I was reading a article in Ars Technica about the Columbia disaster, back in 2003, written by Lee Hutchinson, who was doing some support work for NASA back then. He talks about the possibility of a rescue mission using the Atlantis (already undergoing mission prep). An emergency spacewalk to make repairs was also possible. The NASA honchos decided that even if there was damage (caused by a chunk of foam breaking off the external tank during launch and hitting the wing) nothing could be done, so decided not to check for damage (which could have been done with an EVA, or sophisticated ground-based imaging systems, or recon sats).
I remember this all pretty well: I’d still welcome the chance to strangle the key NASA players. I remember how they forbade lower-level people at NASA to talk to the Air Force and ask for recon assets – how they peddled ass-covering bullshit about how nothing could possibly have been done. A lie.

One of the dogs that didn’t bark was the fact that NASA acted as if relevant DOD assets did not exist. For example, if you could have put a package into a matching low orbit with those consumables in shortest supply, say CO2 absorbers and/or cheeseburgers, there would would have been considerably more time available to assemble a rescue mission. For some forgotten reason the Air Force has hundreds of missiles (Minuteman-IIIs) that can be launched on a moment’s notice – it wouldn’t be that hard to replace a warhead with a consumables package. A moment’s thought tells you that some such capability is likely to exist – one intended to rapidly replaced destroyed recon sats, for example. Certainly worth considering, worth checking, before giving up on the crew. Just as the Air Force has recon assets that could have been most helpful in diagnosing the state of the ship – but NASA would rather die than expose itself to Air Force cooties. Not that the Air Force doesn’t have cooties, but NASA has quite a few of its own already.

If we ever had a real reason for manned space travel – I can imagine some – the first thing you’d need to do is kill everyone in the NASA manned space program. JPL you could keep.

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65 Responses to Columbia

  1. ironrailsironweights says:

    As I recall, NASA mission leaders figured that while it might be possible to determine the extent of damage to the heat-shielding tiles it probably wouldn’t be possible to make the necessary repairs. They then figured that it would be better for the astronauts to go on thinking that everything was fine, until their sudden deaths, than to spend several days knowing they were doomed.


    • gcochran9 says:

      Repair was possible with an EVA, and a rescue mission was also possible.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Anyhow, you give up after you and your best team have cracked your brains trying to find an answer, not before you’ve even tried. Assholes.

        • Toddy Cat says:

          Yes, the really irritating thing isn’t necessarily that they failed, but that they never even tried. I was simply stunned when I found out the truth.

    • JoachimStrobel says:

      I use this terrible accident always as an example why not to do PowerPoints. It has been widely stated, that one PowerPoint was being made, showing all the dangers that exist. Moreover, it has been said, that if that PowerPoint had been a word document, then people would have listened. I can confirm from my little world that this is entirely correct: PowerPoints convey no message. If one means it seriously, then a word document is necessary. Therefore, this is not about stupid NASA engineers but about communications.

  2. Jerome says:

    “NASA would rather die than expose itself to Air Force cooties”

    I think the evidence shows that what NASA preferred was killing a few geeks and a schoolteacher, not dying.

    NASA is welfare for engineers.

    • gcochran9 says:

      A lot of the NASA people involved in these decisions were demoted or fired. They paid for their folly, but not enough. But we keep picking fools as leaders.

      • iffen says:

        How many paid for letting the Challenger blow up?

      • melendwyr says:

        “But we keep picking fools as leaders.”
        What does this tell us about ourselves, hmm?

        • AllenM says:

          Leadership is hard because it can either choose to think, accept disagreement, and actually seek to answer the hard questions, or it can be a pyramid of stupidity with nose up rear of superior, and boot on the throat of underlings.

          Unfortunately, there are a lot of successful suckups and sociopaths that simply play the game instead of think the entire mission through, and the result is dead people.

          Further, groupthink is a powerful tool to repress alternative viewpoints and conclusions.

          In short, teams function as hunter gatherer bands, and have those fundamental weaknesses.

  3. Yudi says:

    You mean NASA wouldn’t do everything humanly possible to save distressed crewmembers a la The Martian???

