Technology, History, and Place

Category: Space (Page 1 of 2)

Space Shuttle Challenger taking off for the STS 51-L mission, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

Two tragedies, Challenger and Columbia

Eighteen years ago today, on Saturday, February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the STS-107 mission. Burning debris of the shuttle rained down on Texas. All seven crew members on board were killed in the disaster. The accident investigation afterward concluded that a piece of insulating foam that had fallen off the shuttle’s external tank at launch had damaged the leading edge of the port wing; on reentry, hot gases entered the damaged wing and tore the shuttle apart.

It was the second time that a space shuttle had been destroyed on a mission, leading to the deaths of all of its crew. Seventeen years earlier, on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch on the STS-51L mission. One of the solid rocket boosters had burned through the O-ring joining two of its sections, creating a jet of flame that blew up the external tank and destroyed the shuttle.

The Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

The Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

Christa McAuliffe training in the space shuttle simulator for the STS-51L mission. She would have been the first elementary teacher in space. Her backup for this mission, Barbara Morgan, later became an astronaut and flew into space on the STS-118 mission in 2007. (Source: NASA)

Christa McAuliffe training in the space shuttle simulator for the STS-51L mission. She would have been the first teacher in space. Her backup for this mission, Barbara Morgan, later became an astronaut and flew into space on the STS-118 mission in 2007. (Source: NASA)

Both tragedies were important events for NASA, leading to redesigns of the shuttle and managerial reorganizations to prevent the kind of group-think that had allowed the disasters to happen in the first place. Challenger was replaced by a new shuttle, Endeavour, while the Columbia tragedy led to the eventual retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet and their replacement by commercially-operated space capsules.

For the American public at large, though, the two tragedies had markedly different effects. Challenger was a national calamity that left deep emotional scars on the public psyche. The launch was carried on national television and literally millions of people watched the astronauts die in real time. These included school children in their classrooms, because one of the crew members of Challenger was America’s first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. Challenger exploded before I was even born (I was born later that year), but I feel like I remember it because it was talked about as I was growing up.

The loss of Columbia was also a national tragedy, but its influence was not as long-lasting. Columbia made front-page headlines for weeks after the disaster. Like Challenger, Columbia got a eulogy from the president (an uncharacteristically eloquent George W. Bush, quoting from Isaiah 40). The astronauts’ names are inscribed on the space memorial mirror at Kennedy Space Center and there is a monument honoring them at Arlington National Cemetery. But Columbia isn’t remembered like Challenger was, even though the tragedy is more recent. I doubt that children born in 2003 grew up hearing about Colombia like I heard about Challenger.

Why is Columbia not as well-remembered as Challenger? I think there are several reasons. One of them is that the American public was not as aware of the mission as it was going on. It was not high-profile because there was no teacher-astronaut among the crew. Even though I was a space enthusiast, I hadn’t really been following the mission and I’d only read one newspaper article about it. No school children watched Columbia crash in their classrooms. (It was a Saturday anyway)

When Challenger exploded, it was something new under the sun. America in the 1980s had been unstoppable. The economy was booming. The American military was stronger than ever. The Space Shuttle was making access to low-earth orbit routine and easy. There was nothing we couldn’t build or do—until the Challenger tragedy showed that there must be limits to the United States’ technological hubris. (The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the same year had a similar effect on the Soviet Union.)

When Columbia crashed in 2003, America was no longer unassailable. The country was in the midst of crisis. Columbia crashed less than a year and a half after 9/11 and a month and a half before the US invasion of Iraq. The United States was preoccupied.

Do a web search for Challenger and the ill-fated space shuttle will show up on the top of the results. But if you search for Columbia, you will get results for a river in the Northwest, multiple US towns and cities (including the capital South Carolina), a country in South America (albeit with a slightly different spelling), a sportswear company, and on and on. You may never get results for the shuttle, unless you make your search more specific.

This is an accident of vocabulary, but it is also telling. Perhaps there is only so much room in American cultural memory, and one tragedy must represent several. Challenger represents itself but also space tragedies in general. When we remember Challenger, in a way we are remembering Columbia as well.

The crew of STS-107, in their official NASA portrait before their mission. (Source: NASA)

The crew of STS-107, in their official NASA portrait before their mission. Left to right: David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, Ilan Ramon. (Source: NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia lists off on its last mission, January 16, 2003. (Source: NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off on its last mission, January 16, 2003. (Source: NASA)

Technological continuity and change in the Russian space program

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Soyuz MS-17/Expedition 64 takes off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 14, 2020. (Image credit: NASA/GCTC/Andrey Shelepin.)

This month, two crewed Soyuz spacecraft have carried astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station. On Wednesday, October 14, a Soyuz rocket took off from Kazakhstan carrying one American astronaut, Kate Rubins, and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. The Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station later that day. The next week, another Soyuz spacecraft carried the previous station crew back to Earth for a landing on the Kazakhstan steppe.

