Saying Farewell To The Space Shuttle
IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Unidentified Man #1: T minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, we've gone for main engine start. We have main engine start.
FLATOW: We have a great big hue. It's really cloud it's like soap. There go the solid rocket boasters. Large white flame. It's not only (unintelligible). It is going straight up into a clear blue sky, beautiful, white, white-hot flame. You can probably hear it by now. It is turning over on its back. It's rotating 90 degrees, heading up, up into the blue sky and out over the Atlantic. There goes a tremendous sound, heading up where there are no clouds, huge flames leaving a white, clean cloud trail down to the ground.
It is now going up. We can see it bending over on its side, 37 seconds into the launch, heading straight up there. It is now turning over even more, looks like a huge Roman candle but a very, very bright flame and white, white smoke coming down. It is now getting smaller, getting out of sight.
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).
FLATOW: That was 30 years ago, April 12, 1981, the launch of the first orbital shuttle flight Columbia with yours truly doing the play-by-play. It certainly was exciting, as was the landing.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
General CHUCK YEAGER (Air Force): Here she comes. Here she comes, coming down. He's starting to level off his flare now. He's flattening out. He will get ready to slap down the gear any minute yet now. It's not down yet. It's flaring, flaring at about 220. There it comes, the landing gear.
The landing gear is down. Jake's(ph) plane is on the right wing, looking him over, calling out the altitude. That's a - he's in the mirage now. It looks like he's big as a barn. Oh, he's flaring. There's the first touchdown, a beautiful touchdown. He's got it made now. Everybody is so enthused.
(Soundbite of applause)
Gen. YEAGER: God, that's fabulous. There the nose is coming down very slowly. Everything looks beautiful on that big shuttle airplane.
FLATOW: The shuttle has landed on the Rogers dry lakebed in Edwards Air Force Base, California.
That, of course, was General Chuck Yeager, with me providing the commentary as he had landed on that lake so many thousands of times.
The last space shuttle flight is scheduled for June. After that mission of the Shuttle Atlantis, the U.S. space program will be without a way to get astronauts into low-Earth orbit, let alone out of it, to the moon and beyond.
NASA has no immediate plans for a shuttle replacement. There are plans, however, to see if private companies can take over. On Monday, NASA announced that it awarded almost $300 million to four companies working on spaceships that can carry astronauts.
So this hour, we're going to bid a farewell to the shuttle. Thirty years after the program got off the launch pad, how exciting it was back then, and what happened to it in the meantime.
We're going to talk about how it got started, its high points, tragedies and what it was like to ride and work on it.
I will ask you the question: What do you think will be the shuttle's legacy? Our number, 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. You can talk back to us on Twitter. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. You can go to our Facebook page, /scifri, and talk to us on our website at sciencefriday.com.
Let me introduce my first guest. Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman flew five times on the shuttle, including the mission to fix the Hubble Telescope. He's professor of the practice of aerospace engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and he was the first person to reach 1,000 hours aboard the space shuttle in flight. He joins us from NPR's Washington, D.C., studios.
Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Jeff.
Dr. JEFFREY A. HOFFMAN (Former Shuttle Astronaut; Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT): Well, hi, Ira, it's good to work with you again. It's been a while.
FLATOW: It has been a while. Do you remember that first launch?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Oh, I do. I do indeed. I was working with NPR in Houston at the time.
FLATOW: And do you still get chills? I got chills still listening, even, you know, the launch and landing with Chuck Yeager.
Dr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, I mean, that was the first and perhaps the last and only time that we'll have the first launch of a rocket with human beings inside. There was no unmanned test flight before the shuttle took off the first time.
FLATOW: Do you ever get tired of talking about it, what it was like to be up there?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Not really, I've got be honest. I mean, it was an extraordinary experience. I was very, very fortunate, and every time I talk about it, I can relive it a little bit. So I don't get tired.
FLATOW: OK, good, we're going to tap into that. What - take us back to your pre-astronaut days, when you were qualifying to be an astronaut. What was the right stuff? What did you have to have? What kinds of tests did you have to pass to go into the shuttle?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, you know, originally you had to be a military test pilot, and although I was always excited about space flight, that was not something that I was interested in.