    How unbelievable.

  4. ursiform says:

    I think some of the things you suggest would have been harder than you make them sound, Greg. But, from its inception, the shuttle program was based on repeated denial of reality. That obviously continued through the foam calving problem.

    • gcochran9 says:

      as for the Minuteman III notion, I thought that we must have a rapid capacity to replace recon sats. I just talked with a friend who’s steeped in this: we do, and could have easily put up a consumables package with a Minuteman. Not as easy with a Trident.

      • NuclearLabRat says:

        Off the top of my head, I don’t believe that the Minuteman 3 has the ISP for an orbital (rather than suborbital) insertation, much less the delta v that would have been required for an orbital transfer to meet up with the shuttle from their very high latitude launch point. However your point about the probable existence of rockets meant to replace destroyed satellites is a good one, I had not thought of that. I am guessing that the ABM rockets might have worked as well – especially as they already had a payload meant to link up with object in orbit.
        As for NASA, well, let’s just say that there’s a reason that Skunk Works is my dream employer and not them.

        • gcochran9 says:

          A Minuteman III can put 300-kg into an orbit similar to that of the first Israeli satellite (Jericho II) : perigee of 250 km, apogee of 1150 km.

          A Minuteman II is closer to the Jericho in payload, about 150 kg.

          Sometimes, when my back-of-the-envelope estimates work better than those of supposed pros like those NASA goons that wrote off Columbia, or the Fools at the Top who had convinced themselves of the existence of an ongoing Iraqi nuclear program, I do wonder.

          • Murray Anderson says:

            My recollection was that the first Israeli satellite was more like 150 kg (supported by Wikipedia, which says 155 kg), and that later ones used a stretched version of the rocket to get 300 kg. However your point is probably right anyway. It’s supposed to be about half the ICBM payload to low earth orbit isn’t it?

          • athEIst says:

            Greg, there was a heavy water reactor in Iraq courtesy of USSR. Begin took out the Osirak light water reactor, courtesy of France, mostly as a campaign aid(it worked).Do you know what became of that Soviet reactor? Seems to be hard to find information on this.

  5. AppSocRes says:

    The space shuttle program: another Carter gift to the country. For the amount wasted on this boondoggle we could have established a permanent moon base by now.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I don’t think Jimmy Carter had much to do with it.

      • AppSocRes says:

        You’re right. The space shuttle program was initiated during Nixon’s presidency, continued under Ford and Carter, and had its first launch under Reagan. So I guess Nixon gets the primary blame. But I seem to remember Carter touting it on several occasions though, when he bothered paying any attention to the US space program.

  6. Joachim Strobel says:

    So we are reaching my favorite: Why on earth did NASA stop the Saturn 5? It was the best machinery mankind ever build (excluding some Travalger class sail-ships). Sure, it was build by an ex-Nazicamp boss and it is kind of obvious that people looked for revenge after the moon hype was over. But then – there is still no replacement in sight. And compared to the times when a Saturn 5 was launched in 3 month intervals everything else relating to space looks like a joke, including this ill designed Space shuttle thingy. I wonder if that is already a sign of diminishing IQs. At least it is the technology against which current and future generations should be benchmarked against. And that includes IPhones, Internet, and Teslas.

    • Harry E. says:

      Seriously? A habit of destroying an inflation adjusted $3 billion every three months is a virtual no-brainer to cancel (…unless interested parties can field moral arguments that make it impolite to impossible to oppose the insanity. The former tells you why the US no longer has a Saturn V build-to-destroy program; the latter why it will keep Closing The Gap, perpetually.)

      • JoachimStrobel says:

        The Saturn 5 did cost 3 billion USD for lifting 140 tons into LEO. Some source push this to 7 billion USD. The Space Shuttle did cost 0.5(NASA)-1.5(Nature) billion USD for lifting 23 tons into LEO.

  7. burson says:

    what do you think of prive companies like spaceX? are the re-entry vehicles viable? can they replace NASA one day. the profit/loss constraint should put some pressure on competence of the personnel.

