Challenges of Space Exploration: Have we Learned from Past Tragedies?

 

ColumbiaTributeIt was Saturday and I was home in the midst of a cleaning frenzy.  Since it was my grandson’s tenth birthday, my plans for the day included joining family members to celebrate that occasion. I was wearing ratty workout clothes, planning to get on my stair-stepper after I finished vacuuming. Periodically, I’d pause to look out my north-facing French doors that led to my patio to check for Columbia’s plasma trail, which was supposed to be visible from where I lived in Houston. I’d seen entry emissions from previous shuttle flights which were truly spectacular, contrails on steroids, that split the sky and sparkled in the Sun.

Seeing nothing and blaming the various buildings obstructing the view, my vacuuming continued, which prevented me from hearing the telephone. Needless to say, the person called back, I believe three times, until she reached me. It was our database manager, letting me know what had happened, and that she was on her way into the office to lock down the files, a critical part of our contingency plan. In shock, I quickly followed, bag lady attire notwithstanding, arriving at my office on the sixth floor of JSC’s building 45 to find a very somber group of coworkers, likewise stunned by the events that February morning in 2003 when Columbia broke up on entry over Texas skies.

sts107breakupI managed the Payload Safety Section at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Our responsibilities included making sure that anything that flew onboard the shuttle didn’t present a safety hazard, mostly through the institution of various controls. Whatever had caused the accident, we were reasonably sure that it wasn’t one of our payloads. It was a Spacehab flight, a module secured in the cargo bay that was a habitable area where astronauts conducted entire suites of life science experiments. That meant there were no satellites onboard with potentially dangerous inertial upper stages, a.k.a. booster rockets to take them to their proper orbit, which could have possibly been the problem.

Nonetheless, the recovery team needed to know what was on the manifest that could be toxic and present a hazard in any possible way, not only for those conducting the initial search, but civilians who lived in the debris field as well. Thus, those members of my team of engineers who had payloads for which they were responsible on that flight, which was designated as STS-107, needed to come in to compile a list of such items including batteries, pressure vessels, and radioactive or toxic materials. What surprised me was that it wasn’t only those engineers who came into work, some from considerable distances. Each wanted to know what they could do to help, which, as it turned out, wasn’t much at that point, other than to be together in our shared grief.

shuttlemourningNot everyone came in, some simply called in to make sure they weren’t needed, but I’ll always remember those who did. These were the ones whose hearts were in their jobs and dedicated to their place in the space program. It wasn’t just a job, it was their life. I was a contractor as were the engineers who worked for me, but there were a few who were actual NASA civil service employees who reported to a NASA lead, to whom I also reported. This particular individual, who professed to be an expert on NASA history and lived only a few miles away, didn’t bother to come in that day. He was home painting a room inside his house, which he apparently deemed more important. I called him several times, reporting our actions, appalled at his flippant attitude as well as his absence. How could someone who was supposedly a history aficionado stay away on such an occasion? I wonder how he feels about that decision today.

Since the shuttle had broken up over Texas, it left a huge debris field that covered 2,400 square miles which stretched from eastern Texas to western Louisiana. I eventually joined the recovery team in Hemphill, Texas, an experience I recounted a year ago which you can find here. What I’m going to talk about this time is what caused this tragedy, which sadly enough, began with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The cause of the accident was caught on various technical films of the launch, when a suitcase-sized piece of foam insulation covering the huge external tank broke loose, damaging the leading edge of one of Columbia’s wings. The force and extreme heat generated by atmospheric entry thus was able to penetrate the structure and ultimately cause the entire vehicle to break up. So how does this relate to the EPA?

sts107patchOne of the chemicals used to create the foam insulation had recently been banned by the EPA. While NASA could have applied for a waiver, they wanted to be compliant, which is certainly honorable enough. However, they couldn’t find a substitute that resulted in the same integrity of the material. Thus, the new formula resulted in losing chunks of foam. This substance was light, yet needed to be extremely durable. While you may wonder how being hit by something even lighter than the memory foam most of us now enjoy in one form or another, when it was going at launch ascent speeds of approximately 500 mph, the impact was considerable and enough to damage the wing’s composite structure.

But that’s only part of the story.

The shuttle program had always known, even before the formula change, that foam loss presented a catastrophic hazard, which was documented as such. Yet, this had occurred numerous times prior to the Columbia accident, resulting in no serious problems. Thus, the issue was largely dismissed as a non-safety problem, provided the chunks were below a certain size. But there was no guarantee that would forever be the case.

