What If The Discovery Mission Fails?

Well, here we are, about 5 hours from the first launch since the Columbia broke up. So what if there is a spectacular failure that can be directly traced to NASA? I mean something like the design failures that caused the Challenger to explode or the Columbia to break up. Does manned spaceflight under NASA get completely scrapped? Do we keep manned spaceflight but scrap the shuttle for a new design? I have to say that I’m not sure, but I would not be surprised if manned spaceflight from the USA is scrapped for a long time.

That is a possible outcome but would be a tragedy even bigger than the shuttle disaster itself. I have to say I’m mixed on the subject though because while I feel there is no exploration without risk the shuttle isn’t the cutting edge explorer it once was. Perhaps the shuttle’s time has passed but I hope it doesn’t pass before a replacement is made.

The shuttle program would be dead. Period.

The shuttle would be immediately scrapped. And US manned spaceflight would end for many years. It’d take a while to develop an alternative to the shuttle.

I’m reading two books now; one about the quest for Mach 1, and another about Lifting Bodies (which were instrumental in the design of the Shuttle, BTW). One thing that is clear is that NACA/NASA in the '50s and early-'60s were more accepting of risk. In addition, some programmes – such as that for the M2-F1 Lifting Body – were ‘spare time’ experiments with little interference from Management. On the Lifting Body programme, Management supported it; but it was sort-of ‘under the radar’ when it came to NASA HQ. The advocates of the Lifting Body wanted to experiment with the shape as an eventual means of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The team were given permission to build a ‘wind tunnel model’ with discretionary funds. Management said, in effect, ‘Of course, if the wind tunnel model happens to be full-size and can be manned… wink wink, nudge nudge’ At around $30,000, the M2-F1 was built at around 1/5 the cost of an ‘official’ project. (After the successful testing of the M2-F1, Lifting Body programmes became more involved and expensive, and had official recognition from Langly.)

As for Mach 1, it was understood that flight testing was a hazardous undertaking. Military, NACA, and civilian pilots knew the risks and were willing to accept them. AFAIK, no one was ever forced to fly an experimental aircraft. People died, and lessons were learned. Mach 1 was exceeded with a great debt owed to the men who died in the quest of it and other goals.

But this was before live news coverage, the Internet, and other factors. The public were informed after the fact. When someone died, there was no debate on 24-hour news shows. Today, the public want to know everything; but they are generally not aware nor understand the risks involved. I’m wonder how many of the people who expect a risk-free Shuttle flight are the same people who think General Aviation aircraft (‘little airplanes’; or ‘Piper Cubs’ or ‘Cessnas’ no matter what it actually is) are unsafe and are expected to fall out of the sky at any moment?

The U.S. have been very fortunate in space. Whether that is through better equipment, better training, or just dumb luck, the fact is that we’ve had few failures. We certainly learned from the Soviets’ failures. This is good and bad. It’s good, since without our successes we may cancelled our manned exploration of space. It’s bad, since no the public expect the risks to be small. They aren’t. A chip of paint travelling at 17,500 mph that hits the Shuttle’s windscreen can cause a lot of damage. A drifting nut or screw…? It ain’t exactly safe up there.

In a perfect world, another failure of the Shuttle would teach us lessons that would result in lower risks on future flights. But in the real world another failure may be the death of the U.S. manned space programme.

The Shuttle is successful and it isn’t. It was supposed to be cheaper to use than disposable rockets. I don’t know the costs, but it seems to me that unmanned rockets are cheaper. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) It was supposed to have a short turn-around time. It doesn’t. Yet it has delivered the goods more often than not, and has done so using a three-decades-old basic design. I’d call that not bad.

The X-15 reached the edge of space (max. altitude about 70 miles – the accepted boundary is 62 miles) in the 1960s. Rutan’s Space Ship One also achieved the edge of space. I wonder if a ‘spaceplane’ will replace the Shuttle? I have a feeling (not backed up with data, I admit) that it might be safer. But I think that its payload would be more limited than the Shuttle’s. If we want to stay in orbit, I think we’ll need to use the Shuttle for some time to come. There are certain parameters that must be met, and the Shuttle meets them. The failures so far have been a design flaw in the SRB (fixed, and updated procedures in-place) and the loss of heat shielding. I don’t know what has been done to prevent a re-occurance, but I’ll bet NASA learned something from Columbia. I think the basic design of the Shuttle is adequate.

But the public don’t understand Flight Test, aerospace vehicles, or acceptable risk. If Discovery fails, I think there will be a public outcry that shuts down U.S. manned space flight for many years to come.

In the book The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe gives some background on the risk of military pilots in the '50s. There is a quote in the movie that alludes to it but it is misstated and actually vastly exaggerates the risk. 1955 was the worst year ever for navy pilots. At that time a navy pilot who served until retirement had nearly a 1:4, IIRC 23%, chance of dying in an aircraft accident and nearly even odds of having to eject from an aircraft at least once.

The failure of this next Shuttle launch would not only mean the immediate termination of the Shuttle program, but almost certainly the abandonment of the ISS as well. It will also likely mean that NASA will have no manned space program for a while, and when it does eventually develop a new manned spacecraft that vehicle will be as conservatively designed as possible, with as many safety features as they can put in while still making it flyable. Although the plans for the next-generation manned launch systems are looking like they’re headed in that direction anyway.

