Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Nova fizzles

I watched NOVA's "Space Shuttle Disaster" episode on PBS tonight, and I have to say that I was disappointed. It really didn't say anything that hasn't been said before, and it focused more on the cultural and managerial aspects of the disaster, rather than the technical side.

The problem with documentaries of this sort is that it's difficult to come up with something original to say when so many other documentaries have been made, and when the news media has covered so many facets of a highly-visible event like the Columbia disaster. I recall a program on the National Geographic channel from 2005 which covered the Columbia disaster in what I felt was a better treatment than the more recent one from Nova.

I will say that my initial reaction to the foamstrike theory, publicly announced later in the day when the disaster first occurred, was similar to that of many NASA managers. Debris strikes and over-pressures had knocked off tiles on previous shuttle missions, so why would a foamstrike be enough to doom Columbia? It turns out that this was the mother of all foamstrikes, targeting the orbiter's critical and brittle leading edges. NASA is lucky that they have better folks than I to make the life-and-death decisions that affect the crew. Even still, we are reminded that this is serious business with little room for error.

The more morbid parts of my mind focus on what the re-entry must have been like for the slowly-disintegrating orbiter, and for the crew. I wonder how much the accident investigators know about exactly what was going on within the wing structure as the plasma blowtorch intensified. I can only imagine the terror the crew must have felt during those final moments of radio silence, as the left wing disintegrated and the vehicle spun out of control before its ultimate disintegration. There can be no underestimating the bravery of men and women who knowingly choose to ride the Space Shuttle.