If you read my blog a few days ago about Challenger, this should sound familiar, a game of aerospace Russian Roulette, where a hazard with lethal potential had been dismissed because it had not yet reached its catastrophic potential.

Needless to say, anyone in the space business can’t obsess on it being 100% safe. Driving to work each day can’t be given such a guarantee. Life, by its very nature, is a risk. It’s not a simple matter. While NASA addresses safety, it’s not always the top priority. Money is a big consideration as well for NASA, who has to compete with numerous other federal programs for a mere pittance compared to the budgets of other agencies.

Nothing is simple. It didn’t help at that time that Bush appointee, Sean O’Keefe, who was the NASA administrator at the time of this accident, had absolutely no technical background but was indeed a high level bean counter who prioritized budget issues. Furthermore, while we were still in what is known as “return to flight” mode or RTF, which is the time when an accident is fully investigated and fixes proposed to preclude a recurrence, President George W. Bush announced we would return to the Moon and eventually go to Mars!

sts107memoryWTF? We were appalled. I suppose he wanted to show optimism and faith in NASA’s ability to recover. But for those of us at NASA, who were already stressed enough trying to fix the shuttle program and maintain the International Space Station (ISS), which was now totally dependent on our Russian and European partners for transportation, this was the last thing we needed. Then, of course, years later came an administration change and Moon/Mars was zapped, much as Reagan’s Space Station Freedom was initially cancelled by Bill Clinton, only to be resurrected some years later as the ISS. Some things never change. Most of us remember John F. Kennedy’s declaration to go to the Moon. Clearly subsequent presidents wanted a similar legacy. At this point, Reagan’s is the Challenger and Bush’s, Columbia. No wonder Reagan wanted Space Station Freedom and Bush wanted Mars!

Space and politics is as volatile as the hydrogen and oxygen mix used as rocket fuel. As a safety insider, it’s easy to see how the system failed, not only in the worst case scenario of “loss of life and vehicle”, but in principle as well. It was well established that the most dangerous times of a shuttle flight were takeoff and landing. At this point, NASA had lost a vehicle during both of these critical mission phases. Safety processes which involved requirements, inspections and rigorous reviews at multiple levels were in place, yet the unspeakable still happened. Twice. Each taking the lives of seven brave, intelligent and courageous men and women. And now, with the space shuttle retired, the USA no longer has an independent manned space program. We’re entirely dependent on Russia to transport our astronauts to the ISS. Is this good or bad? International cooperation or another game of Russian Roulette?

fallenherosThere are no easy answers. A plethora of international political implications exist for space exploration, many of which relate to countries and individuals we can’t even trust to share our neighborhoods, much less our planet or low earth orbit. Space weapons have an incredible advantage with tremendous destructive capability. This implies government involvement coupled with diplomacy are indeed necessary. Budgets and safety will inevitably clash. “Rocket science” technology based on propulsion remains quite primitive, something that’s been around for thousands of years. Whether or not you believe in UFOs, there simply has to be a better way. Seriously. Yet, on the other hand, Earth herself is vulnerable to attack from a rogue asteroid or comet. Space weapons could offer protection from cosmic annihilation as well as threats from our fellow humans.

Nonetheless, we have enough problems here on planet Earth. Big problems, including the irrational and often deadly behavior of numerous factions who make Darth Vader look like Mahatma Gandhi. We’re inspired by films such as Star Wars, The Martian, Interstellar and numerous others, but getting there is another story. I’ve been a space nut my entire life, involved with the stars and planets in multiple, diverse venues. My goal as a science fiction writer is to inspire today’s youth to pursue careers in physics, engineering and math. But in today’s world is that really the right direction?

At this point I wonder if maybe we need to fix Earth’s problems first, before transporting them into space. Maybe the nature of man simply isn’t ready to leave our planet, much less our solar system. There are no easy answers. Only questions.

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Challenges of Space Exploration: NASA as a Government Bureaucracy

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

On January 28, 1986, the U.S.A. experienced a tragedy that has since faded into history. If you weren’t yet born at that time, you may not have even heard of it. I remember talking about the space shuttle to a classroom full of junior high students in the late 90s where I was blindsided by a young man who asked whether one had ever blown up. That something indelibly imprinted on my memory could be unknown to someone, even an adolescent, was incredible. Until I realized the simple fact that the kid hadn’t been born yet.