I became an astrophysicist. I was working with space hardware, putting telescopes up in space, but when the shuttle came along, that had a crew of seven, of which only two had to be pilots.
So when NASA announced that they were looking for new astronauts, and they wanted scientists and engineers as well as pilots, I figured that was my chance. I was working at MIT back then, that was in the late '70s, I guess 1977, and I was fortunate enough to get selected.
Now, I had done things like mountain climbing, jumping out of airplanes, past ocean navigation. So I think maybe that counted as the right stuff. I don't know.
FLATOW: Did you have to be able to fix things, you know, be handy with tools and stuff?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, absolutely, and of course the - that's one of the number one things that astronauts do is go up, build things, fix things. And I had done a lot of laboratory work, building payloads, which we launched on balloons and sounding rockets. So I had good credentials for being able to design, build and fix things, as well as experience with computers and a general knowledge of space.
FLATOW: Did you fix things when you got back? Were people saying: Hey, if you can fix that Hubble, you can fix something else?
Dr. HOFFMAN: The very first day I got back, my wife said - and it's her job, of course, to bring me back to Earth, right? So she said: All right, Mr. Astronaut, you were up there fixing the Hubble. Well, the washing machine broke while you were gone. So here's your toolkit. Get to work.
And I fixed it. I like to fix things around the house. I mean, I'm good at it, and that is important. One of my good astronaut friends, he basically restored old Jaguars. He was great with tools. And that's a useful skill.
FLATOW: You know, when a lot of - when people say - when they ask me what do you think that the most important mission of the Hubble was, I have to - and I know you'll be modest about this, but I think I have to point to your mission, where you actually fixed - the space shuttle, I have to point to the mission where you fixed the Hubble Telescope.
Dr. HOFFMAN: We rescued it, basically. Yeah, I mean, Hubble was designed with the idea that space-suited astronauts working out of the space shuttle. Using the shuttle as basically an EVA work platform, we'd be able to fix things on the Hubble when they broke and more important to be able to upgrade the instrumentation, to keep Hubble at the state of the art.
Nobody had anticipated the seriousness of the optical problem which was discovered after Hubble was first put in orbit, and there's no question that when we were given the task of fixing it, we were told in no uncertain terms by Dan Goldin, who was at the time NASA administrator, that the future of NASA's human space program was to a large extent resting with us because that was the time when NASA was trying to convince Congress to get the go-ahead to build the International Space Station.
And I think had we not been able to rescue Hubble, Congress would not have been well-disposed towards letting NASA do that. So yeah, I do look on Hubble as being one of the lasting legacies of the shuttle program. It's something that we only could do using the capability of the shuttle.
A space station you can launch if you have a really big rocket. I mean, we did that with Skylab. The one we have now is obviously designed to be launched in pieces by the shuttle. But the sort of work we did on Hubble really needed the shuttle.
FLATOW: What kind of psychological tests did they put you through to see if you could be...
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, the early shuttle program, we were only going up for a week, a couple of weeks at a time. So they weren't really looking for expedition-type mentality or long-term compatibility. Mainly, they wanted to ensure that they weren't taking in anybody with a serious psychosis or neurosis that would interfere with their duties.
And, of course, we did have to go through claustrophobia tests. A claustrophobe up in space capsule is not a good deal. And although the shuttle is very big...
FLATOW: What was that test like? What did you have to do?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, they actually, they take - it looks like a soccer ball, actually. It's a big white sphere, about three feet in diameter and with a big zipper on it, and they wire you up so they can monitor your heart rate, and then they - you have to sort of scrunch yourself up, get inside.
They zip it tight, and there you are, in a closed, dark space, and they don't tell you how long you're going to be in there. I think it was about 20 minutes, but we didn't know that in advance. And they just want to make sure that this doesn't trigger any bad physiological symptoms.
They told me afterwards that about one or two percent of people actually don't like it, and that's not a good thing for an astronaut.
FLATOW: That's my failure right there...
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, you know, when you're up in a spaceship, if you start to get claustrophobic, you can't just open the door and go out. And if you put on a space suit, that's even more claustrophobic than the spacecraft itself. So there's really no place to go.
