February 1, 2013
Thinking back on the space shuttle Columbia accident, 10 years ago today, reminded me of a conversation I had back in 2010 with Pam Melroy, a former astronaut who had already left NASA by then. We were doing interviews for our special shuttle collectors edition, but later, when it was published, we weren’t able to include this particular story for some logistical reason. I was always sorry we left it out.
In all the national shock and grief over Columbia, and all the policy and technical discussions that followed, I never thought the astronauts at NASA got enough credit for their role in the investigation. They had just lost friends — the astronaut corps is a small, close-knit group — but there they were on national TV that same morning, fielding questions on what happened, and why, and who or what was to blame. It was a tough time for all of them.
In 2003 Melroy was working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as head of the small contingent of “Cape Crusader” astronauts that helps shuttle crews prepare for launch (she later became one of only two women to command a shuttle mission). After the accident she was assigned to the team that had the massive job of reconstructing Columbia from all the bits of debris collected by field workers in Texas.
Here’s how she remembered that time:
I was there at the Cape when it happened. So when [NASA] decided to have the vehicle reconstruction in Florida, they recollected that after Challenger, there had been a crew module reconstruction, and it was overseen by astronauts. They wanted an astronaut there to take over the reconstruction of the cockpit. It was, “Okay, Pam, you’re the lead Cape Crusader, go figure out what KSC needs.” After that I ended up taking over the lead for the crew module reconstruction.
We had set aside a small room in the hangar [where Columbia was being reconstructed], a corner room where a wall was built with a single door in it. The crew module reconstruction happened behind there. The reason was that it was extremely emotional and difficult for everyone. There was just no reason to expose 300 or 400 people working on the main part of the vehicle to look at all the parts. It’s just harder to look at the switch panels and all the things that the crew touched. There were personal items of the crew’s mixed in with the debris. It was very stressful for everyone, so the idea was that no one should have to look at it every day except this small group of people who were designated to do that.
Over the months that the reconstruction was happening, astronauts wound up in Florida for some business or another. Most of the folks in the office felt very strongly about going to see the reconstruction of the orbiter, to try to understand and to see it. I can’t think of anyone who was there to visit the orbiter who did not want to see the crew module. Everyone came in to see it. The feelings and the emotions were fairly universal as for the grief, but it was different things that triggered it in different people. One person would walk past the switch panels, but lock in on a checklist page. You could see them stop and be completely arrested. Someone else would stand in front of a switch panel for 20 minutes. For all of us, it was very personal. Whatever memories you had about your own spaceflight was what connected you to the debris.
I took the families on a tour through the reconstruction, the ones who chose to go. Eventually all the families did end up visiting, so I had the opportunity to talk to all of them. They’re all different. Some were technically driven, some were emotionally driven.
My military aviation training had led me to believe that every single thing was important. As I worked among the debris, I began to see things that I thought might be stories, or might pose questions. Why did the seats look like they did? Why did we get checklist pages back almost intact? I thought, “We could learn a lot from this.”
Later, after the primary investigation conducted by the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board], NASA started a crew survival investigation to understand what happened to the crew and their equipment, and I was the deputy project manager. Astronauts don’t typically get involved in leading this kind of investigation due to our other duties, but a combination of the fact that I had been involved in the reconstruction, and was the astronaut office point of contact for the stored debris made it important for me to be so engaged. It was a very, very personal thing for me.
Five years after the accident, the team’s crew survival report was published. You can read it here.
January 18, 2013
The Casablanca Conference, held 70 years ago this week, is remembered today for the agreement by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to demand unconditional surrender from their Axis enemies. But even before the leaders sat down to talk, FDR made history. His trip across the Atlantic, in a Boeing 314 flying boat, was the first time a sitting U.S. president flew on an airplane.
Nobody was more impressed than his pilots. The flights had been planned in secrecy, and when Roosevelt and his entourage showed up at the Pan American airways base in Miami on the morning of January 11, 1943, to board the Dixie Clipper, “[the crew] were very much surprised to learn the identity of our guest,” recalled Pan Am pilot Howard M. Cone, Jr. Cone, a 34-year-old veteran of transoceanic flights, flew Roosevelt, advisor Harry Hopkins and several military leaders on one Clipper, while another flying boat carried the presidential staff.
Cone said the President was an “excellent passenger” and a “good air sailor” on his 15,000-mile round-trip, displaying an impressive knowledge of geography on a journey that included stops in Trinidad and Brazil. Once in Africa, Roosevelt boarded a TWA C-54 piloted by 35-year-old Captain Otis F. Bryan, who flew him from Bathurst, Gambia to Morocco. The trip back from Casablanca included a flyover of the harbor at Dakar, Senegal, at an altitude of 3,000 feet.
