Don’t they have to try a fix?

sts-118 undersideStation repair done … shuttle repair ahead?

NASA on Monday conducted a swift series of tests on the ground to determine whether a disturbingly deep gouge in Endeavour’s belly needs to be fixed for re-entry, while a pair of spacewalking astronauts replaced a broken space station steering device.

The gouge is relatively small — 3.5 inches by 2 inches (9 by 5 centimeters) — but part of it penetrates through the protective thermal tiles, leaving just a thin layer of felt material over the space shuttle’s aluminum frame to keep out the more than 2,000-degree Fahrenheit (1,100-degree Celsius) heat of re-entry.

Mission managers expect to decide on Tuesday or Wednesday whether astronauts should go out and patch the gouge, or whether the damage is benign enough for Endeavour to fly safely home.

Honestly, do they really have any choice? Wouldn’t an attempt to return without any action be a terrible move? What if they decide to forgo repairs and the result is loss of vehicle and crew? And, if the damage really isn’t so bad, when will a better opportunity to test the repair scenario come?

Look, it’s clear that this is going to be an ongoing problem for the rest of the Shuttle program. Every single flight is going to run this risk, and if they didn’t figure something out after Columbia they sure aren’t going to figure something out now. Considering that the mission has been so quickly successful and that the ability to draw power from the ISS means they’ve got the time to approach this however they want, is there any reason to head back without any repair attempt?

Fix it.

UPDATE: Read Mr. X, the Chair Force Engineer, for more. On the money.


  1. Space walks are always dangerous (radiation and sudden deceleration trauma from pea sized objects) and the location is no exactly accessible (No anchor points) . The ‘fix’ has never really been tried and tested in realistic conditions. All pertinent and realistic reasons for hesitation. That said, they will attempt a fix, if for no other reason then if they don’t and the bird turns to toast, everybody in that decision tree is going to be crucified and the shuttle program will be killed. All that aside – its clear that the foam issue is not going to be solved by little fixes. They need to either get rid of the external foam or go back to painting the external tank to reinforce the foam structural integrity.

  2. Wouldn’t an attempt to return without any action be a terrible move? What James said. You can always make things much much worse.

  3. Okay this is really starting to get stupid. Seriously, put the old CFC based foam back onto the tank. Either pay a fine to the bloody EPA or simply ignore them. Restore the paint sealant. So they lose a few hundred lbs of capacity. Big deal. For all the wasted money trying to trim weight (that’s not even counting a lost shuttle with crew and the additional R and D etc. trying to learn how to patch the heat tiles) they could afford to fire up an old atlas or two each year and do additional lift missions. I’m all for manned space flight. Heck I’d even pay more as an individual in taxes if I was sure the extra money would go to NASA. I’m not happy or confident with the PC bean counters currently running NASA. Space travel is dangerous but we should not be losing people and vehicles for BS reasons. Mark my word, these fools running NASA will kill another crew soon and put the whole space program in jeopardy.

  4. Here is a picture of the broken tiles. NASA has certainly put all of our spaceflight eggs in a ceramic basket. The only space vehicle NASA has ever funded that was a bigger catastrophy waiting to happen than the shuttle was that X-33 single stage to orbit thing the Skunk Works was screwing with. I mean, here’s an idea, let’s do everything we can to maximize the amount of heat shielding the vehicle needs. What could possibly go wrong? If anyone at NASA had an ounce of sense, they’d have retired the shuttle orbiters back in ’95 and replaced them with Shuttle-C. Hell, we’d be going to the Moon on a regular basis now if they had. F’ing morons. They’ve had a way to get themselves out of the shuttle hole for over a decade now and are too stupid to grab the rope.