Wow. To me it felt as if it had occurred the day before.

I was a physics major in college with aspirations to work in the aerospace industry. The day we lost the space shuttle, Challenger, for me was a very bad day. Ironically, that’s exactly what NASA calls such an event, a “bad day.” Well, no shit.

Sorry, I usually avoid naughty words in my blogs, but in that context my expansive vocabulary entirely fails me. Somehow nothing defines NASA’s understatement of tragedy as well as an expletive. And much of why I feel that way is because, subsequent to the Challenger accident, I went to work at NASA as a contractor, ultimately winding up in their Safety Division, which meant I was privy to all sorts of dirty little secrets.

When I arrived at Johnson Space Center in Houston in April 1988, the agency was deep into what they referred to as “return to flight”; RTF in NASAspeak, given their propensity for acronyms. RTF comprised the time while they finished investigating the cause and put together design fixes to avoid a similar occurrence in the future, eventually getting back to what NASA did, i.e., send men and women into space. It’s interesting to consider that we didn’t even refer to it as Challenger; it was 51-L, the ill-fated flight’s official designation, which was less emotionally charged than calling it by name.

When I went to work in the Safety Division at Johnson Space Center in 1990, “The Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident” was required reading. This well-written document covered the technical details in a way that even my teen-aged son at the time could understand. I remember him reading it in the backseat of the car during a road trip. That same copy still resides on a shelf in my home office, bristling with numerous sticky notes and highlights marking the parts that struck me the most. But those are but tips of the proverbial iceberg.

51Lexplosion2As anyone who’s actually familiar with the accident knows, its official cause related to the o-rings in the solid rocket booster which didn’t seal, allowing hot gasses to strike and penetrate the external fuel tank, which resulted in a deadly explosion. A major contributor to o-ring failure was the fact the launch took place when the temperature at Cape Canaveral in Florida was a mere 28 degrees F. This had never before been attempted, Floridian temperatures usually far above that range, even in January. This factor was illustrated dramatically by physicist Richard P. Feynman, a member of the investigation committee, by dropping an o-ring in a glass of ice water to demonstrate how they became brittle and incapable of performing their function at low temperatures.

51Licicles

I lived in Northern Utah at the time of the accident, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters (a.k.a. SRBs), Morton Thiokol, located a few dozen miles away. Anyone who lives in such a climate is more than aware of the effects of cold weather. As I recall, the SRBs had never been tested in that temperature range, either.

On the surface, it appears that this tragic accident that claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, took everyone by surprise. But in reality, as I learned working in Safety for nearly 20 years, it was processes and politics every bit as much as faulty design. They knew; they just ignored it. The true cause was as elusive as missing shuttle pieces still on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. [NOTE:–If you’re interested in more sordid details about the Dark Side of NASA, I recommend “Challenger: A Major Malfunction” by Malcolm McConnell or “Prescription for Disaster” by Joseph Trento.]

Anything that can cause a problem, either critical or catastrophic, is documented on a Hazard Report, with o-ring leakage no exception. Hazard Reports (HRs) contain causes along with controls, though some hazards are simply classified as an “accepted risk” if there’s nothing that can be done to prevent them. Space flight is risky and there are some things you simply can’t avoid or control; bird strikes and meteorites come to mind.

51LMalfunctionO-ring failure was a catastrophic hazard and documented as such. That the design was faulty was likewise known. Engineers had seen leakage on previous flights. Let that sink in for a moment. O-ring failure had happened before. However, earlier instances had not caused an accident. This resulted in a very dangerous and ultimately fatal thought pattern that led them to believe that perhaps it wasn’t as serious as they thought. Previous failures had been investigated, the leakage referred to as “blow-by” and eventually accepted as not a safety issue.

How wrong they were. In reality, they were playing Russian Roulette. Just because they got away with it a few times did not mean it wasn’t a hazard, only that they’d dodged a bullet. A Thiokol engineer named Roger Boisjoly had written a memo before the accident pointing out the seriousness of the problem. It was essentially ignored, most likely for budget and scheduling reasons. Unfortunately, his sordid prophecy of impending disaster was fulfilled almost exactly six months later. Later, to cover their sins, Morton Thiokol and NASA decimated Mr. Boisjoly, typical behavior employed to discredit whistleblowers.