FLATOW: Just a quick question before we go to the break, from some folks who tweeted in: Did you ever do some of the stuff Homer does on "The Simpsons" and gets food flying around and try to catch it?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah, we love to play with food, and, you know, you put your little M&Ms or peanuts and have them floating around, and then you chase them with an open mouth, and you see if you can gobble them up. It's good fun, not something you're supposed to let your kids see, but what the heck.
FLATOW: And we have a video of that up on our website. We'll talk about it a little bit later. Do you have any lasting effects? In like an athlete who's retired, you may have some effects from all that football or basketball playing, do you have any of those?
Dr. HOFFMAN: I don't think I have any lasting physical effects. I was not up for long enough that bone loss was a serious problem. That is something that is a side effect for long-duration spaceflight.
But from the point of view of the shuttle, I think it was more the lasting memories that are what are staying with me, luckily not any physical impairment.
FLATOW: Well, we're going to talk lots more about - try to tease some more of those memories out of you. I'm sure you'll have no problem recalling them. And we're going to bring on a few other guests and talk about the shuttle legacy.
We have the rest of the - a good part of the rest of the hour to talk about it, and our number, if you'd like to ask questions of Jeff Hoffman and our other guests, is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And also go to our website at sciencefriday.com.
What do you think the legacy of the shuttle is, and where do you think we should be heading with it, after the shuttle is done? So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the space shuttle program and the final flight of the shuttle coming up with my guest, Dr. Jeff Hoffman, who flew five times on the shuttle and the first astronaut to log 1,000 hours. He's a professor at MIT now.
Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap." He's also the news director at Alabama Public Radio in Tuscaloosa. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Pat.
Mr. PAT DUGGINS (Author, "Trailblazing Mars"): Thank you very much, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. David Baker is a former NASA engineer and the former editor of Aviation News. He is the author of a new book, "NASA Space Shuttle Owners' Workshop Manual." Have you ever had a car manual? Think about it as being the shuttle manual, it looks just like it. It's a great book. He joins us by phone from England. Thanks for being with us today.
Mr. DAVID BAKER (Author: "NASA Space Shuttle Owners' Workshop Manual"): You're welcome, good to be with you.
FLATOW: Peter Schwartz is chairman of the Global Business Network in Berkeley, and he worked for the Stanford Research Institute on shuttle mission planning, and he joins us by phone from Berkeley. Good to see you, Peter.
Mr. PETER SCHWARTZ (Co-founder and Chairman, Global Business Network): Good to be with you again, Ira.
FLATOW: Let me ask you, Pat: When did NASA engineers first start envisioning the shuttle program?
Mr. DUGGINS: Well, actually, it was toward the waning days of Apollo, Ira. There was - in fact, for my first book, "Final Countdown," I interviewed the very first Kennedy Space Center engineer. Right after Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon, he got a phone call from NASA headquarters, and they said: Sam, we've got something that we want you to work on now. We don't exactly know what to call it, but it's going to be sort of a space shuttle.
And then after that, he started working on the parts that would lead up to that momentous first launch of Columbia that you had at the beginning of the program, sort of a spacecraft put together sort of by committee.
NASA had a number of different constituencies that they had to keep happy. So the space shuttle, even though it did a lot of really amazing things during its flight, really the premise of my book was that Apollo worked because it was a mission that was looking for a spacecraft, and the shuttle didn't work so well because it was a spacecraft that went looking for a mission. And, you know, putting the shuttle to rest probably would be the first necessary step in order to get NASA moving toward whatever it's going to do next, whether it's going on to Mars or visiting an asteroid or back to the moon or something like that.
FLATOW: Peter Schwartz, in 1974, you worked for SRI, Stanford Research Institute, and are you in agreement with Pat that it was a spaceship looking for a mission?
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Absolutely. That was part of my job was to actually help figure out the mission of the shuttle. I was a young research assistant. It was actually my second project. It was a big scenario-planning project. And it was an act of enormous fiction.
And let me say I'm sort of a fan of the shuttle and a friend of Jeff Hoffman. You know, I'm an astronaut junkie, and I wanted to be an astronaut. My degree is in astronautical engineering.
