One more on Columbia

Roamy here.  I thought I had wrapped up my series of space posts yesterday because I couldn’t think of anything else to write for Columbia that hadn’t already been covered.  However, a conversation brought on a brain wave.  So today, on the 8th anniversary of the Columbia accident, I’m going to write about some of the science that was recovered from STS-107.

Columbia’s last mission was a rare launch away from the International Space Station.  It was a microgravity science mission with 80 different experiments.  The crew was divided into two teams, Blue and Red, so that the experiments could be done around the clock during the entire mission.  About 30% of the data was downlinked to the ground during the mission itself.  This included several experiments on fire behavior and suppression in space.  (Flames are round.)

Some of the flames were so small and weak, they gave off 1% of the heat of a birthday candle.

Data was recovered from a partially melted disk drive, one of the 84,000 pieces of debris recovered in Texas and Louisiana. 

Some of the experiments survived re-entry and were recovered, including two for cancer research.  The most bizarre of all, an experiment with C. elegans worms was found, with the worms still alive in their petri dishes.

A new memorial to the STS-107 crew, the new Patricia Huffman Smith Museum opens today in Hemphill, Texas.  Hemphill is near where the crew’s remains and the flight recorder were found.  The townspeople were very helpful during the recovery process.  The museum also honors Jules F. Mier Jr. and Charles Krenek, who died in a helicopter crash while assisting the search for Columbia debris.

The speech not needed

Roamy here.  I’m finishing up my series of posts by linking the speech William Safire wrote for President Nixon in case Apollo 11 ended in disaster. 

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

RTWT here.  Makes me wonder if Neil and Buzz (and Michael Collins, for that matter) wrote letters to their wives in case they didn’t come back.

The astronauts know it’s dangerous, yet they go anyway.

Armstrong (on left) and Aldrin setting up the U.S. flag on the Moon.
Aldrin and some of the experiments set up on the moon. The center one, between Aldrin and the U.S. flag, is the Lunar Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector. It still works.

Not forgotten

Roamy here, continuing my series of posts on remembering fallen astronauts.  I mentioned in the Day of Remembrance post that it’s not just for the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger STS-51L, and Columbia STS-107, but also the astronauts who died while training for flight or on official NASA business.  I recommend The Astronaut/Cosmonaut Memorial Web Site for more information about Theodore Freeman, Charles Bassett, Elliot See, Clifton Williams, Robert Lawrence, Michael Adams, and Manley “Sonny” Carter, Jr.  The website includes info on other astronauts who died in non-work-related plane crashes, e.g. Stanley David Griggs, who died while piloting a WW2-era trainer in an air show near Earle, Arkansas.

Bassett and See had been picked to crew Gemini 9.  They were flying to St. Louis in February 1966 to train for two weeks at McDonnell Aircraft in a building 1,000 feet from the runway at Lambert Field.  Snow and poor visibility led to the two crashing into the very building that held their Gemini capsule. 

Freeman and Williams died in separate T-38 accidents.  Lawrence died in an F-104 crash. Mike Adams earned his astronaut badge by flying above 50 miles altitude on his final and fatal X-15 flight.

Astronauts Sonny Carter and Kathryn Thornton during STS-33

I met Sonny Carter in 1990.  Each Shuttle crew usually travels to each NASA center to meet the workers, sign autographs, talk about their mission, and remind us that there are human beings riding on the vehicles we’re working on.  Sonny stood out for me not just because he was selected for the International Microgravity Laboratory mission, and I had worked on one of the experiments, but also because he was from Macon, Georgia, and he spoke with an accent that sounded like home.  He was killed in the crash of Atlantic Southeast Airline Flight 2311 in Brunswick, GA, which also killed former senator John Tower of Texas.  The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center was renamed the Sonny Carter Training Facility in his honor.

May they all rest in peace.

"Lift your eyes and look to the heavens"

Roamy here, continuing my series of posts on remembering the fallen astronauts.

Mr. RFH had the unpleasant misfortune of telling me about both the Space Shuttle disasters.  He found me between classes 25 years ago to tell me about Challenger (I cut Deformables class, IIRC, to go watch the news the rest of the day), and woke me on the Saturday morning of February 1, 2003 to tell me about Columbia.

To my knowledge, NASA picks crews based on mission needs and astronaut capabilities, not filling any certain quotas.  I find it interesting that both crews were five men and two women, one black astronaut (Ron McNair was only the second black astronaut to fly in space, on STS-41B), exotic names like Onizuka and Chawla, ordinary names like Smith and Brown.

L to R: Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, and Ellison Onizuka.


Front row: David Brown, Rick Husband, Mike Anderson. Back row: Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, Willie McCool, Laurel Clark

President Bush’s speech brought some comfort.

Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.  In the skies today, we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”   The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.

Over the next weeks and months, we investigated the accident.  Emails and questions circulated, in particular, a pretty damning email sent a few days before the accident from a thermal protection system engineer, outlining possible damage scenarios for Columbia and saying basically, you’d better be ready in Mission Control if the landing gear is damaged.   Oh Lord, if it had only been a flat tire.  We found out about requests for pictures that had been denied because “nothing could have been done”.  (Expletive that – we would have figured out SOMETHING.)  We argued over whether the tile impact prediction was right or not.  The tiles are so delicate, you can crush them easily, but it wasn’t the tile that failed.  The evidence pointed to the reinforced carbon-carbon.


And we swore, not ever again.