I’d like to point out that for many accidents the public sees Safety as the culprit. Wasn’t it safety’s job to prevent such a horrific occurrence? Yes, it certainly was. And I must say that we did everything possible to assure safety of flight. We were the ones who made sure all risks and hazards were properly controlled and documented. This more refined process, however, was instituted after and because of the Challenger accident. The full rigor of the safety process recommended post 51L by the Presidential Commission was never fully instituted, however. A plethora of subsequent reorgs were supposed to make safety more of a priority, yet somehow eroded, as proven by the Columbia disaster 17 years later. An accident which has a strikingly similar administrative postmortem.

If you remember the movie, “Deep Impact,” you might recall the line where the female member of the crew on that fictitious shuttle flight, charged with protecting our planet from a collision with an approaching asteroid, noted that if they died in service to their country that all they’d probably get was a high school named after them, which is more truth than poetry. So let’s take a moment to remember those seven brave individuals by name who died so needlessly 30 years ago. They represented different genders, races and ethnicities, some professional astronauts, others not.

51LPatch

Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (Commander)

Michael John Smith (Pilot)

Ronald Erwin McNair (Mission Specialist)

Ellison S. Onizuka (Mission Specialist)

Judith Arlene Resnik (Mission Specialist)

Christa McAuliffe (Payload Specialist & school teacher, winner of the “Teacher in Space” competition)

Gregory Bruce Jarvis (Payload Specialist & aerospace engineer, bumped to this flight by a U.S. Senator who took Greg’s original spot)

As they say, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And repeat it they did, within four days of being exactly 17 years later on February 1, 2003 when we lost Columbia.

Watch for more on that tragedy on the 13th anniversary of that disaster.

Challenges of Space Exploration: Gravity Assisted Functions

German_Spacelab_03

One of my first assignments as a NASA contractor at Johnson Space Center in Houston back in the late 80s was to participate in a vendor survey seeking sources of medical equipment used for life science experiments in Spacelab (mock-up used for training purposed pictured above). If an item was available commercially, it could save a tremendous amount of money versus developing one from scratch and essentially reinventing the wheel.

When I would talk to each sales representative, who was usually rather excited to be talking to someone from NASA, the first thing I would ask would be, “Will this particular item work upside down?”

The ensuing silence never failed to make me smile.  After a sufficiently dramatic pause, I would explain.

Anything used in space needed to function without any assistance from gravity. This could be something as simple as a reagent moving through a tube or some mechanical part that required a nudge from the 9.8 meters/second/second acceleration of gravity.

Since we’ve all grown up on Earth’s gravity field, it’s easy to take it for granted. In fact, I was amazed to encounter situations where aerospace engineers made the mistake of designing something that was gravity dependent! How ironic is that? That’s how pervasive it is, that even someone trained specifically to work in the space industry would forget that important little detail. Along similar lines, when the shuttle would arrive in orbit, any tools left in the cargo bay, or anywhere else, for that matter, would come floating out, sometimes presenting a serious hazard.

Take a look around and think about some of the things you do every day that depend on gravity. Would your food stay on your plate or your drink in the glass? Nope. Could you wash your clothes in your washing machine? Nope. Would water run out of the tap so you could brush your teeth? Not unless it was under pressure and then it probably wouldn’t go where expected. Floating around looks like a lot of fun, but many an astronaut has battled with space sickness as his or her stomach was quite literally upset with food refusing to settle.

While my heroine, Creena, is onboard the escape pod, she encounters similar issues since it didn’t have a gravity simulator. To quote from “Beyond the Hidden Sky:”

“Nonetheless, there were still a few things she’d never get used to. Like the sanicube. She’d never thought of going to the bathroom or taking a shower as gravity assisted functions before, but they were, with equally bizarre solutions.”

Think about going to the bathroom standing on your head. More than likely, you wouldn’t like the result. Needless to say, toilet facilities in space require innovation to avoid what could otherwise be an extremely unpleasant environment. You can’t pick up a toilet that will work in space at Home Depot, that’s for sure, and developing one was expensive. Even then, it wasn’t ideal. I talked to individuals who were tasked with cleaning up the space shuttle when it returned from a mission who described a rather disgusting mess. Not only would it look as if the astronauts had engaged in numerous food fights, it would smell similar to a port-a-potty as well. Yummy, right?

spacetoiletspecs

It was quite common when I would go to schools to talk about space exploration that someone would inevitably ask about the space toilet. It certainly didn’t look anything like a normal commode. It employed assistance from vacuum hoses for urination and a general vacuum for defecation. I had a tour of the toilet training facilities with some of my coworkers one time which, of course, we found somewhat amusing. Potty training for astronauts certainly seemed a bit odd, considering all the high-tech training they received.