    • melendwyr says:

      They don’t seem to have any good ideas for making space profitable, beyond tourism for rich people. So there’s really no point to it. It’s whiz-bang gratification rather than sober planning.

      • Zach Cochran says:

        That’s silly talk. SpaceX is already getting paid for launching commercial payloads. They’re also far and away cheaper than Soyuz for launching to the ISS. If you think there’s no money to be made in LEO, you’re grounded from watching TV or using GPS on your smartphone for 1 week.

        • gcochran9 says:

          There’s hardly any money to be made in LEO using currently existing concepts, much less than people once hoped for. The culprit: optical fiber.

        • melendwyr says:

          I do neither. But let me restate: at present or the foreseeable future, there’s no money to be made from putting people in space other than tourism, and precious little more to be made with satellites.
          People act as though there’s something disgusting about the profit motive, when it’s the motivator for almost all human activities. And there’s been virtually no effort made to find profit in space. In fairness, almost any resource would be easier to acquire on Earth – from the ocean’s bottom, perhaps, or Antarctica, or the Gobi. But if there’s no money to be made, no one’s going to go to space.

        • Nuclear Lab Rat says:

          Launch costs are pretty much irreverent unless they were to be reduced by an order of magnitude or so. Other than deploying some reusable technology that makes rocket geeks swoon, the only reason that SpaceX’s entry into the field is in any way valuable is in reducing the backlog of satellites waiting to be launched by Delta 4’s and Atlas 5’s. Are rocket launchs expensive? Yes. But the people it takes to develop and watch over the payloads 24 hours a day for 20+ years are far, far more so.

  8. Deuce Richardson says:

    A little off topic, but my uncle was the troubleshooter during the last years of the Titan program. After that, he oversaw quite a bit of stuff out at Edwards. Very competent guy. He was let go during the Lockheed-Martin merger.

  9. Michael says:

    I assume, as always, it was simply a “failure of imagination”.

  10. syonredux says:


    Greg, I was wondering if you have any thoughts on this:

    “Another interesting case are the Ashkenazi Jews, who display a frequency of haplogroup K similar to the PPNB sample together with low non-significant pairwise Fst values, which taken together suggests an ancient Near Eastern origin. This observation clearly contradicts the results of a recent study, where a detailed phylogeographical analysis of mtDNA lineages has suggested a predominantly European origin for the Ashkenazi communities [48]. According to that work the majority of the Ashkenazi mtDNA lineages can be assigned to three major founders within haplogroup K (31% of their total lineages): K1a1b1a, K1a9 and K2a2. The absence of characteristic mutations within the control region in the PPNB K-haplotypes allow discarding them as members of either sub-clades K1a1b1a or K2a2, both representing a 79% of total Ashkenazi K lineages. However, without a high-resolution typing of the mtDNA coding region it cannot be excluded that the PPNB K lineages belong to the third sub-cluster K1a9 (20% of Askhenazi K lineages). Moreover, in the light of the evidence presented here of a loss of lineages in the Near East since Neolithic times, the absence of Ashkenazi mtDNA founder clades in the Near East should not be taken as a definitive argument for its absence in the past. The genotyping of the complete mtDNA in ancient Near Eastern populations would be required to fully answer this question and it will undoubtedly add resolution to the patterns detected in modern populations in this and other studies.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      Since the major Ashkenazi mtDNA lineages are definitely European in origin – we can see the close sister groups in southern Europeans – this makes no sense at all. Now if you want to speculate that some of those European haplogroups originated in the Middle Eastern populations that founded the EEF, the first European farmers (that make up most of the ancestry of southern Europe), that’s not impossible. I think it’s motivated reasoning though – trying to make Ashkenazi maternal ancestors racially Jewish. It’s not true. Moreover, you know it isn’t true because half of Ashkenazi autosomal ancestry is also European.

  11. IC says:


    More people surfer from it than you realized. Especially a lot of underachievers.

  12. Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

    No need to knock a warhead off a minuteman, the Air Force launches shit into space all the time. You can watch the “recon satellites” streaking up to the sky yourself out in California and Nevada. Dollars to donuts says they’ve got purpose-built cargo lifters ready to go on really short notice at all hours.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Dollars to donuts would be wrong. They use harder to get ready, but more efficient, liquid-fueled rockets. Those are regular spy sats, not emergency backup end-of-the-world spy sats.