But having said that, what we were asked to do, we were given, literally, the manifest for every flight of the space shuttle, and the theory was that it was going to fly once a week. They were going to have a launch once a week, basically.
And the economics were predicated on a launch cost, therefore, of a few tens of millions of dollars. That would enable many things to be done on it. So our job was to figure out what were the scenarios that would create the demand that would lead to a launch a week, basically.
And, you know, we came up with scenarios, but in all honesty, they didn't make much sense, and most of understood that this was an act of fiction to justify what would appear to us to be, in effect, a bad decision.
And it was painful because George Low, who had been the head of Apollo when Nixon canceled the final missions and had to search for a new mission, was the head of the team that actually created the kind of plan for the shuttle, and he had been one of my mentors. He'd been the head of the department at RPI when I went there in the early 1980s to get my degree and ended up as head of Apollo.
And unfortunately, he was behind the design of the shuttle, which was a flawed both plan and design that led us, I think, ultimately to create the space station as a place for the shuttle to go to.
And so we have basically been off-track for 20 years. I mean, probably the best thing it did was the Hubble and getting a few other instruments up in space. But fundamentally, it was a flawed policy and a flawed vehicle.
FLATOW: David Baker, you worked at NASA in those days. Did you see it the same way?
Mr. BAKER: Well, hi, good to talk to you. Well, I go back a few years earlier to that, and I have a slightly different take on it because in the mid-1960s, we were talking then about a replacement for existing vehicles and expendable launch vehicles.
And the first vision that came out of NASA's first 10 years was eventually to move across to having a reusable, integrated launch and spacecraft so that instead of having a spacecraft and then a launch vehicle and marrying the two together and launching it, you would have an integrated vehicle. And, in fact, that was what the first studies were called, back in '67, '68.
And at that time, it was expected that we would have a vigorous post-Apollo program, using Apollo hardware to establish scientific research stations on the moon and space stations in Earth orbit.
And the original idea before the space age was always that you would move in a series of sequential stages to the other planets by virtue of low-Earth-orbit operations, through space stations.
And really when we hit the hard rock coming at us from a massive collapse in the budget - remember that from 1967 to the early 1970s, the budget fell to a third of what it had been during the peak of Apollo. And so NASA was having to chase the ideal goal of having parallel development of space station and shuttle, and that's what the shuttle was configured for. That's what all the contracts went out for in 1969.
And by the time the contract had been awarded in '72, it had been redesigned by committee in Congress, who demanded that the money that NASA wanted be slashed in half, and: Hey, NASA, you've got to go and find a way to build this because you're not getting a penny more. And, by the way, forget a space station in parallel, put it in series. Fly us up at first and then come back and build the station.
So really, NASA's aspirations were hijacked by a penny-pinching Congress and by a general lack of apathy in the general public, as we wound down on Apollo.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: There was another little piece of the puzzle also to remember. The Air Force had a project roughly at the same time, in late '60s, early '70s, called Dyna-Soar, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which were also developed in parallel but were both killed, as well, at the same time.
FLATOW: And so we basically had a situation where if I - Vietnam War was going on at the same time and draining a lot of money. It sounds familiar. And then leaving not enough money left for the space exploration programs that people were planning.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: That's right.
Mr. BAKER: Well, I think, in fact, if I could just cut in there just a bit, I think there's a lot of truth behind that. And I think it really -we really - I mean, I guess we're all space cadets at heart, and we all want to see the movement of the space program forward to new heights of exploration, and we all seeing it having to take its appropriate place in the context of fiscal priorities.
But really, there's been this great seesaw of, initially, NASA was formed, and then little more than 10 years, it had been set on a course that was completely different to that which it had been mandated to carry out.
And it was for the preeminence of the United States aerospace technologies on that new frontier. And then suddenly, in '61, two and a half years after NASA was formed, a president seized an initiative by the flight of the Russian Gagarin, and because also of a political challenge, which occurred literally a few days after Gagarin in '61, which was the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he turned to Lyndon Johnson.
And, of course, from that came a complete deflection from NASA's original long-range planning for reusable vehicles and also space stations. And the space station really has, right or wrong, goes right the way back to von Braun's days when he came over from the Army in '59.