The funniest part was that the toilet in the training facility actually had a video camera inside it! This had an important purpose, i.e., so trainees could see if they were correctly parked on the seat, which was required to maintain that vacuum effect noted earlier. Failing to do so would result in, well, the possible escape of something you wouldn’t exactly want to encounter floating around, eh?

spacepotty

It didn’t take long for someone to dub it the “butt cam” and we joked about the possibility of someone broadcasting the training session across NASA Select, the private TV network that spanned not only Johnson Space Center but every other NASA facility and accessible in every conference room, lobby and manager’s office. No doubt the “butt cam” was on a closed circuit, but this shows the type of humor we engineers found in the most unlikely places. Yes, it was definitely fun and interesting to work at NASA.

How many “gravity assisted functions” that we Earthlings take for granted can you think of?

 

Do You Want to Work for NASA?

EVA-SA

A while back National Geographic featured a blog declaring that NASA was recruiting astronaut candidates. The astronaut corps is obviously an exclusive bunch with strict requirements and grueling competition. Even if you want to join their ranks it’s not going to be easy. At the least, military experience and graduate degrees are usually minimum requirements.

But just because you can’t make muster for the astronaut corps doesn’t mean all is lost. There are literally thousands and thousands of people who work for or support NASA without such demanding qualifications. You can find a list of them here. Having worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for over twenty years I can tell you that there is every job imaginable represented in addition to the obvious ones in a technical field. Whether you’re an accountant or public affairs wizard NASA will need people with those skills somewhere in their organization.

If you’re really interested in a NASA career and haven’t checked out their website, then you need to do so. Yesterday. If you haven’t, here are a few highlights.

One thing you need to realize is that NASA is only located in some very specific locations. They have centers in California, Texas, Mississippi, Ohio, Florida and various other places including their headquarters in Washington, DC. Unless you live near one or are willing to relocate, it will be more difficult. There is one caveat I’ll get to later, but if you want to be an actual NASA employee, living in close proximity to one of their centers is required. You can see where these centers are by going here.

If you want to work more directly with the technical side, which comprises 60% of their employees, then you need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the fields noted on their website. Obtaining a position as an intern as part of your education will give you a considerable advantage later for becoming a permanent employee. More information about the various programs available can be found here.

Okay, now I’m going to talk about some things you won’t find on their website.

Getting a job with NASA is not easy. First of all, there are only so many positions available for which there will probably be hundreds if not thousands of applicants. There are three factors that can help you have a slight advantage. One you either have or you don’t with nothing you can do to change it, another may be related to your birth but not necessarily, and the last one you may be able to achieve if you plan early enough as mentioned above.

The first way to get your foot in the door is to be a minority. As a government agency, NASA takes pride in maintaining a high percentage of those in the affirmative action category as an example to industry in general. This is not to say that these folks don’t need to meet the technical requirements of the job at hand. They still need to possess a technical degree and the better their grade point average and/or experience, the better, but these individuals will usually make it to the top of the heap more easily than others. Minority women with a technical degree have an even bigger advantage.

The next potential advantage is to be disabled. Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to have the needed qualifications. If you do and you get hired NASA will actually help accommodate your disability. For example, I knew a NASA engineer who was a quadriplegic due to an unfortunate accident when he was a youth. His mind was not affected and he obtained an engineering degree after which he was hired by NASA. He was confined to a wheelchair and clearly had major physical limitations. To compensate, NASA hired an assistant who helped him by entering what he told her on the computer, taking him to meetings, and so forth. In other words, Stephen Hawking could get a job based on his abilities, not refused for his disabilities.

If none of these fit your situation, then it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get onboard, but not impossible. At least not as far as working with NASA’s space program. There are literally thousands of jobs in the aerospace industry, some of which are directly associated with NASA and others that are not. These are mostly available through numerous companies, big and small, that are known as NASA Contractors. In fact, the 21 years I spent at Johnson Space Center were as a contractor employee. There are pros and cons to being a contractor I’ll get into another time, but if you really want to work for NASA it’s a step in the right direction.