      • Some Troll's Legitimate discussion Alt says:

        You don’t have to use the same tech on your rainy day in-a-hurry rocket as in your day to day rocket, and it’s not like the quick stuff is a mystery. The Air Force is in buisness up there, so it would be smart for them to be able to slap a patch up there fast. Sometimes smart decisions do happen.

        And yeah, regular spy satellites. Couldn’t be anything else. That would be illegal.

  13. Philip Neal says:

    As usual there are some knowledgable people on here. Do they think that the space station serves some genuine purpose yet to be revealed, or is it just the international boondoggle it appears to be?

    • Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

      The noblest of all purposes.

      Keeping otherwise surplused ex-soviet rocket scientists gainfully employed somewhere besides the -stans and other shitholes.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Speaking of Boondoggles, Jerry Pournelle always says that the biggest problem with the Shuttle is that it was designed to keep NASA personnel employed after Apollo, rather than to just accomplish the mission. Whatever the truth of the matter, according to Feynman, it always was a lot more dangerous than we were led to believe.

    • ursiform says:

      The ISS was supposed to be way cheaper than it turned out to be, there was supposed to be great commercial value in manufacturing in zero-g, people were supposed to adapt very well to long stints in zero-g, and it was somehow going to help us send people to Mars.

      Then it became a place to send space shuttles, which were built to provide cheap access to space, which was supposed to serve a huge market. The market for really, really expensive access to space turned out to be pretty small, provided largely by having a space station.

      Self-licking ice cream cone.

  14. Joachim Strobel says:

    My guess is, that we are different to the Neanderthaler because we are able to believe in stuff. Be it religion, government, paper money, communism, global warming or … human Space exploration.

  15. Zach Cochran says:

    It’s worth reading Wayne Hale’s comments on the incident. He was the manager of the shuttle program after the Columbia disaster, and he’s one of the really good hombres at NASA. Some of his thoughts:

    He’s written a lot about this; worth exploring for anyone interested in spaceflight.

    Wayne mentions DOD resources; there seems to have been some bureaucratic stonewalling
    (of course). But anyone who thinks much about space travel (or who has played Kerbal Space Program for a few hours) can appreciate how hard it would be to make a rescue. First, they were nowhere near the ISS. Space is REALLY BIG, and the ISS was in an orbit about 70 miles higher then Columbia. There was no fuel to boost to that orbit, and no way to get anything from the ISS down. (You can, theoretically, drop the ISS itself down, but you put that station and its crew at considerable risk). Plus, they were on totally different inclinations.

    MAYBE you could have scrambled Atlantis. There was no procedure in place to do this, and no cabin configuration that would let everyone to come home. After Columbia, there was a “launch on need” plan in place that could send a crew of four up to rescue a crew of seven, but there was nothing like that ready with Atlantis. Maybe it could have been pulled off. But again, you’re risking another shuttle and its crew.

    And then you’re talking about spacewalks; seven spacewalks, at a minimum. The maneuvering backpacks (MMUs) were phased out after Challenger. Was there enough fuel for those sorts of maneuvers? How many EMUs (Extravehicular Mobility Units) did Columbia carry? I think the minimum is two for emergencies, but maybe more if they’re planning extensive EVAs (and STS-107 wasn’t). So how do you make the transfer? Maybe fly more up with the other shuttle? Still, tricky.

    The biggest reason NASA hesitated was that they’d seen this issue before. NASA didn’t listen to Richard Feynman’s comments in Appendix F of the Challenger report. His notion was that if you see an error, and nothing happens, you still ought to fix that error. It’s probably telling you something. In that case, it was the Challenger o-rings, which had been compromised previously. NASA had the problem, had no bad consequences, and decided that wasn’t a big deal. Similarly, foam had fallen off the tank before, and nothing bad had happened. Rather than saying “huh, foam falling off the tank is a problem” they determined “huh, foam falling off the tank is no big deal.”

