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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Do You Want to Work for NASA?

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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: Weightlessness

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In my recent interview with Book Nerd Paradise I read an excerpt from Beyond the Hidden Sky which illustrated what Creena experienced when the escape pod finally landed on Verdaris. While she’d been instructed by the onboard v-troid, DORAI, to exercise as a regular part of her zones, Creena got frustrated with the equipment malfunctioning and stopped doing so as part of her general rebellion. Exercising was a bore, especially when the marching machine kept jamming or not keeping an accurate record of how much she’d done. Moving about the pod in a weightless environment was effortless and fun! Yet she was initially informed that life in zero-g meant exercise zones. The conversation went like this:

“If I don’t I’ll get what?” Creena asked.

“Orthostatic intolerance,” DORAI replied.

“What’s that?”

“Side effects of zero gravity. It affects your heart, skeletal muscles, bones and balance. Without countermeasures you’ll be dizzy, have trouble standing up, and won’t be strong enough to walk when you return to a gravity field.”

So she’d been warned but conveniently forgot. The results were not pretty.

Why were these exercise routines known as countermeasures necessary? This excerpt from p. 62 of The Star Trails Compendium briefly explains it:

Gravity forces your body to continually compensate for it by building additional strength. Without it muscles weaken, including the heart, also a muscle, which needs to pump blood against it. Orthostatic intolerance is the technical term for not being able to stand up without holding onto something. Astronauts in space exercise to maintain their strength so that when they return to Earth they are not too weak to walk. Some astronauts who have returned from long-duration space flight have not been able to walk without assistance.

Gravity is something we take for granted. For example, pouring a glass of water requires gravity to deliver the liquid to the container. In space the liquid would spill out into the air and float around in a glob. Think about things you do that you can’t do upside down and you will discover various “gravity assisted functions.” Astronauts often suffer from space sickness, similar to motion sickness, because gravity is not helping keep food and liquids in their stomach.

My first job at NASA was in their Life Sciences Division at Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas. Among other things, they studied the effects of zero gravity on the human body. They conducted various experiments and developed exercise equipment for the astronauts to maintain their fitness level. One of the physical problems related to losing calcium from their bones, which obviously would weaken them. They found that resistance exercises were most effective, even though aerobic exercises such as running on a treadmill were still important as well.

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To prepare for long-term space flight such as that required to go to Mars, NASA is currently conducting a year-long study about the effects of micro-gravity in an interesting way. It just so happens that two astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly, are identical twins. Mark is retired but on March 27, 2015 Scott and Russian cosmonaut, Mikhail Kornienko, blasted off for the International Space Station where Mark will spend a year participating in the study. Mark, who will remain on Earth, will serve as a control during which they will study molecular changes between the two. The study, which comprises numerous separate experiments, will also address how an astronaut’s mental state is affected by these changes.

You can learn more about the study here.

Space travel is not a simple matter. While we have the technology to build an interplanetary spacecraft we still don’t fully understand how it will affect humans at the physical level. This study will provide a few answers.

[NOTE: You can download a free copy of The Star Trails Compendium which contains lesson and discussion ideas of the science in The Star Trails Tetralogy from Smashwords here.]

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