Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Scrubbed...for now.

The New Horizons space probe launch was delayed till Wednesday due to high winds. NASA is playing safe with this one. I can't say that I blame them.

If that wasn't bad news enough, astronaut Mike Mullane's new book Riding Rockets has been provoking fresh debate over the space shuttle program. Mullane calls the shuttle the "most dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown" and spares little in his criticism of the space program's handling of flight safety.

Mullane is reported to describe how astronauts tolerate danger and mismanagement in the NASA culture, risking their chance to fly if they speak out too harshly.

As one who once dreamed of space travel as a kid, this sort of news gives me a heavy heart.

I've read about the Soviet-era space disasters, how cosmonauts on the Salyut 1 space station died when a valve popped open on re-entry and suffocated them, or how others perished when the chutes on their capsules failed to deploy. Even with the deaths of three Apollo astronauts in the early days of the race to the moon, I always felt that American space program set high standards for technology and safety, and that is why we had a space shuttle working while the Russian Buran Shuttle sits as an Earthbound curiosity. America might have it's own share of problems, but no one could compare to our triumphs on the final frontier.

We had a close call with the Apollo 13 mission, but we never lost an astronaut. We sent missions to the moon, put up a space station, and hauled cargo into orbit. Like so many technologies, what was once awe-inspiring almost became as routine as Fed Ex and instant coffee.

Then, on a terrible January day in 1986 our luck ran out, and our space program was shown to have more than its share of flaws.

The shuttle did fly again. American culture is dusted with the shiny glitter of science fiction. We figured that NASA was busy cooking up the next step in our journey. Maybe we thought those NASA wizards would replace the shuttle something that even Arthur C. Clarke or ILM couldn't dream up. Going backward is alien to our optimistic view of techonology and our culture. We sometimes expect brighter things to just happen.

Then came tragedy of Columbia, and we learned the space program hadn't come as far from 1986 as we thought. Even the thrill of the shuttle's second comeback flight was dampened by fear, turning the flight into a white-knuckle ride, because of something so frustrating and small as bits of foam.

Now the once great shuttle seems like a worn out workhorse, one we can't even risk using to push the Hubble back in orbit. Now we are having to depend on the Russians and Soyuz spacecraft, that are even older than the shuttle, to ferry crews from the International Space Station.

I sometimes feel that this is part of the disappointment that comes with age. You look up to institutions and people as a young man, then become jaded when you find they don't measure up to idea you had of them.

But Mike Mullane still feels the passion for spaceflight. He would go on a another mission if he could. There are brave men and women who feel that the failures of both man and machine are worth risking, just to have a chance to see the sky change from blue to black.

Tomorrow the New Horizons probe will take another shot at the launch window. If successful, it will roar into space and become the fastest vehicle ever launched. It will fly past the orbit of the moon in about six hours, which took the Apollo astronauts three days achieve.

Astronauts have died in the quest to reach space. Rockets have exploded into fireballs seconds after leaving the pad. Space probes have manfunctioned and crashed into the planets they were meant to explore. Machines break and sputter. Efficient organizations degenerate into fiefdoms. The smartest people make the dumbest mistakes. Billions of dollars evaporate with no ROI.

But remember...we are new at this.

Barely a century ago, two inventors at Kitty Hawk were trying to get a small wooden aircraft to stay aloft for more than a few minutes. To go from propelers to scramjets in such a short time is enough to make one hope we can overcome our own limitations.

Let us just hope the weather helps us out a little too.

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