Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Birdie Fly Home

Space Shuttle Atlantis is currently orbiting the earth as NASA tries to mitigate two issues which may block reentry: bad weather and a mysterious object near the shuttle.

The weather issue will always plague manned spaceflight. At least the shuttle can land at Edwards Air Force Base, or even White Sands, NM if it runs low on supplies. The mystery object is another issue, far more serious. Perhaps it's a critical piece of the thermal protection system. Even if its not, there's still a chance that the object collided with the shuttle and damaged the TPS.

The least NASA should do is to order another inspection of the orbiter with the boom. There's also the chance that NASA could dock the shuttle back with the ISS, but that might be delayed by the current Soyuz expedition. My hope is that, if NASA exercises the ISS lifeboat option, it does so for sound engineering reasons rather than "just because we can."

If redocking does occur, it might be temporary to allow for more extensive heat shield tests. If NASA did sacrifice the orbiter and launched a rescue mission, the political fallout would immediately end the shuttle program. Even if the orbiter was saved through a patch-job and flown back under computer control, the shuttles would be sent to the museums immediately after.

The mystery object is likely a benign item that flew from the payload bay, and it probably did not damage the shuttle. Then again, the old engineering models predicted that falling foam was supposed to hit the underside of the wing rather than the fragile leading edges on Columbia. Another inspection of the TPS would make NASA safe rather than sorry.