After you decide which NASA center you want to work for your next step is to identify which contractors are in that area and start applying. If you don’t want to or can’t move near one, all is not lost. And here’s the caveat I alluded to earlier: There are other options. In order to get their budget passed by Congress each year, NASA requires support throughout the United States. What this boils down to is that there are NASA contractors in just about every state. That way, to protect job interests in their home state, Congressmen will be more inclined to vote favorably for NASA interests. It might be a challenge to find a NASA contractor in your area, but that’s what the Internet is for. If you’re hired by one, depending on the position you hold, you’ll probably get to travel to NASA centers from time to time. You’ll not only get to see some very cool stuff but feel as if you’re part of the program. Perhaps all without moving, at least out of your state.

Like NASA, contractors often have intern programs, especially during the summer. They aren’t always easy to get into, either, but it’s worth a shot. Again, you’ll be competing against a lot of other applicants. And there’s only one way to get around that.

You’ve probably heard the saying “It’s not what you know but who you know.” In other words, if you know someone “on the inside” who can vouch for you, it will give you a much better chance of being considered for a position. In fact, that is why those intern positions are often difficult to obtain, because they’re usually given to the kids whose parents work there first. That may seem unfair depending on your point of view, but it’s the way the world works.

But all is not yet lost.

The next best thing you can do is make personal contact with someone inside your organization of choice. Better yet, lots of them. Trade shows related to aerospace and job fairs at universities are one place you may be able to make such a contact. Always treat such encounters as the equivalent of an interview. It’s critical that the impression you make be favorable as well as memorable. And no, looking like a cast member of “The Big Bang Theory” is not what I mean. Maintain contact with the person afterwards as well, but not to the point of being annoying. Touching base with him or her every few months will be sufficient.

It’s not easy but it can be done. Working with NASA had been my dream since I first watched the Apollo 11 Moon Landing back in 1969, before most of you were born. I didn’t graduate from college until 1987, at the age of 39, yet through determination and the right connections I was able to land a job supporting NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston within a year of graduating. I worked my way up through the ranks, eventually managing a cadre of engineers, and finally retired with the satisfaction of knowing I’d gone after something, no matter how elusive, and attained it. There’s no reason you can’t, too.

[Originally published 11/7/2015 at https://medium.com/@marchafox/do-you-want-to-work-for-nasa-f1a64db05292%5D

 

Challenges of Space Exploration: A NASA Insider’s View of “The Martian” (Movie Version)

martiancover

[Spoiler Alert: This constitutes one massive spoiler if you haven’t already seen the movie. I comment on specific situations depicted onscreen based on my experience working as a NASA contractor for over 20 years. So if you’re even slower to see movies than I am, are planning to see it, and prefer to thoroughly enjoy the suspense, then bookmark this blog and read it later.]

First of all, I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie which I finally saw over the holidays while visiting family. My intent here is not to criticize since I believe it was exceptionally well done. It employed a lot of fascinating details, ingenuity and great suspense throughout. Fortunately, Hollywood has come a long, long way depicting NASA-related movies since the movie, Armageddon, which I considered a complete debacle as far as the technical details were concerned.

I suppose being a physicist and geek who worked for NASA as a contractor from 1988 – 2009 are what drive me to pick at technical details, perhaps as a matter of ego to show my knowledge. Whatever it is, I can’t help it, and to me such details are interesting while most normal people would simply enjoy the movie for what it is and give me one of those looks that screams, “What’s your problem, Bozo?” I’ve mellowed on this a bit myself, but I still maintain that a certain level of scientific accuracy is important. But I’m a geek, so what do I know other than it was science fiction that inspired me to become a geek in the first place? Does it really matter if it’s factual? Probably not.

IDL TIFF file

Anyway, “The Martian” is based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, whom you can learn more about on his Amazon Author page. There’s also an interesting forum on Amazon where various readers have commented on the technical accuracy of the story (or lack thereof), which of course appealed to my inner geek. Having seen and enjoyed the movie, I plan to read the book. I assume that the author did a lot of research putting this story together and can thus take credit for the fact the movie was realistic enough to be credible and even admired by someone like myself. Based on my experience, here are a few comments.

