Grumpy Old Engineers

Today’s L.A. Times takes the current NASA team back to school:

Shuttles’ First Engineers Exasperated

By Scott Gold, Times Staff Writer

Some of the original architects of America’s space shuttle program told investigators Wednesday that they never designed the spacecraft to withstand a forceful strike from any object, much less the large chunks of foam insulation that pounded the Columbia 16 days before it disintegrated.

At a boisterous public hearing that at times felt like a production of “Grumpy Old Engineers,” several men who helped NASA realize its dream of building a reusable spacecraft 25 years ago said they were flabbergasted that today’s space agency shrugged off the threat posed by the liftoff accident.

Independent investigators now believe the foam insulation, which fell from an external fuel tank and struck the edge of the shuttle’s left wing after liftoff, opened a breach that allowed superheated gas to penetrate the craft and bring it down two weeks later.

NASA has known since at least 1997 that pieces of foam insulation periodically “popcorn” off during liftoff and strike the shuttle.

Robert Thompson, 77, former vice president of the shuttle program for contractor McDonnell Douglas and the manager of the shuttle program in its formative years, said he believes today’s NASA engineers were lulled into complacency because early foam insulation strikes were harmless.

The strike on Columbia was crippling, Thompson said, because of the large size of the foam insulation and the fact that it came 81 seconds after liftoff — meaning the insulation struck the wing while traveling at 700 feet per second. Thompson told the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the independent panel charged with finding the cause of the Feb. 1 disaster, that it took an understanding of “high school physics” to grasp the impact of that incident.

“That’s a hell of a speed bump,” Thompson said.

“There were indications that there was a problem,” he said. “And people didn’t address it fast enough. People didn’t understand: this can do a lot of damage.”

“People didn’t understand…”


3 thoughts on “Grumpy Old Engineers”

  1. The whole Shuttle program is rife with corruption and other nonsense. Read “Challenger: A Major Malfunction”.

    The Shuttles were a magnificent concept. The realization was highly flawed but still an amazing achievement. Continuing it is NOT a good idea at this point – we need a new system and we need it now. Something along the lines of the Delta-X, or even that new one that they’re designing…


  2. Orion has it right. The shuttle needs to be scrapped and NASA should be tasked with getting into space cheaply and easily. I find myself wondering if it’s possible for them to do that, though.

  3. The aero-space contractors are not interested in cheap space. Not enough profit potential in the short term.

    Suppose you reduced the cost of space travel by 99%. For the first few years of such a regime all the current large aerospace firms would be under severe strain until the market grew large enough. And even then they would be starting from behind.

    I like the Rutan venture as the best near term hope for a privatized space.

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