I expect it will be a while before we see another vehicle with the Shuttle’s capabilities. It’s just too expensive and risky for today’s space program.

I’ve got a bad feeling about today’s mission.

Back to lifting bodies for a moment. Pilot Jerry Gentry pranged the M2-F1 on his first air-tow flight, and nearly crashed again under identical circumstances after the lifting body was repaired. Turns out Gentry was too short to see either the R4D tow plane or the horizon when the lifting body was in-tow. From Wingless Flight:

Here was a proven machine (which made a total of 77 flights in its career) in which there were no fatalities or serious crashes. The only problem was that Gentry was too short to fly it. (‘You must be This Tall to ride the Lifting Body Ride.’ Incidentally, Gentry nearly crashed the M2-F2 when he discovered – seconds from landing – that he could not reach the landing gear handle with his harness tightened.) If a NASA manager would ground an aircraft rather than simply get a taller pilot, then I think it is very likely that another accident would send the remaining fleet into museums.

Today’s flight has been scrubbed.

Would that entirely be a bad thing, though? I don’t really see that manned missions have much more value than unmanned missions, and they’re a great deal more expensive and dangerous.

An episode in From The Earth To The Moon made a case for manned exploration, in that some of the discoveries made on the Moon would not have been made with a robot.

CNN reports that the Shuttle fleet is to be grounded in five years, on the order of the President. The reasons given are the Columbia crash and that the President wants safer designs with in-flight crew-evacuation systems.

The shuttle program should already be dead. The ISS program would not stop, since Russian Soyuz craft can still be used. It would, of course, slow down.

Frankly, I believe NASA is still dragging its feet on any real change. A new shuttle needs to be developed far more aggressively than planned (I believe they’re looking at 2015?). I realize the costs involved, but no one should forget how expensive the aging shuttle fleet is to maintain. I suspect dropping the shuttle immediately and finding a new way may even be cheaper. Those fat maintenance contracts are what contracters dream of, and I assume there’s considerable political pressure not to cut off the stream of money too quickly.

Meanwhile, NASA sits on a stack of shuttle safety issues a mile high, all deemed reasonable, and NASA management and the concerned engineers who run the systems still don’t get along as well as they should. It feels like any other business, managed by businesspeople who ignore any technical news that is too depressing or contrary, and it really shouldn’t be like that. But then, it is a government agency, so expectations can’t be *too * high…

If the only real reason NASA has to press on with the current shuttle is to keep the ISS up to schedule, then is that really worth the risk? It isn’t about dangerous exploration then, it’s just a really exotic construction project.

Would you elaborate on that?
Thanks :slight_smile:

There are a number of vital station components which can only be carried up by the Shuttle - they simply won’t fit in the Soyuz, or through the Soyuz-to-station hatch. The next shuttle flight is going to bring up, among other things, a replacement gyroscope module that the station desperatly needs, and which can only be taken to the station by the Shuttle. Then there’s the matter of finishing station construction, which simply can’t happen without the shuttle. And the Russian’s can’t manage a high enough launch rate to do anything more than just launch enough supplies to keep two men alive, and it takes nearly the entire work load of those two men just to keep the station running.

Without the Shuttle, Soyuz and Progress launches can just barely keep the station working in its present unfinished form, until some vital part that’s too large to be taken up by anything other than the Shuttle fails. The ISS was designed from the start to be built and supplied by the Shuttle. Without the Shuttle, the ISS program is dead, even if the Russians can keep it limping along for a few years more.

Exploration implies doing new things or going to new places. I’m not saying the shuttle isn’t useful but it is more utilitarian than cutting edge.

I submit that low Earth orbit is indeed boring, but the technology is still cutting edge; it’s dangerous, complicated and expensive. It’s not like using Hollingrith punch cards instead of a laser wand. :slight_smile:

NPR really seemed to be shilling for the shuttle today:

“Well golly gee, everything’s got risk, and so does the shuttle. A-huw-huw!”

And when they didn’t launch, CNN hit them “it never works!”

I guess everyone wants viewers. :rolleyes:

The shuttle would be dead, unless the cause was a one-shot affair like a freak weather phenomenon or a terrorist attack.

However… The shuttle and operations budget for 2006 is about 4.9 billion dollars. With no shuttle program, that money could be diverted into the CEV program, more than quadrupling its budget. Mike Griffin, the administrator of NASA, has already said he wants the CEV program moved forward so that it’s flying in 2010 when the shuttle retires. With huge funding boosts and a serious incentive to speed things up, they might be able to move CEV up to maybe 2008, and accelerate other projects as well. So the U.S. might only lack a manned program for 3 or 4 years. Since the U.S. manned program has already been grounded for 2.5 years, this seems survivable. More reliance on Progress rockets and Soyuz for the space station.

The big problem would be finishing the space station, since pieces that are needed for it were designed for the shuttle’s cargo bay and could not be sent into space any other way. So perhaps the ISS would have to be scrapped or simply scaled back to make do with the infrastructure it has now. Or perhaps NASA would look at alternatives like a heavy-lift craft using the shuttle’s fuel tanks and boosters, with a big cargo pod replacing the shuttle. Griffin is already looking at something like that, and a heavy lifter based on the shuttle infrastructure would keep a lot of shuttle people employed and leverage the existing infrastructure like the assembly building, the launch pad, etc. Maybe an unmanned heaver lifter could be flying in 3 years in tandem with a smaller manned CEV, and the combination could finish ISS.