” missed earlier by engineering reviews.”"

The article is on SpaceRef at:

The Orlando Sentinal also discusses a Boeing study to understand the life remaining in various Shuttle materials:

“But not every red flag is clearly visible or well-understood. In another study, Boeing M&P Engineering examined 1,000 “soft” — or nonmetallic –materials used in the shuttle, including critical seals and wire insulation. It found that a fifth of the materials were safe to fly for 40 years, while 10 percent had specific life spans and are replaced when needed. As for the remaining 70 percent, “we don’t have enough data to know whether we could fly them forever,” Russell said. “We think we’re good, but we need to do more,”"

70 percent of 1,000 is 700 materials with unknown lifetimes. Most probably can be flown through 2010 or 2015. But it would only take a very small fraction of these materials to reach the end of their unknown lifetimes before 2010 or 2015 to create failure modes, some of which may be catastrophic.

The article is at:,0,25309.story

It boggles the mind that with these huge unknowns and catastrophic risks embedded in the system that any congressman or staffer would support flying the Shuttle through 2010 to build out a woefully underutilized space station, nevertheless propose legislation to ensure Shuttle flights through 2015 just to avoid buying a handful of more cheap Soyuz/Progress flights. The rewards do not seem commensurate with the risks of a third Shuttle accident (or Shuttle’s annual $4-5 billion cost), not in the least.

Space said...

It's also worth rereading the CAIB report, especially p. 44-47 of volume 1, which details just how close the Columbia accident came to injuring or killing uninvolved persons on the ground.

To refresh our memories, at least 84,000 pieces of found debris representing about a third of Columbia’s dry mass fell over 2.3 million acres in eastern Texas and western Louisiana. The actual breakup started over the Pacific Ocean, and although none was recovered, falling debris was sighted starting in Sacramento, California. Some of the debris included highly toxic compounds and explosive components like monomethyl hydrazine, nitrogen tetroxide, concentrated ammonia, and pyrotechnic releases. Among the close calls were 600- and 800-pound pieces of the main engines that dug holes in and nearby a golf course; hot debris that landed in a space a few feet wide between two highly explosive natural gas tanks; a woman who almost lost control of her car when debris hit her windshield, and a fisherman who saw debris land in the water he was fishing. FEMA spent $305 million on clean-up, and that doesn’t include NASA’s costs. Searchers lost their lives in a subsequent helicopter accident.

Lest we also forget, the fundamental Shuttle ET foam/orbiter TPS safety issue that led to Columbia’s breakup has not been (and cannot be) fixed.

It’s one thing for Congressmen to put astronaut lives at risk. But it’s entirely another thing to risk the lives of uninvolved innocents and their property on the ground, especially when they’re from the same states as the Congressmen.

Even if they’re too lazy or blind to do the research themselves, these Congressmen and their staffs at least need to listen the advice of the CAIB and other experts before extending Shuttle operations beyond 2010. If anything, decisionmakers should be pressing to shut down Shuttle operations as soon as possible, before 2010.