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  10/14: NOVA "Space Shuttle Disaster" (PBS)

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Author Topic:   10/14: NOVA "Space Shuttle Disaster" (PBS)
Robert Pearlman
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Posts: 27327
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-08-2008 01:29 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Next on NOVA: Space Shuttle Disaster
Original PBS Broadcast Date: October 14, 2008
At the end of a nearly flawless 15-day mission in early 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry into Earth's atmosphere, killing the crew of seven. In this documentary, NOVA probes the accident and the decisions stretching back four decades that made the tragedy almost inevitable.

The Columbia disaster, during the 113th shuttle mission, was the beginning of the end for the space plane. NASA responded by announcing the retirement of the shuttle in 2010, to be replaced by the Orion crew exploration vehicle as part of the Constellation program, which is inspired partly by an earlier generation of Apollo-style rocketry and spacecraft. The decision to retire the space shuttle program is currently under intense review, as it would leave the U.S. with a "space gap" until the new Orion vehicle becomes ready around 2015.

Exploring the past and future of the shuttle through the lens of the Columbia accident, NOVA interviews key NASA personnel who witnessed problems with the space shuttle program firsthand, including NASA engineer Rodney Rocha, who tried to sound the alarm about Columbia's potentially damaged condition; and flight director Leroy Cain, who worked with controllers to make sense of a cascade of warning signals from the craft during its ill-fated return to Earth.

Rocha and others worried that a piece of foam that tore from the shuttle's external propellant tank and struck the left wing 81 seconds after liftoff could have damaged the craft, making it vulnerable to the high heat generated during reentry. But Rocha's superiors refused his request to try to confirm possible damage.

Also interviewed are members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), NASA administrators, astronauts, journalists, and prominent space-policy experts.

The Columbia disaster was the second catastrophic failure in the shuttle program. In 1986, the shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after launch, also killing seven.

NOVA shows that both accidents can be traced to design trade-offs built into the shuttle concept. Apollo-era spacecraft were designed with the cabin that holds the crew positioned on top of the rocket, offering some protection from falling debris and a chance of escape from a malfunctioning vehicle. However, the crew- and cargo-carrying section of the shuttle is so large that it has to be strapped to the side of a huge external propellant tank.

In the case of Challenger, one of the Solid Rocket Boosters developed a leak that ruptured the external tank, immediately destroying the shuttle. For Columbia, a piece of foam insulation covering the external tank fatally damaged the leading edge of Columbia's left wing. Neither scenario is likely with an Apollo-style design, in which the manned spacecraft sits on top.

Both accidents were foreseen by engineers, who were then ignored by NASA managers under pressure to meet launch schedules and cut costs. Renowned during the heady days of Apollo for its clear-eyed evaluation of risk and willingness to do everything possible to reduce it, NASA, some experts felt, had become complacent and bureaucratically rigid. Even while the damaged Columbia was still in orbit, there was a chance the crew could have been rescued by another shuttle if only the true state of her condition had been known. But that chance was tragically missed.

"Space Shuttle Disaster" is a penetrating look at the history of the shuttle program and the political pressures that made the shuttle a highly complex engineering compromise, which fell short of its ambitious goal to make space travel routine, cheap, and safe. The film brings to the forefront the uncertain future of human spaceflight after the 2010 scheduled shuttle retirement. Many questions remain, including what are the consequences if the U.S. is out of orbit for five years?

Spacepsycho
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From: Huntington Beach, Calif.
Registered: Aug 2004

posted 10-09-2008 02:56 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Spacepsycho   Click Here to Email Spacepsycho     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I was talking with a gentleman who was one of the managers of the shuttle program from the beginning and here's what he had to say about this hit job on the shuttle.
On July 14th I sent an E-mail to most of you stating that a PBS NOVA documentary on the Space Shuttle Columbia accident was being prepared. I am a participant in the documentary and had a DVD copy of the original version. I was asked for comments. The documentary was clearly anti shuttle and filled with false technical information regarding the shuttle, and I recommended several changes. Much has happened since then.

I sent copies of the of the DVD to several key individuals in the shuttle engineering world. What I learned was that NASA was aware of the documentary and "had no problem with the original version" and Boeing (who built the space shuttle orbiter and provides engineering support) was unaware of the documentary, but would take no action regarding it.

Several copies went to shuttle engineers who in turn passed them on to their peers. Their reaction was similar to mine and many of them sent E-mails to NOVA expressing their strong objection to the content and their passionate support for the shuttle. NOVA welcomed their input and I am told some of the objectionable material has been eliminated. The documentary will air on PBS NOVA on October 14th. A preview is available now on line at the link.

I have not seen the final documentary but the preview suggests that it is still very anti-shuttle and still contains material that it is not very authoritative and to me has the appearance of propaganda to support the manned space initiative of the current administration. Sorry, we did our best.

In response to the shuttle engineer's input NOVA invited us to prepare a pro-shuttle opinion piece for their web site. That was done and it is titled "A Case for Saving the Shuttle Program". It is on-line now. It is a condensation of the input from about a dozen very experienced shuttle engineers, three of them former Chief Engineers. The piece has been brought to the attention of congressional representatives of California and Florida. I suggest you read it before viewing the documentary.