Slipping the surly bonds of Earth

Roamy here.  Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident.

I was a wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears (read: obnoxious) co-op student in the fall of 1985.  I had watched Space Shuttle launches on TV before, but that first time watching one in a NASA conference room, I was like a wriggly puppy.  One of the older engineers was kind enough to translate the calls for me as we watched STS-51J launch.  The countdown was delayed for some reason, but eventually the Shuttle did launch.  Once the Shuttle had barely cleared the tower, most of the engineers left to go back to work, with perhaps a grunt of satisfaction or a little nod that one more bird was in the air.  It was the same with STS-61A later that month.  All that changed with Challenger.

Flame visible at the O-ring gap on the solid rocket booster

I was back at school when the accident happened.  Marshall Space Flight Center was squarely in the spotlight after Challenger, investigating the accident and redesigning the boosters.  Many of the managers involved in the decision to launch on that cold January morning would retire.  I came back for my next co-op quarter to a drastically different place.

Recovering pieces from the ocean

After Challenger, we would nervously watch every Shuttle launch, wincing at the call for “Go at throttle up” and breathing a sigh of relief when the solid rocket boosters separated, two minutes into flight.  It would change yet again after the Columbia accident to watching the onboard camera and waiting until main engine cutoff to breathe that sign of relief.

I can’t top Reagan’s words for the Challenger crew.


WORF is working

Roamy here. On a happier note, NASA released the first picture from the EarthKam experiment for students which uses the Window Observational Research Facility, or WORF rack.  The EarthKam program is to help teach kids earth science and geography, plus a little about space.  The high resolution picture is of British Columbia, north of Vancouver Island. 

You can go to this link to download the original resolution.  (XBradTC would be unhappy with me putting 16 Mb files on his blog, I think.)  There’s a lot more science using the WORF rack, but this is nice to see.

Now I got a good chuckle when I read about this on the Alabama Space News blog.

WORF stands for Window Observational Research Facility. Worf is also the name of a Klingon character on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” That’s probably a coincidence.

Heh, heh, heh.  No, sir, it is not a coincidence.  Not when we put “WORF” in Klingon script on the patch.

Just don’t ask me about the eyeball with eagle wings.

Day of Remembrance

Roamy here.  Today is the Day of Remembrance at NASA, where we honor the crews of Apollo 1, STS-51L Challenger, and STS-107 Columbia.

Over the next few days, I’m going to post about these accidents and also the plane crashes that claimed astronauts’ lives and hopefully give some insight that you haven’t read before. 

I wonder at the coincidence of having three accidents so close on the calendar, but each points out that this isn’t an easy business.  Swamp Heathen #1 sent me the words to the parachute rigger’s pledge, and some of that resonates here.  “I will never resort to guesswork, as I know that chance is a fool’s gold and that I cannot depend on it. I will never pass over any defect, nor neglect any repair, no matter how small, as I know that omissions and mistakes…may cost a life. I will never let the idea that a piece of work is ‘good enough’ make me a potential murderer through a careless mistake or oversight, for I know there can be no compromise with perfection.”

The charred Apollo 1 capsule

Every material to be used inside a manned spacecraft is tested for flammability, because of Apollo 1.  In the test, a 2.5″ x 12″ (nope, no metric here) strip of material is held vertically over a ignition source, usually a wire coil.  I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to have what looked like a fantastic material for a spacesuit not only catch on fire, burn the entire 12″ length, but also drip flaming bits of debris onto the catch paper.  FAIL.  But…better to fail in the lab than on the launchpad.

Solar sailing

Roamy here.  There were a lot of happy people at work when Nanosail-D, launched on November 19, finally phoned home.  It was supposed to have deployed from the FASTSAT a week after launch but, for reasons unknown, didn’t until January 17.  It has sent back telemetry that it successfully deployed.

You can get an idea just how small and light Nanosail-D is in this deployment test movie.  The whole thing weighs less than 9 lbs.  The film has to be very tough – I had the chance to work on both the film and some ripstop ideas.

You can see when Nanosail-D is flying overhead using this satellite tracker.  If you are an amateur photographer or astronomer, there is even a photo contest for pics of the sail in orbit, so you might try winning $500.

UPDATE: I couldn’t get Roamy’s movie link to work, so watch this:


You're not done yet!

Roamy here.  The Deep Impact mission is an interesting example of reusing what you have on hand.  (The film, on the other hand, is an interesting example of how stars like Robert Duvall and Morgan Freeman can’t save a story.)  In 2005, Deep Impact was launched.  As it neared the comet Tempel 1, it separated into two pieces – a probe with cameras and instruments and an impactor that was over 800 lbs. of copper.  There shouldn’t be any copper in a comet, so the scientists could eliminate that from the analyses.  The impactor smacked into the comet at a relative speed of 10.3 km/sec, kicking up a huge dust cloud.


So the Deep Impact probe did its job, and the data gathered has made for some interesting theories about how comets’ compositions can differ, depending on where they are formed.  And…like the THEMIS/ARTEMIS spacecraft discussed earlier, the Deep Impact probe still had some life left in it.

Renamed EPOXI, the probe was sent to rendezvous with Comet Hartley 2.


This comet seems to be a two-fer, where the smooth areas acted like Comet Tempel 1, where water vaporized beneath the surface and percolated out, but the rough areas were shooting out ice particles, like flying through a snowstorm

NASA is revisiting Comet Tempel 1 in February, but that’s another post.