1. My first job with NASA was in the Life Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Part of their purview was the well-being of the astronauts. The majority of their experiments conducted on the space shuttle and International Space Station were directed primarily at how exposure to microgravity, increased radiation, close quarters and isolation affected an astronaut’s mind and body. Colonization of distant worlds such as Mars has been a topic of NASA research for many years, including what crops would grow and thrive in conditions different from Earth. Needless to say, being self-sufficient is the ultimate goal.

That said, I suspect that if we had an outpost on Mars that by that time we’d know enough about such things as potential crops that there would have been more for the story’s hero, Mark Watney, to work with besides potatoes which were intended to be consumed as food. I’m reasonably sure that part of the mission would entail planting a variety of things, perhaps for the benefit of the next crew.

Which brings me to my next comment, the length of the movie’s mission being 60 days.

journey_to_mars

2. It takes a long time to get to Mars, depending on the available propulsion technology, but let’s just say using currently known or at least acknowledged sources, it’s going to be around a year or more. I suppose for the very first mission to the Red Planet that a duration of two months is possible, but I suspect that it would be longer. I also suspect that the habitation module constructed would be one that would be designed to be permanent, part of an elaborate colonization plan and not a primitive throwaway. Given the sophistication of their space vehicle, Hermes, which even had sectors that rotated to create artificial gravity, it’s more likely that part of that spacecraft would have constituted their living quarters and been left behind when their mission ended. This would have lightened the return load as well.

3. I thoroughly enjoyed the connections to previous Mars missions and how they provided resources for Mark to contact NASA. Whether that could actually be achieved I don’t know, but for me it was feasible and clever enough that I had no problem with it.  If you’re not at least partly awed by these previous accomplishments that comprise sending and then actually controlling a vehicle on another planet, then you simply don’t understand what it entails.

marsrover4. NASA has definitely been known to blow up rockets, not only in the early days of the initial space race with Russia to get to the Moon in the late 50s and 60s, but even more recently as many of you may recall with the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. Private rocket companies more recently are having a similar problem. Rocket fuel is highly volatile, systems complex, and problems are inevitable. Thus, when the rocket they put together in record time to send supplies blew up it wasn’t much of a stretch. Anyone who didn’t see that one coming hasn’t been paying attention to the space industry and its explosive history (pun intended).

But there’s more to it that that. Having worked in Safety and Mission Assurance for most of my years at JSC, I was privy to quite a few dirty little secrets. NASA makes every effort to identify every possible hazard and document them all in Hazard Reports. These go far beyond acknowledging the problem itself. Some are classified as Critical, i.e., could cause a problem but not a lethal one, while others are classified as Catastrophic, which entail loss of life and/or millions of dollars worth of equipment. Once hazards are identified, it’s mandatory to identify preventative controls. The severity of the consequences of failure determine how many controls need to be in place. Systems that can cause a catastrophic hazard are required to be three-fault tolerant, meaning three things need to fail before the worst case scenario can occur.

InSight in ATLO with back shell

The back shell of the InSight spacecraft is lowered onto the lander in a clean room at Lockheed Martin.

However, there are some systems that defy that level of safety via controls and are thus considered an accepted risk. For example, unless you’re a pilot you probably would never think of a “bird strike” as being in that category, but if a spacecraft on takeoff or landing strikes a bird, it can have dire consequences. Other risks are accepted for a variety of reasons, but it gets complicated so I’ll save further explanation for a future blog, such as some of those “dirty little secrets” that relate to the two space shuttle tragedies. [NOTE:–With the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident coming up this month, you can watch for one soon.]

Back to the point of the rocket blowing up in the film, besides the inherent danger of propulsion systems in general, bypassed quality assurance inspections or those performed by over-worked technicians would increase the likelihood of problems, making that unfortunate event quite feasible.

5. The next safety-related situation would be the malfunction and subsequent explosion that destroyed Mark’s potato garden. Certainly he did some modifications beyond its original intent, but it’s still unlikely it would have been that fragile. Considering some of the nasty substances that go along on a space mission, explosions are always a possibility. This also refers back to the fact that I doubt their outpost would have been so makeshift in the first place. Mars’ thin atmosphere is not as efficient at destroying meteorites as Earth’s, plus the main asteroid belt lies between Mars and Jupiter, so they’re a bigger problem by proximity as well. I sincerely doubt that NASA would ever erect such a cheesy structure as part of a planetary outpost. This, of course, applies to the matter of the antenna being destroyed as well. Furthermore, as mentioned in the Amazon forum, the force of the Martian wind is lower, given the reduced atmospheric pressure compared to Earth’s.