If you want to express your viewpoint directly to NOVA the contact is susan_k_lewis@wgbh.org.

E2M Lem Man
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Posts: 793
From: Los Angeles CA. USA
Registered: Jan 2005

posted 10-09-2008 03:33 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for E2M Lem Man     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am worried that this will not be a fair and balanced view of the shuttle accident. How does one get NASA's okay but barely talk to the prime contractor?

Is this a misleading view to wipe the fairly reliable shuttle out of the nation's attention and get on with Orion?

J.M. Busby

Robert Pearlman
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Posts: 27327
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 10-14-2008 08:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I thought the program to be quite good: it didn't break new ground but was well written, far from sensational, even-handed and well-researched. At times, it was quite poignant.

If you missed it, I would suggest catching a replay or perhaps ordering the DVD.

hlbjr
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Posts: 321
From: Delray Beach Florida USA
Registered: Mar 2006

posted 10-15-2008 10:12 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for hlbjr   Click Here to Email hlbjr     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Or, you can watch the program at NOVA's website.

Harvey Brown
Delray Beach, FL

Jurg Bolli
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Posts: 520
From: Albuquerque, NM
Registered: Nov 2000

posted 10-15-2008 12:26 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jurg Bolli   Click Here to Email Jurg Bolli     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I agree with Robert, it was well done.

Jurg

Greggy_D
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Posts: 629
From: Michigan
Registered: Jul 2006

posted 10-15-2008 03:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Greggy_D   Click Here to Email Greggy_D     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Boeing built the shuttle? I thought Rockwell was the main builder.

Mr Meek
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From: Chattanooga, TN
Registered: Dec 2007

posted 10-15-2008 03:35 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Mr Meek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Watching it at the moment. Just passed the final transmission from STS-107, which was transcribed as "Roger, ah but..." and not "Roger, uh buh..."

Interesting. It does give the final transmission more gravitas. The final recorded words of a crew doing their jobs, analyzing a problem with their vehicle, instead of a less-favorable transcription that sounds like stumbling nonsense. I like the change.

FFrench
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Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 10-15-2008 04:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Greggy_D:
Boeing built the shuttle? I thought Rockwell was the main builder.
Boeing subsequently acquired Rockwell's aerospace and defense units. Plus merged with McDonnell Douglas...

FFrench
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Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 10-15-2008 05:04 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Mr Meek:
Watching it at the moment. Just passed the final transmission from STS-107, which was transcribed as "Roger, ah but..." and not "Roger, uh buh..."

Interesting. It does give the final transmission more gravitas. The final recorded words of a crew doing their jobs, analyzing a problem with their vehicle, instead of a less-favorable transcription that sounds like stumbling nonsense. I like the change.


There has always been a bit of debate over the transcript of those transmissions. I personally found this page interesting.

spacecraft guy
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Posts: 37
From: San Francisco, CA USA
Registered: Sep 2006

posted 10-15-2008 05:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for spacecraft guy     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have to disagree with some of the opinions here.

The program wasn't sensational and basically fair. But I was expecting something more in depth, and I thought that they took some unnecesary liberties to get their points across, like showing foam loss footage from the ET from STS-1 with a sound effect implying that the whole Orbiter was being bombarded nose to tail with a hailstorm of debris. The visual alone was enough.

A more detailed comparison of the Orbiter's on-orbit capabilities vs. Orion would have made the program more balanced - the flaws of the Shuttle were gone into detail, the advantages briefly touched upon. The capability we lose when the Shuttle is retired wasn't addressed, nor was the development problems that both the Ares I and Ares V boosters are having and how they are affecting the design of the Orion CEV.

I think that the program was worth watching, but not worth owning - other programs have done a better job covering this.

Fra Mauro
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From: Maspeth, NY
Registered: Jul 2002

posted 10-15-2008 10:35 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Fra Mauro   Click Here to Email Fra Mauro     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I agree that it was well done but not worth owning. I thought they spent too much on the possible rescue mission, which made for drama. I did like it when the NASA administrator hit the Nixon administration for its lack of support for space exploration.

Jay Chladek
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Posts: 2211
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 10-22-2008 09:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
That pretty much sums up my opinion of this Nova show as well. I like watching Nova to find out about stuff not covered elsewhere. But in this case, everything said about Columbia pretty much had been said before elsewhere. There was some new stuff (such as the actual audio recordings from the NASA mission management team discussions about the foam strike and how it was regarded as a maintenance issue as opposed to a safety of flight risk), but not all that much.

Concering the "feeling that heat" topic, it makes sense to me. I've heard it the same on other samples of the recordings made during that day, so it doesn't seem like a plant. Plus, you don't hear it followed by a crackle either such as the "Roger uh bu..." (sounded to me more like "Roger about..."). But of course ultimately we will never know what exactly was going through Rick's mind when those words were spoken anyway. At least not in this dimensional plane.

All times are CT (US)

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