And all of the sudden, it was - NASA was wrenched right away from that methodical strategy because of the political requirement to get people on the moon.
And then I think we all felt we were going to get back on track and resume that pattern. It didn't work out that way because the budget fell through the floor, and there was general apathy. There was the Vietnam War. It wasn't as plain as we all thought it was going to be.
FLATOW: Jeff Hoffman, as an astronaut, did any of this matter to you? I mean, you were...
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, before responding directly, let me just also add to the previous conversation that Arthur C. Clarke referred to the Apollo Program as a historical anomaly. And so what was said before I very much agree with.
In a normal progression of space technology, we would have done other things before going to the moon, but we didn't, and that led to a lot of the history which we've just been discussing.
But, you know, I've always been excited about space flight. We saw the shuttle coming along. It's important to remember that the kind of controlling metaphor back then was air flight. You know, people said, well, if you had to build a new airplane every time you wanted to fly from New York to Los Angeles, we'd never have intercontinental commercial flight. And this was driving the idea behind a reusable spacecraft.
The problem was that nobody knew anything about a reusable spacecraft. The engineers who designed the shuttle were the people who built Apollo. They knew how to build spacecraft. And that's why the shuttle has worked as well as it did.
There were a lot of compromises made, but it basically has done extraordinary things. But they didn't know anything about reusability. Nobody did. In a more rational program, we probably would have built a small X vehicle and, you know, follow on from the X-15, something like that, and make that reusable while we were flying the Apollo and the Saturn hardware.
Unfortunately, our country doesn't seem to be able to design and build one space vehicle while we're operating another one, and that's the situation we find ourselves in now.
But I was really excited about the shuttle. I mean, I - you know, we talked about the shuttle was going to fly every week, so we were going to have 52 flights a year. Well, when we showed up at NASA as new astronauts back in '78, we heard these talks, and it didn't seem like this was possible.
And I remember the conversations where, you know, they can't fly 50 times a year. I mean, the most they're going to get is maybe 25, 30 flights a year, but, you know, who cared. That was plenty for us to fly on. And that's what we all went there for, was to fly.
And despite the compromises were made - that were made on the shuttle, the limitations, the tragedies we've had, I still think it's been an extraordinary vehicle which has expanded our capabilities to operate in low-Earth-orbit far beyond what we ever had before, and we've also learned a lot about reusability of spacecraft, about hypersonic flights. So I think the shuttle will leave a very rich legacy in addition to the Hubble Telescope, but I think it is time to move on.
FLATOW: Pat Duggins, what do you think the shuttle's legacy is going to be?
Mr. DUGGINS: Well, I think the shuttle's legacy is - well, there's a bumper sticker that's really popular down here in the South that says that God so loved the world, he didn't send a committee. And I think that having this many people, you know, putting in input regarding how a spacecraft should put together really kind of made the shuttle a jack of all trades and master of none. Because, as everyone has mentioned earlier, that the original plan for NASA was to have a fully reusable spacecraft that could, you know, as the name implies, shuttle back and forth between a space station.
But instead, because of all of the cuts to the developmental budget, you had, you know, the operating costs went up, and also, you didn't get a fully reusable vehicle. The boosters that fall away, you might be able to use them again, and the tank burns up in the atmosphere.
And some people say to me, well, what's the problem with having just a semi-reusable spacecraft, and I tell them, well, the Challenger accident, which was my first shuttle assignment back in 1986, happened because of a flaw in the boosters, and the Columbia accident in 2003, which I also covered, was because of a flaw in the tanks.
So it's really not hard to connect all the dots and all of this penny-pinching actually did a disservice to this - the nation and the astronauts, obviously, by making a more hazardous vehicle than might necessarily have been.
Dr. HOFFMAN: I have to step in. It's - there's no question that there were a lot of design compromises in the shuttle, but we did learn how to fly it safely if we respected its operational limitations and paid attention to what the hardware was telling us.
One of the advantages of a reusable vehicle was that we were getting those solid rocket boosters back after every flight, and people knew about the flaws in the O-ring's seals. And had we treated that with the respect that it deserved, we would have not lost the Challenger. And similarly, we knew about the foam coming off the external tank, but tragically, people who should have known better didn't pay proper attention.