6. Several of the means employed in the movie were theoretically feasible but unlikely, such as ditching the capsule nosecone and replacing it with canvas or blowing the Hermes module for some extra propulsion. A gravity assist is certainly a possibility since that technique is used routinely for interplanetary exploration missions.

mars1

7. Lastly, I’m really skeptical about Mission Control not telling the crew earlier that Mark was alive. That just doesn’t make sense to me. However, NASA employees, no matter what rank they happen to be, are human and subject to bad judgement calls and mistakes, so it’s certainly not impossible. Subsequently, such individuals tend to quietly disappear, probably reassigned to the USA equivalent of Siberia.

In a situation like that in the movie, such a decision would undoubtedly be routed through the Astronaut Office and I suspect that the returning crew would be given that information posthaste. It’s important to know that communications between Mission Control and a manned craft are channeled through  a single source known as the Capcom, short for “capsule communicator”, a vestige derived from the early days of the space program.  This individual is traditionally an astronaut.  This person would undoubtedly be aware of the situation and thus wield considerable influence.

Not distracting the returning crew from their mission simply wasn’t sufficient rationale. Astronauts are human, too, and certainly have emotions which can drive them to do some crazy things in their private lives, but given the story’s circumstances and my experience at NASA, I really believe they’d be treated as the professionals they are and given all available information. They’d be far beyond pissed off to find out they’d been kept out of such an important loop.  Whether they’d go “rogue” or not is a possibility but doubtful without full ground support.  Spacecraft systems are beyond complex with each one having a team of experts who would assist with calculations for possible solutions.

Consider, as stated in the end of the movie credits, that it took 15,000 people to produce that movie.  Far more than that support the space program with each system component typically having a dozen or more engineers that know it inside out.  Astronauts couldn’t possibly have the necessary knowledge to make technical decisions that deviate from their training for a specific mission.

If you’re still with me at this point, thanks for listening. I really loved this movie, technical and operational flaws notwithstanding, because this is exactly the kind of film I love. My hope is that it inspires future generations, the ones who will someday walk on Mars, hopefully with a three-fault tolerant infrastructure as opposed to what astronaut Mark Watney had to deal with in “The Martian”.

You can pick up a DVD of the flick on Amazon here.

Mars Photos courtesy of NASA

 

 

A Roughneck and a Rocket Scientist Went to a Movie…

Back in 1998 when the movie “Armageddon” first came out I went to see it with a friend who was in the oil business. I was working at NASA at the time, so we’re talking about a roughneck and a rocket scientist going to a movie, which somehow sounds like the prologue to a bad joke. While it may have been a fairly decent Bruce Willis flick, at least at the time, my friend and I did so much eye-rolling at the inaccuracies in the movie’s script that we hardly saw what was going on. Later when we were home and still ranting about how technically incorrect it was, my teenage daughter just shook her head at us.

“Mom! It’s only a movie!” she said, not understanding what all the fuss was about.

To me as well as my friend the fuss was about doing something correctly. Since we were both in technological fields we knew that was important. Do something wrong in either of our career fields and someone could die. Furthermore, with all the money spent producing movies it was nothing short of lazy to not hire a science and/or engineering consultant to get it right. Around that same time the movie “Deep Impact” came out, a Steven Spielberg movie, and to his credit, the science in that movie was accurate but apparently Robert Duvall didn’t have the drawing power of good ol’ Bruce.

My point, however, remains the same. If you’re going to do something, do it right. Seriously. Or as Yoda so eloquently put it, “Try not, do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I have wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school. And I wanted to do it right. I wanted to write science fiction and knew that would require not only research but the background necessary to understand the principles and apply them properly. So I went back to school and got a physics degree. I thought I would know a lot more than I did by the time I graduated but I still knew a whole lot more than when I started. So many people say they stupider after going to college than before because they then realize how much there is to know about our amazing world.

After graduation I went to work in the aerospace industry, ultimately winding up at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas where I worked for over 20 years. And even after that, what I know is relatively little compared to everything that is out there.

Science is loaded with theories that make fantastic plot material. The subject of physics and how it applies to the Universe is often so weird that it actually makes the story more interesting when you tell it like it is. Like they say, truth is stranger than fiction and that certainly applies to science as much as anything. Science fiction is all about taking science to its limits and showing the effects it could have on mankind. There is nothing more exciting than that.