Sunday, May 01, 2011

NASA as "The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight"

According to the April 29th, 2011 article "Shuttle Launch Fever: NASA's VIP Guest list for Endeavors Last Hurrah" about 700,000 people, including US President Barack Obama and his family, parked themselves at various locations up, down and around the Kennedy Space Center on Friday to watch the space shuttle Endeavor remain perfectly stationary instead of blasting off to the International Space Station (ISS) for the second last mission of the US space shuttle fleet.
US space shuttle Endeavor on the launch pad. Photo C/O of "The Space Shuttle is waiting."
Initial news reports such as the April 29th, 2011 article "NASA Scrubs Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch at Least 72 Hours" suggested only short launch delays, but by Sunday follow-on reports such as the May 1st, 2011 SpaceRef article "Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch Delayed Again" indicated far longer delays stretching out at least into the following week.

Endeavor APU's.
As of Sunday night, the problem has been tracked to something called a load control assembly (LCA) switch box which transfers power between multiple auxiliary power units (APU) on  the shuttle. The LCA is expected to need to be removed in order to further troubleshoot the problem according to this April 29th, 2011 post on the National Space Society blog.

Of course, launch delays seem to be an inevitability with the space shuttle.

According to the August 7th, 2007 CBS News article "For Space Shuttle, Delays Are Typical" approximately 40% of space shuttle launches are delayed for one reason or another and that 40% rate is "not so bad," according to the expert cited in the article.

Hopefully this success rate is better than the punctuality of the US train service between major American cities.

As for the 700,000 tourists in  Florida, including the US first family and others who had mostly made the trip to see the shuttle actually do something, it's reasonable to say that the trip was a bit of a disappointment.
Shuttle Endeavor atop modified 747 transport in December 2008.
Canadian's who didn't get to see the launch included Canadian ambassador to the US Gary Doer, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario David Charles Onley, plus Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean, Vice President Chummer Farina and CSA Director General Space Technologies Gilles Leclerc.

The Canadian's attended to mark the "Canadarm’s 89th mission since it first flew on Shuttle Columbia for STS-2 in 1981" according to the April 20th, 2011 press release "Final Flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour: Canada's Contribution" on the CSA website. Endeavor's Canadarm is also expected to end up in a Canadian museum according to the April 12th, 2011 CBC News article "Endeavors Canadarm coming home."

Most of the tourists who expected to watch the shuttle liftoff are slowly beginning to make their way back home and that's just how the ball bounces during these last waning days of the space shuttle program.

It wasn't always like this, of course.

According to Keith Cowing in his August 10th, 2010 NASA Watch article "What is the Shuttles True Legacy?" there was once a time when the shuttle looked truly revolutionary:
The early Shuttle missions - satellite deployments, retrievals and repair - are missions that could never be approved in today's risk averse culture (and some of which were banned following the Challenger accident). The operations cost of the Shuttle system, devoid of space tugs and orbital maneuvering vehicles, soared along with the machine's flights. But on missions flying Spacelab modules and Spacehab units, the orbiter came close to achieving its storied promise as a space-going truck.
Of course, that was before the loss of shuttles Challenger (in 1986) and Columbia (in 2003) locked the program into a growing risk adverse culture focused on shuttle crew "safety" and maintaining NASA jobs under the logical fallacy that, the more people you have that studying things closely, the safer those things being studied are going to end up.

Shuttle schematics.
After the loss of the Challenger, the August 12th, 1989 New Scientist article "Odds on for a second shuttle disaster" predicted another shuttle disaster within ten years. This seems to have been an accurate prediction of the Columbia loss so there are certainly good reasons for appropriate caution and due-diligence with our remaining shuttle fleet during their final few voyages.

But this also suggests that the shuttles are dangerous, finicky to fly ships which is a point that has generally been conceded by all concerned and is the major reason why the remaining shuttles are being retired.

And while it's certainly for the best if the shuttle program winds slowly down in a whimper of diminishing interest as launch delays pile up (at least when compared to the explosive bang of one final catastrophe), it would also have been nice for the final few missions to go as planned just to show how well everything sometimes did work.

The history of the space shuttle is yet to be written, but it doesn't seem possible that this narrative will age well or grow into our collective consciousness in the same way as our first great space race which culminated in the 1969 Apollo Moon mission. It probably won't even compare to what is likely going to happen over the next few years when the commercial space industry finally takes off.

It's sort of like looking at "The Godfather" (a 1972 American crime film based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo directed by Francis Ford Coppola) and then taking in another early 1970's crime movie contemporary such as "The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight."

You just knew which one was going to be remembered.

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