    • gcochran9 says:

      He’s a lying sack of shit. He says that an EVA was the only way to tell if there was damage, but that is not true. Look, you can see see things six inches across on the ground with a spy satellite: at the right orbital moment, you could get a far better image than that (closer and with no atmosphere to interfere). And spy satellite orbits are adjustable: they carry a lot of maneuvering fuel, to make Mr. DeMille happy.

      Atlantis was already undergoing prep for launch, while Columbia had an unusually large amount of consumables. A Minuteman III (and possibly others) could have orbited an extra consumables package, giving more time for Atlantis prep. As for no cabin config that would let everyone come home: false. Max acceleration in a shuttle re-entry was 3g: you could have sat on the God-damned floor and been all right.

      As for how much fuel you need for all the EVAs: you’ve heard of a clothesline, perhaps? Hand over hand?

      Post one more falsehood and you’re banned.

    • ursiform says:

      They could have scrambled Atlantis, but doing so would have been counter to the NASA mindset. NASA tried to drive the risk of things they understood and controlled to zero while pretending that risks they didn’t understand or couldn’t control didn’t exist.

      Launching Atlantis without going through normal procedures was an unacceptable risk. Letting Columbia land following normal procedures was an acceptable risk. To NASA.

  16. indravaruna says:

    The Space Shuttle was originally a Air Force program but got transferred to NASA.

  17. another fred says:

    I’m not all that experienced, but in the little bit of contracting and odd-jobbing I was involved in with the government I found the jealousy and back-stabbing between departments astounding.

  18. josh says:

    JPL you could keep. Alls I know is that Jack Parsons was a strange guy.

  19. NASA will not kill the golden goose and come right and say just how insurmountably damaging prolonged time in space is. This article gives a pretty accurate picture of what cosmic rays will do to an astronaut who goes to Mars and back, spending 2 1/2 years blasted by cosmic ray radiation. It is estimated it will take 15 to 23 years off an estimated astronauts life span. That is just the cancer risk, it doesn’t include the risk of the astronaut getting senile as well because of what damage that cosmic rays did to his brain.

    As a science and science fiction fan I want to behold the wonder of a man walking around Mars. But we shouldn’t do it. Let the Chinese do it. They really want to show off to the world their competence and they can spare and stretch the billions required far better than NASA. Now NASA has stated that a Manned Mars trip will have to wait till the late 2030’s. Well that is right about the time the fluffy headed singularity people say that artificial intelligence will be surpassing human intelligence so fuck it, send a smart box that won’t be growing tumors or talking like an old NFL football player.

  20. Florida resident says:

    What do you think about this paper (which I have not read)
    by Michael Yudell, Dorothy Roberts, Rob DeSalle, Sarah Tishkoff
    “Taking race out of human genetics” ?
    Author Information:
    Michael Yudell1,*,
    Dorothy Roberts2,
    Rob DeSalle3,
    Sarah Tishkoff2
    1Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
    2University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
    3American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY 10024, USA.

    In the wake of the sequencing of the human genome in the early 2000s, genome pioneers and social scientists alike called for an end to the use of race as a variable in genetic research (1, 2). Unfortunately, by some measures, the use of race as a biological category has increased in the postgenomic age (3). Although inconsistent definition and use has been a chief problem with the race concept, it has historically been used as a taxonomic categorization based on common hereditary traits (such as skin color) to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research—so disputed and so mired in confusion—is problematic at best and harmful at worst. It is time for biologists to find a better way.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      I’ll defer to Drs. Cochran and Harpending on this, for obvious reasons, but I have noticed that, any time someone uses the word “problematic” in a discussion of race, 90% of the time, what follows is bullsh*t. Caveat Emptor…

    • Ursiform says:

      The arguments in the paper seem rather muddled. At different points they argue:

      Race doesn’t exist.
      The term “race” means different things in different contexts.
      Racial categorizations aren’t always correct.
      We should use a different word in place of “race”.

      They suggest using terms like “ancestry” or “population” in place of “race”. I suppose that means that if you argue that different groups of people are different you’d now be an ancestrist or populationist rather than a racist.

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