Dr. HOFFMAN: So you have to - with any vehicle, whether it's a car or an airplane, you have to operate it within its limitations, and if you try to go beyond that, you risk tragedy.
FLATOW: We're talking about the legacy of the space shuttle this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
David Baker, you write about an incident in the second flight of Atlantis. It was a mission for the U.S. Department of Defense. There was evidence that the tiles were damaged at liftoff, but Houston couldn't really accurately assess the damage, and it would - turned into something most people never heard of.
Mr. BAKER: Well, yes, I guess, it's an example of the fact that every single mission is a learning curve, and as Jeff was just saying, this -or implying that this is really still not an operational vehicle in the context that you would normally class a flying machine in an operational state. We're learning things off every single flight, and so that was very much a case therein.
But what happened on that particular mission was it was a classified mission. It was flying a DOD payload. One of the very few that the DOD did fly on the shuttle even though, and I guess we don't really have time to go into all of that, but the DOD or the Air Force particularly did write in a lot of requirements that completely led NASA by the nose in terms of the overall configuration of the kind of orbiter that it became because of the requirement that they never did actually turn around and explore it.
But on this particular mission of Atlantis, which was the second backup after Challenger, and there was a failure because of the impact of a piece of hardware that came off and struck a tile area on the starboard side of the forward body area, and because the material, the metal beneath the thermal insulation, the tiles, had been thickened to support an antenna, and it was of sufficiently robust integrity not to burn right through.
And during the mission, the crew were taking images of this and downloading these images to Houston, and because it had to go on encrypted signals, it was not possible to get the same kind of definition and resolution for the folks down on the ground to see as the crew were seeing off the video cameras that they were taking.
And that led to a problem in terms of the fact that there was a mismatch between what the crew were feeling and what Mission Control felt was a potential hazard to the vehicle.
And so it's an example really I don't want that to be looked as either a finger-pointing exercise at anybody. But really I think, you know, everybody has hyped the shuttle to being a fully-operational, fully -reusable system, it is an extraordinary flying machine, the most extraordinary that man has ever built, devised and operated.
And I think we are extremely fortunate to have had a legacy from Apollo, and I'd just like to say that I feel the legacy from shuttle is going to be in operations management, being able to run a vehicle like this and flex and adapt to changes in problems that occur has been a tremendous input to the whole space program. And it has breached the period from using space as a political virility symbol of national prestige to a great focus for international cooperation.
And while the United States is in the lead, it has breached that period where now we're partnered with the Russians, the European Space Agency, Japan, and, of course, Canada has always been in there robustly with the shuttle.
So don't let's forget these things when they look at this from a vehicle that is still experimental from each mission that we're learning so much have metamorphosed across from the Cold War into an extraordinary period of expansion in human exploration
FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more with Jeff Hoffman, Pat Duggins, David Baker and Peter Schwartz. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We'll get to your calls and your tweets right after this break. Don't go away. We'll be right back.
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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about the space shuttle program with astronaut Jeff Hoffman; Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap"; and David Baker, former NASA engineer and former editor of Aviation News; also with us is Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network. We're talking about the triumphs and tragedies of the space shuttle and what people will remember it for, and I think, unfortunately, for many people this is what will be remembered about the space shuttle.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
President RONALD REAGAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I'd planned to speak to you tonight to report on the State of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the Shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
President GEORGE BUSH: This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9 o'clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our Space Shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.
FLATOW: Of course, the voices of Presidents Reagan and Bush talking about the loss of Challenger and Columbia. Still chilling to hear those words today and to think about it and the families involved there.
Of course, the shuttle was always seen as being safe enough to fly just ordinary humans. There was a plan to put a journalist in space. There was a tragic loss of a teacher who was supposed to be in space. It was supposed to be safe enough that even a regular person could fly on it, and it, I think, as David Baker said, it was still an experiment in progress.
Jeff, those dreams never realized in your mind?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, you know, I think people need to appreciate that when a commercial airliner is being certified for flight, it needs on the order of a thousand flights, takeoffs and landings before it's deemed safe enough to carry passengers.