  5. NASA just awarded a $2 billion sole source (that is to say, they didn’t have to compete) contract to Mike Griffin’s former employer so they could modify the shuttle’s 4 into a 5 segment booster. That’s the largest contract ATK has ever received. It will take them seven years to figure out how to go from 4 to 5 segments. Seven years and $2 billion. It didn’t take that long and cost about that much money to build the original boosters from scratch. It took less than 6 years to build them from nothing. Here is an excerpt from an article on the Aries folly: SRB-5 is a very different beast from SRB-4 currently used. Solid rocket motors can’t be easily stretched or shortened like liquid-fuel tankage. If you merely inserted a 5th segment into the current SRB you would have 25% more burn area and 25% more gas trying to get out through the same nozzle. SRB-5 has to have a different central cavity in the fuel, a larger nozzle, and a slower-burning fuel mix. The heavier booster needs larger recovery parachutes that can deploy at higher speeds. There is also a persistent rumor that NASA is dissatisfied with the projected costs of refurbishing SRB-5 and may go to an expendable design. Also, it appears that MSFC and Thiokol will use this opportunity to replace some of the more problem-ridden SRB-4 hardware. The hydrazine APUs will probably be replaced with pneumatic controls powered from a big tank of compressed N2. Because of all these changes, SRB-5 is essentially a new product that needs to be designed and flight-qualified from scratch. Thiokol’s ‘Safe, Simple, Soon’ sales pitch sounds like a sick joke now. But they’re using ‘shuttle derived hardware’ to save you money, not to ensure that they can sole source contracts to their good buddies.

  6. Ok Defens you can check me on this (since I may be smoking crack) – Since NASA seems intent on going back to the past – why don’t they restart building Saturn Five’s. They worked great, and they can haul as much if not, more then this Aries concept. And that is a with 60’s designs and limitations. Throw in some of today’s high performance parts, computer flow control you could boost the thrust output 15-20%.

  7. In the 70s, we abandoned Apollo for the Space Shuttle. This might have been the best move in the sense that the Shuttle was the ‘next step’ and all. Except, as we’ve seen, it wasn’t. So now, thirty years later, what are we doing? We’re reinventing Apollo but largely limited to using Shuttle parts. If only they would have limited the Shuttle to using Apollo-derived parts… Tell me this isn’t a government operation. They won’t even man-rate the boosters we have, let alone build the boosters we need. I’m keeping my fingers crossed on Ares V, though. Any thoughts on that? Thoughts, that is, besides ‘resurrect the Saturn V’.

  8. Ares V – One of the things that always fascinates me is how people can claim that their program will realize cost savings, while picking your pocket. The Shuttle-C concept had a lot going for it. I know the Air Force kept that plan on the back burner in the event of major war to re-populate the constellation. I don’t know much about Area V – At first blush, it smacks to me to be compromise. Sold rockets provide better performance and liquid rockets provide better control. Splitting the cargo rocket from the manned rocket makes sense provided you have a man rated launcher available. Personally, the what we should be doing is to create a significant LEO infrastructure. Where we could maintain and refurbish the ships in space vs dragging them down the gravity well. We spent untold billion on the space station, we might as well put it too good use. First off we need to stop dropping the external tank to burn up in the atmosphere. We should park them up near the station to be used for habituate or other facilities. We could load up the space station with X-38 like planes. Make the CEV a true space vehicle instead of an Apollo retread.

  9. Resurrecting Apollo seemed like a good idea to me too, at first, and they are resurrecting the J-2 engine for the Aries upper stage. They were going to use the SSME, but in usual NASA style they didn’t realize the SSME, the most complex and expensive rocket engine ever, could not be started without a launch pad full of equipment. Yet one more bit of stupiditiy from their ‘trade study’. Funny how they could do a ‘trade study’ when not a single design they ‘traded’ was viable. Morons. But that’s today’s ‘systems engineering’ for you. You don’t need to be a designer to do a design. Experience actually designing rockets counts for nothing because we can pull a ‘trade study’ out of our ass. The thing is, if Apollo had been a sustainable design, we’d still be using them. Granted it was cheaper to launch than shuttle, but it still wasn’t cheap. There is no point in going backwards like NASA is doing. It is time to go forward. Two stage to orbit with an air breathing, fly back, Mach 3 first stage is the best idea we’ve left on the table and should be the next step. It supports a better cost per pound and a great launch frequency. Shuttle-C would work in the interim. A lot of people don’t think Aries will work. They see NASA going from a 4 segment solid first stage to a 5 segment, dropping the SSME for the J-2, cutting the weight of the Orion capsule 4 or 5 times, getting rid of the air bag system for dry landings, eliminating the methane/O2 engine that was supposed to support the Mars mission, and recognize the mark of incompetence. I tend to think the solid booster first stage won’t have the performance they need for the vehicle to get into orbit, but it’s not my design. In fact, it is exactly what you get when you design by committee, especially when that committee has a vested interest in getting themselves the biggest sole source contracts possible.