In a War Department press conference following their return to the States, the two airline pilots couldn’t stop effusing about their VIP passenger’s ability to “make you feel perfectly at home. We felt at ease as long as he was,” said Bryan. Roosevelt even joined in the ritual of signing “short snorters” for the crew — dollar bills autographed by all the passengers on a flight.
The President also celebrated his 61st birthday on the way back, dining on caviar, olives, celery, pickles, turkey, dressing, green peas, cake, and champagne. (Captain Cone, reported the New York Times, drank coffee instead.)
It wasn’t FDR’s first time in an airplane — in 1932 he had flown to the Democratic convention in Chicago to accept the presidential nomination. But before 1943, airplanes weren’t considered a safe form of transportation for an American president. (In fact, if the fatal crash of Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper on February 22 had happened before Roosevelt’s flight instead of just after, the Secret Service may not have approved the Casablanca trip.)
Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor, on the other hand, was a veteran flier by 1943, and had even gone up with one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Nor was she the first presidential spouse to try flying. That distinction goes to Warren Harding’s wife Florence, although when she went up in a Navy seaplane during a trip to Panama in November 1920, she technically was still a First Lady-elect.
According to the Atlanta Constitution:
During a visit to the naval air station at Cocosolo Mrs. Harding accepted an invitation to make a flight, spending fifteen minutes over Limon bay in one of the largest NC type planes used by the Navy. The plane attained a height of about one thousand feet, and though it was her first experience at flying, Mrs. Harding appeared to enjoy it immensely.
While prospective presidents are forbidden the thrills of risky ventures like skyplaning, nevertheless, Senator Harding carries back with him a vivid picture of the bay from the air, recounted by Mrs. Harding.
January 17, 2013
So we’ve come full circle. Bigelow Aerospace, who based their Genesis inflatable space module on a NASA research project, is now selling back to the space agency its own technology. That’s probably a win-win outcome, though, since the contract — to test a prototype “expandable” module on the International Space Station starting in 2015 — may help keep Bigelow going, and should cost the government less in the long run.
Robert T. Bigelow, who made his money in the hotel business, got the idea for inflatable space habitats from NASA’s Transhab project of the 1990s. In fact, it was reading our April/May 1999 story on Transhab (here’s a downloadable PDF) and other similar articles in the popular press that inspired him. Practically everyone at the time thought Transhab was cool, and potentially very useful. But it didn’t fit into NASA’s plans for the space station, and was abandoned. Bigelow was eccentric enough, or maybe visionary enough — we’ll see how it plays out — to pick up the concept and see it through to launch his twin Genesis modules.
Only one thing bothers me about yesterday’s announcement. Bigelow is often held out by the New Space faithful as a key player in a would-be private economy based in Earth orbit. SpaceX and others would provide the rides, and Bigelow would provide the hotel/lab space. Once again, though, the only one stepping forward with money to make things happen is the U.S. government. Bigelow seems to still have plans for a private orbital module, but so far it’s just that — plans.
By the way, NASA apparently doesn’t like using the word “inflatable” anymore, since it conjures images of party balloons and Jiffy Pop.
Whatever. You fill it up with air.
January 9, 2013
A tweet from science fiction writer David Brin alerted me to some of the fun and innovative things people are doing with space-y graphics and visualizations—everything from a weightless Google page to an animation of the Sun and planets moving together through the Milky Way.
My favorite is this simulation, created by software engineer Ian Webster, of all the asteroids orbiting the Sun in Earth’s vicinity. The simulation is designed for Chrome, but works in some other browsers, too. (If you don’t see a giant swarm of asteroids, you’re not getting the full effect.)
Webster even lets you sort the rocks by their accessibility and economic value. Watching all these would-be impactors crossing Earth’s orbit makes me glad that asteroids are small and space is big.
January 7, 2013
Ever wonder what happens to high-performance aerobatic airplanes at the end of an airshow season? They get taken apart, that’s what.
We ended our 2012 airshow season on Saturday, November 3 in Thermal, California. We then repositioned the airplane to the Team Oracle hangar at our home base in Salinas. On Monday morning, November 5th we began the teardown at 9:06am. We worked until noon, then took a one-hour lunch break. We then re-attacked the plane at 1 pm and finished with the initial teardown at 3:19pm. Of course, the airplane has been torn apart even further since then, but this is the first swipe at it.
After the team (Norris, Tom Dygert, Clyde Greene, Jimmy Graham, and Chad Colberg) disassembled the Oracle Challenger III, they started in on their postseason to-do list. Norris runs through the steps:
- The entire airframe is being inspected and all hardware replaced
- All sheet metal and carbon fiber is stripped and repainted
- The fuselage fabric is replaced and repainted
- The fabric from the wings is removed, the wings are inspected, recovered and repainted
- The prop is sent back to Hartzell to be overhauled
- The engine is sent to our engine shop and completely overhauled
Norris says they hope to have the airplane back together and ready for its first test flight by the third week of February.
Photographer Dennis Biela captured the teardown in this two-minute time-lapse video.
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