And so when we had people saying that flying on the space shuttle was no different than getting on a 747 and flying over to Europe, there was a groupthink going on. People who should have known better were saying things that just from an aerospace engineering perspective should not have been said.
And the other thing is that, you know, for us in the Astronaut Office, of course, we always recognized that there was a potential for disaster. I mean, we've seen shuttle main engines blow up on the test stands down in Mississippi on numerous occasions. And in fact when we saw what happened to Columbia, I think a lot of us at first thought that probably one of the main engines had gone.
And when it came out later on that, in fact, the problem that doomed Challenger was something that people had known about - and, you know, of course, all the discussions about should they launch, should they not launch, the cold weather, the story has been told on numerous occasions - but that was in a sense a - it made the tragedy that much worse.
Because, you know, when you're an astronaut, you're counting on thousands of people to get your vehicle ready to fly. You can't do it yourself, and everybody has to do their job and do it right and think safety all the time. And so there - people basically had let us down.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a few phone calls in here.
I have somebody who says General Joe Wheeler from San Antonio on the phone. General...
General JOE WHEELER (Caller): Hello, Ira.
FLATOW: Hi there.
Gen. WHEELER: In 1968, I was a young Air Force captain flying fighter missions in Vietnam and getting shot at on a daily basis, and there were a couple of representatives from NASA that were going around to the squadrons there in Vietnam, trying to recruit people for the Astronaut Program.
And they were, of course, touting on what a wonderful and exciting opportunity it would be, and when we saw what physical and mental tortures that the candidates had to go through to qualify for the Astronaut Program, we decided we'd rather stay in Vietnam and get shot at.
Gen. WHEELER: It was tough. I don't think people have any idea of the dedication that those people went through to become astronauts. It was a tough, tough program.
FLATOW: Jeff, you agree?
Dr. HOFFMAN: Well, I still prefer it to getting shot at in Vietnam, I have to say. In the early days of the Astronaut Program, the flight surgeons and the operators really didn't know what the requirements on the human body was going to be. And I think there's no question, the early astronauts, the first generation, was put through a lot more tests than are done nowadays, because we understand the space environment. We know what to look for. And, yeah, I've seen some pictures of the tests that the Mercury astronauts had to go through. I wouldn't have liked it.
On the other hand, I never got shot at in Vietnam, so I'll let you, General, make that determination for yourself.
Gen. WHEELER: Thanks.
FLATOW: Thank you for your call, General.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Ira? This is Peter.
FLATOW: Yes, Peter.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: I think there's something that's being said here as a general picture that I think is very important, that is that technological wonder that the shuttle is was undermined in many ways by the political decision-making process, as has, and frankly unfortunately, the space program in general and we may be doing it at the moment.
One of the things that was alluded to earlier was the decision under Jimmy Carter to abandon expendable launches for the Air Force that then set requirements for the shuttle which were never employed. And it took us a decade or so to get back to, the skills and the capabilities that we lost in building expendable vehicles.
I think NASA is now finally getting on a good track. But now we have Congress telling them how to build launch vehicles, literally, designing the launch vehicles again. And we're at risk of doing precisely the same thing that we did once before.
Dr. HOFFMAN: You mean we don't have a bunch of aeronautical engineers serving as congressmen? I'm amazed.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: (Unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Pat, do you have any comments on that?
Mr. DUGGINS: Well, at least, you know, when President Obama came into office, he put together the Augustine Commission. And what they did was, OK, you can take a number of different courses where NASA could possibly go and then, hopefully after that, you know, leave it to the engineers, you know, knock on wood, to come up with a way to do it. Everything from, like, you know, going back to the moon, which the Obama administration says they're not going to do because our grandparents did that with slide rules in the 1960s.
But even going to an asteroid, you could do maybe in 10 years so that a fickle Congress and a generally disinterested public, you know, could at least, you know, hang on to that particular goal, that particular, you know - keeping your eyes on the prize.
And then, after that, as my second book "Trailblazing Mars" goes into, possibly taking the technology and the experience that you go from your asteroid trip, maybe to fulfilling the long-held dream of going on to Mars, which, frankly, has been around ever since NASA was created back in the late 1950s.
FLATOW: David Baker...
