Atom Wave: Breaking The Shuttle

Atom Wave

Friday, June 22, 2007

Breaking The Shuttle

NASA may never learn. Over four years have elapsed since the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas, and they still insist on flying the shuttle when they know that they have a glitch.
For those foreign to the death of Columbia, it began on January 16, 2003 during launch when a piece of foam fell off the external tank striking the leading edge of one of the orbiter’s wings. Courtesy of long-range tracking cameras, NASA was fully aware of the impact but considered it to be trivial. They were wrong, on February 1, 2003 superheated gases penetrated Columbia’s wing during re-entry burning it apart.
Today NASA is flying the Atlantis with questionable equipment onboard, mainly the Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessels. The Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessels are 24 helium and nitrogen tanks used to pressurize the shuttles propulsion system, and they have exceeded their design lifetime. They were originally built to last 10 years, but were later recertified for another 10 years. The tanks on the Atlantis are now 22 years old and can no longer be trusted. The worst-case scenario is that one or more of the tanks could explode aboard the shuttle at full pressure. If the explosion occurs on the pad, than the deaths of some ground workers may be certain along with serious damage to the orbiter. If the explosion occurs when the shuttle is in flight, than it may be the end of the Atlantis. It is suspected that the shuttle Discovery may also be susceptible to this flaw.

NASA cannot replace the tanks since the manufacturer quit building them years ago, and they cannot rebuild them until 2010 when the space shuttles are retired. Until that day arrives they intend on only applying maximum pressure to the tanks when they need to, just before launch.
This is just the sort of philosophy that caused NASA to lose the shuttles Columbia and Challenger in the first place. “Why worry about some leaking gases from the solid rocket boosters, what is the worst that could happen?” or “Who cares if stuff falls off the external tank, no harm?”
I’m not advocating the grounding of the shuttles, to live and fly is to risk. It still smells like somebody is playing with fire. Something is wrong with this picture when NASA can send probes to other planets but they can’t replace some ripe old tanks.


Anonymous Miss Jackson said...

That is troubling. I fear that I might see still another shuttle break up in my lifetime. They better get it together.

8:54 PM  

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