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Watch this space . . .

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I will post this in two parts as unfortunately it won't show if you clik the link.....

Nicholas Wapshott reports on the gaint jigsaw that will decide the future of mankind's ultimate adventure.

IN a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, engineers in white coats and yellow gloves are slowly piecing the space shuttle Columbia back together.

Their mechanical post-mortem consumes a vast area of concrete hangar floor, which is neatly divided by yellow tape into a grid of large squares. Some shuttle parts, such as the landing gear and tyres, are so large and clearly recognisable that they have been assigned straight to their rightful place.

Less obvious pieces are more difficult to identify. Like marathon jigsaw puzzlers, Nasa investigators and the occasional astronaut in a blue jump-suit pick up pieces of debris looking for a fit. They inspect a hunk of twisted metal from all sides, then compare it to the large close-up photographs of Columbia’s underside hung on a wall.

To date, 72,754 pieces of torn, mangled or burnt metal from Columbia have been brought to the hangar, making up just 36 per cent of the vehicle’s original weight. Of those 72,754 fragments, 66,895 have been identified and placed in their correct square. Nasa expects three more truckloads of debris to arrive before the recovery process is formally concluded next week. The meticulous reconstruction of the shuttle, which broke up on flight STS-107 on February 1, is essential to the work of discovering the cause of the disaster. Only then can flights be resumed.

Columbia’s fall from the sky, creating a pyrotechnic display seen from the California coast to the bayous of Louisiana, was a sickening blow to Americans already in a heightened state of nervousness since September 11. Was this another terrorist attack? Could the hidden forces of menace even reach into space?

Far from casting doubt over the future of the hugely expensive, federally-funded space programme, the incineration of the Columbia and its crew sparked a new interest in America’s ambitions to conquer space.MOST Americans long ago lost interest in the mundane procession of shuttle flights to the orbiting space station, leaving the field to the employees of the cumbersome and spendthrift space agency Nasa and the spattering of space geeks who loyally recorded Columbia’s last moments on their camcorders.

But the shuttle’s spectacular end coincided with a new sense of patriotism which has swept America since the al-Qaeda attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The overwhelming mood demands that the country adopt a phoenix strategy and redoubles Nasa’s efforts, rekindling the romance in the conquest of space and reminding the nation of John F. Kennedy’s challenge: “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space — and we have no choice but to follow it.”

In the days immediately after the Columbia disaster, in a heady mix of national pride and pork-barrel politics, Congress passed, without blinking, an enhanced annual Nasa budget of $15.4 billion. But a redoubling of the effort to conquer space is not the only fallout of the shuttle disaster. This being America, where every accident must have its reason and the legal system is ever eager to point a finger of blame, the first duty is to find out what exactly happened on February 1. There was so much criticism at the way that Nasa covered up the causes of an inferno that engulfed an earlier shuttle, Challenger, in which seven astronauts, all teachers, died in 1986, that this time no expense is being spared to provide a wholly transparent investigation.

To that end 3,000 volunteers have set out day after day on a scavenger hunt, tramping through 103,000 acres of the vast territory between Southern California, above which the Columbia began breaking up, and Texas and Louisiana, where its remains finally fell to earth. Search and recovery on such a scale is not cheap; by last month the taxpayer’s bill for collecting the debris was more than $317 million. While the wreckage of Columbia is reassembled in Florida, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has begun its work. The inquiry is chaired by Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr, a white-haired, no-nonsense retired naval officer with gimlet eyes and a quiet, determined demeanour, who was formerly Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander for the Atlantic. His nickname is “Hal”, like that of the murderous computer with the red, blinking eye in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


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part two..

Like Kubrick’s Hal, who jettisoned his astronauts rather than risk the purpose of the mission, the admiral is programmed to get the job done and is all too aware of the dangers of human frailty. In marked contrast to the traditional secretiveness of British tribunals, Gehman has made clear from the start he intends his investigation to be free from interference, that it will be open to public scrutiny and will ultimately reveal everything that led to the disaster, whether mechanical failure or human error.