Dr. HOFFMAN: But the big difference now is it's, sort of, got to be done on a budget. And that's so different from Apollo. NASA really had to change its way of thinking about how to run missions, because in Apollo, you really didn't have to worry so much about the cost. And now, cost is A real driver.
Mr. DUGGINS: Oh, I completely agree. In fact, I was having a - years ago, I was having a conversation with Alan Shepard about that. And he said that, you know, after Apollo 14, if we were ever going to go, for example, back to the moon, there would have to be some kind of driving economic reason for doing so. And I guess we're still looking for that.
FLATOW: David Baker, any comments on future kinds of rocketry?
Mr. BAKER: Yeah. Well, I'd just like to make a comment back on the pressures that NASA has always been under. I've outlined my perception of how the funding crisis hit flood on the desire to get a more exotic form of transportation system going.
But I can remember - and it gives me a chill - during the fall of '85, I was coming back from a world tour to report to the NASA headquarters office and to General Abrahamson with regard to various improvements that several contractors out on the West Coast wanted to incorporate. We were talking (unintelligible) to the improvements to the ET, super-lightweight tanks, et cetera, et cetera. And I had this, very late afternoon meeting and it was getting dark. Winter was coming on. And I was in Abrahamson's office and we were talking about the way to get improvements in the operability of the shuttle program, and we knew there were technical problems.
And it's been alluded to by a number of contributors today, on this program, that there was knowingly a significant amount of potential faults with the system, because it was experimental and because there was no X-craft to precede it.
General Abrahamson listened to me when we were talking. We were alone in his office and I said, that this is - the contractors want this. And I was very involved at the time with the risk assessment for bankers and insurers who were trying to fill the payload bays with commercial satellites from all around the world that they wanted NASA to fly. And Abrahamson looked at me - and he's a very successful Air Force general, he'd been in charge of the F-16 NATO program, selling that to all of the European countries. He looked at me and he said, Dave, he said, I've only got one job at this desk. It is to fly on time every time. And I'll tell you, that sent a chill back at my - of my neck. And four months later, we had Challenger.
There was a huge amount of pressure from the political end and also from the requirement to complete with this system against not least of which was the emerging challenge from the European Space Agency with the Ariane moon trip, and we were looking fearfully at that and laughing about it at the time as reinventing the wheel. But hey, it ended up actually hauling 50 percent of the world's commercial traffic.
FLATOW: Let me interrupt because I want to get one quick call in before we have to go. To Randy Kehrli. Hi, Randy.
Mr. RANDY KEHRLI (Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident): Hello. How are you?
FLATOW: You're the staff counsel to the Presidential Commission on the Challenger incident?
Mr. KEHRLI: Yes. I was detailed from the Department of Justice in 1986 to the Rogers Commission, the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.
FLATOW: And what are you feelings about all of this in summing up today?
Mr. KEHRLI: Well, I would say this. I honestly believe that the space shuttle - it was a very useful tool in our space exploration. It was meant to be a space truck; it did not exactly succeed in that regard.
I would say that the astronauts that I worked with, including Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, John Fabian and Brewster Shaw on the Challenger Commission were some of the most intelligent and talented people that I've ever encountered. And it was an intense investigation. We worked night and day. And it was a difficult thing to do, to go to Mike Scobee's funeral and to talk - or to Mike Smith's funeral, I mean, and to talk to Jim Scobee.
But I think we really wanted to give NASA a direction and a future that would improve its safety record. Unfortunately, I think some of the same things happened in the Columbia accident that happened, the Challenger accident. But I honestly believe even and after listening to Richard Feynman for a couple of hours and his statistical analysis - that the space shuttle was basically a very useful vehicle in our space exploration. I hope that we go back to the moon, because I think that's a better thing to do than go to Mars on a one shot.
FLATOW: We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. I want to thank all of my guests: astronaut Jeff Hoffman, who's now professor at MIT; Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap"; David Baker, a former NASA engineer and author of "NASA Space Shuttle Owners' Workshop Manual"; Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network. Thank you, all, for taking time to be with us today.
Dr. HOFFMAN: My pleasure.
Mr. DUGGINS: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Thank you.
Mr. BAKER: Thank you.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR
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