  10. Two stage to orbit with an air breathing, fly back, Mach 3 first stage is the best idea we’ve left on the table and should be the next step’ Agreed, that is one of the best concepts out there. The Air Force has been some interesting work on getting cost down. ( Quick reach booster/ )Pulse detonation engines show a lot of promise. Scramjets are maturing. In NASA’s defense, an air breathing system with what they are trying to do is a real stretch. IMO with current tech, an air breather can be made to work, if it is limited to hauling smallish loads say in the under 5 ton range. – like the crew. To be bluntly honest- I give it less then a 50/50 shot that Aries will ever see the light of day. Personally, I think that NASA will go all out, but in around 2012-15 range, it will become apparent that the private space industry will have lapped NASA in both lift and orbital technology. Give Burt Rutan a billion dollars and 5 years and he’ll put you on the moon.

  11. I think the 2 stage to orbit concept could be practical up to 40,000 lbs payload. Much above that and you’d have to take off and land a several million pound vehicle, which would limit the number of airports quite a bit. 40,000 lbs lauched 3-4 times a day would get you a lot of places without much problem.

  12. Here is a 5 year old article regarding China’s plans for the Moon: ‘China is expected to complete its first exploration of the moon in 2010, and will establish a base on the moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole,’ said the program’s chief scientist, Ouyang Ziyuan, according to the official People’s Daily. ‘For the Benefit of Humanity’ Beijing Morning Post quoted him as elaborating that the base would be used to ‘mine [the moon’s] riches for the benefit of humanity.’ Then here is an excerpt from Mike Griffin’s testimony to Congress in March of this year: Griffin, who toured some of China’s space installations last year and met with leading scientists and engineers, told the panel that China, with its strong economy, is capable of a come-from-behind lunar landing. ‘I cannot speculate and won’t speculate on what China’s intensions are. I just don’t know that,’ said Griffin. ‘As a matter of technical capability and political will, if the Chinese choose to do so, they can mount a lunar mission within a reasonable number of years, say a decade.’ Just to be sure he heard correctly, Calvert asked the space agency chief if China’s explorers could reach the moon before 2020, the date that President Bush directed NASA to achieve three years ago. ‘Of course, yes sir. It’s possible,’ Griffin replied. ‘They could be there before we return.’ I guess if he couldn’t figure out that his $2 Billion sole source contract to his former employer smacked of ‘conflict of interest’ he wouldn’t be any quicker when it came to figuring out why China is interested in the Moon.

  13. Here again we have a case where the ‘intentions’ of the communist Chinese is ‘hard to decypher’. I mean, just because they’ve shot down a satellite, doesn’t mean they want to shoot down our satellites, does it? Duh. According to some, the intentions and reasons for conducting this test are elusive. These ‘experts’ are in a state of denial. If anyone wanted to know what the Japanese were planning to do in the 1930s, all they had to do was read their plans and training documents. These plans were then being executed across the Asia-Pacific region. Many in America viewed claims about the increasing threat of the Japanese military as preposterous because they were committed to a peaceful rise. The Chinese are claiming a peaceful rise as well, coupled with a large increase in their armed forces and weapons. All that is needed now, as then, is to take a hard look at the policy and doctrine of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) with respect to our nation’s space capabilities and armed forces and what they plan to do, which is counter our space superiority. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of US Pacific Command has stated, ‘An anti-satellite weapon is not necessarily a clear indication of a desire for peaceful utilization of space– it’s a confusing signal shall we say for a country who desires, in China’s words, a peaceful rise.’