“We are still working seven days a week. Our energy and our seriousness have not flagged,” he announced. “We still have confidence that we’re going to find the cause, the direct cause, and determine the contributing causes. We are dedicated to that end and we have no slacking off. We’re not getting discouraged just because we haven’t found it so far.” One of his first tasks was to remove Nasa managers from the board, to avoid, he explained, “having the investigators investigate themselves”. And he promised he was not afraid of making waves. “The public hearing will get more serious and more controversial as it goes on,” he declared. He encouraged the press by suggesting that he knew what they needed. “We don’t save up the news until Tuesday and then let it all out,” he told reporters. “We let the news out as it comes out.”

Gehman is employing the meticulous method of a lifetime navy man, probing Nasa’s systems of management and lines of command during space missions as much as any failures in on-board engineering and the vulnerability of the space shuttle’s design. His declaration that nothing about the shuttle operation would be left unscrutinised quickly led to an unexpected revelation: the publication of anxious e-mails between a Nasa engineer and the agency’s top managers. Five days after Columbia was launched, Alan Rocha, a chief structural engineer in Houston, was so alarmed by the damage he feared may have been caused to the spacecraft’s wing by a piece of foam insulation the size of a suitcase falling from the craft’s discarded exterior fuel tank that he e-mailed 22 colleagues and managers suggesting that Nasa should appeal to other state bodies — “Can we petition (beg) for outside agency assistance?” — to help check the condition of the wing.

He had hoped that the National Reconnaissance Office, a section of the Defence Department, would be asked to help by providing photographs of the wing taken from one of its spy satellites. But Rocha was ignored. Despite similar concern about wing damage from two more groups of Nasa workers, the managers, including Ron D. Dittemore, the shuttle programme’s top executive, decided against reaching outside Nasa for help. They said they believed satellite imagery would not provide enough magnification to be useful.

They also consulted Boeing, the company which built much of the shuttle, about potential damage to the wing and were assured that the foam insulation was too light to cause a problem. This week the investigation announced that foam damage is the most likely cause of the Columbia’s destruction. The e-mail incident has prompted the inquiry’s first preliminary recommendation: that Nasa should agree with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which also operates satellites, to routinely photograph all spacecraft during future flights to expose signs of damage or other reasons for concern. The disregarded e-mails also provide the first clue as to where Gehman might ultimately decide to lay the blame. In another anxious message, Rocha recalled the posters which lined Nasa’s corridor walls exhorting: “If it’s not safe, say so.” Nasa’s managers were too remote and dismissive of lowly technicians and engineers to follow their own advice.

“Those at lower levels discuss among themselves but do not raise their concerns to those aggressive leaders who can act on their concerns,” concluded one of the admiral’s senior investigators, who railed at the routine intimidation of engineers by top Nasa managers and the agency’s poor safety culture. The investigation is now interviewing Nasa engineers and executives about the lack of trust between them which may have caused a warning to go unheeded.

“Obviously there are a lot of people who, in retrospect, may have wished they had done something differently, whether or not it might have affected the ultimate outcome,” said Steven B. Wallace, a senior investigator, this week.The hint coincided with the resignation of Ron Dittemore, who was in charge of all aspects of the shuttle flights — including safety. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Dittemore, a soft-spoken, good-looking man in John Lennon wire spectacles, spoke eloquently about the disaster and patiently answered questions.

Although he had hoped to be able to oversee the resumption of shuttle flights, he has become the inquiry’s first victim. President Kennedy imagined that the conquest of space would inspire a generation of supermen; 35 years on, his challenge to the nation has spawned the flawed gods of Nasa who, like Icarus, are plunging headlong to earth.

Meanwhile, Nasa is pressing ahead with two new shuttle successors which could radically change the nature of space flight — a new craft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, ready in ten years, and a “ramjet”, an orbital space plane more like a streamlined jet fighter than the cumbersome shuttle, due in 2020. Until then, Nasa must learn the lessons of the Columbia tragedy and make alterations to its three remaining shuttles. If the spacecraft cannot be made safe, Nasa might opt for unmanned space voyages, spelling an end to the romance of the exploration of near space — and with it an end to the American public’s appetite for footing the ever- increasing bill

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Had to shift this one off the news board because it was causing problems on the front page - interesting article though.


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