I watched both the launch and the landing on NASA TV, and they got me thinking about technological continuity in the Russian space program. Here it was 2020, and I was watching the flight of a spacecraft design, the Soyuz, which first flew more than a half-century earlier in 1967. The Soyuz booster has three stages; the first two stages, the conical strap-on boosters and the core stage, are based on the R-7 ICBM, which made its first test flight in 1967 and launched Sputnik 1 in October of that year. The rocket thus represents an unbroken technological link to the very beginning of the Space Age.

Compare this to NASA. NASA’s Apollo spacecraft, which made its first crewed flight in 1968, was retired in 1975 to be replaced by the Space Shuttle, a completely new design. The Shuttle, in turn, was retired in 2011. NASA is now going back to the capsule format of Apollo but with an entirely new spacecraft, Orion, currently scheduled to fly its first crewed mission sometime in 2023. Meanwhile the Russians have been flying one version or another of the Soyuz this whole time.

It is possible to over-emphasize continuity in Russian spaceflight, as the Russians have made their share of technological leaps as well. As Asif Siddiqi notes in Challenge to Apollo, both the R-7 booster and the Soyuz were themselves technological leaps. The R-7 was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, bigger and more powerful than anything built before it. The Soyuz, too, was bigger and much more versatile than the spacecraft that preceded it, Vostok and Voskhod. The Russians also expended great amounts of money and human effort on other programs that would also have been technological leaps if they had succeeded or gone into operation, like the N-1 moon rocket (canceled after four unsuccessful test flights) and the Energiya booster (abandoned during the fall of the Soviet Union).

I should also note that the Soyuz of 2020 is different in many ways from the Soyuz of 1967. While the external appearance has changed little in the past fifty years, Russian engineers have made big changes under the hood. The early Soyuz were unreliable and dangerous, leading to numerous failed missions and two flights that ended in tragedy. But over the past 53 years, the Soyuz has been redesigned for greater reliability and safety.

I think it’s interesting how the Russians are comfortable with perfecting a proven design, rather than throwing away the old in favor of something new, as we like to do in the United States. True, the Soyuz rocket is ungainly and uses low-energy propellants (kerosene and liquid oxygen), and the Soyuz spacecraft is clunky and cramped. Yet both are now very reliable, having had their kinks worked out in more than fifty years’ worth of flights. NASA never could have said the same about the Space Shuttle.

NASA poster of the Apollo moon missions

Apollo 11 and the past of space travel

Fifty years ago this month, men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind.

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 has gotten a lot of publicity, more than I remember the thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries getting. There seem to be two dominant ways that companies and institutions are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. One is marketing collectibles. Estes, the model rocket manufacturer, has reissued classic kits of rockets from Mercury to Apollo. LEGO has released large and detailed sets of the Saturn V and Lunar Module.

The other dominant way to commemorate Apollo 11 has been to use the anniversary as an occasion to discuss the future of space travel. The cover of National Geographic this month declares, “A new era of space travel is here,” and USA Today last week carried the headline: “Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 made the world a bigger place. NASA is ready to go back.”

In some respects, this preoccupation with the future is understandable because space travel has long been imagined as futuristic. Spaceflight was envisioned in science fiction long before it became a reality. Even after people had begun to fly into space, true believers in space travel continued to dream big and kept claiming that the next big thing was just around the corner: inexpensive access to low Earth orbit with reusable spaceplanes, permanent moon bases, and nuclear rockets flying to Mars and beyond.

None of these things have come to pass. The Space Shuttle, though reusable, proved to be expensive to maintain and risky to fly. Moon bases have never been built, and nuclear rocket propulsion remains science fiction. (In a May 25, 1961 speech, just after famously calling for the United States to commit to a moon landing by the end of the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy exhorted Congress to appropriate funds to accelerate the development of the ROVER nuclear rocket—but who remembers that?)

There is a real irony about the future-looking coverage of the moon landing anniversary: space travel belongs to the past as much as to the future. Both National Geographic and USA Today put photos of the Apollo program on their covers, to introduce their articles about the future of space travel. The graphic designers at National Geographic even went so far as to frame the Apollo 8 earthrise photo they used with film sprocket holes—further emphasizing Apollo program’s belonging to the past, because the vast majority of photography in the 2010s is shot digitally rather than on film.

It was literally a half-century ago that men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. We can certainly look forward to further human exploits in space (although considering that we still have no moonbases and nuclear rockets, I won’t hold my breath). But an imaginary future in space should not distract us from the real past. Apollo 11 flew a long time ago, taking off from and landing on a world that was very different than it is today.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin training for their moonwalk on Apollo 11. (NASA)

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