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Discovery go for launch June 22, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Space.
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The Space Shuttle Discovery is go for a July 1 launch. This decision is far from routine, the last launch, about a year ago was shrouded in controversy, resulting in unscheduled EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) to repair a problem with the ship’s heat shield.

The same heat shield failed on the shuttle Columbia in 2003 causing a catastrophic disintegration upon atmospheric reentry over Texas, all seven astronauts on board were killed.

First there was Challenger though. That spacecraft also suffered catastrophic failure, of the O-Ring/SRB variety, seven astronauts were killed in that incident as well.

These accidents point to the shuttle being inherently unsafe, but does NASA care to take heed of that conclusion? The answer is a resounding “no.”

The plan to launch July 1 has generated its own controversy. NASA Chief Safety Officer Bryan O’Connor has said though he objects to the decision to launch July 1 he will not appeal the decision, in part due to an ill-conceived NASA plan to have the astronauts take refuge on board the ISS if the foam insulation which doomed Columbia punches a hole in the ship’s heat shield that is too large to repair via EVA.

That plan would involve abandoning the shuttle and would spell the death of manned spaceflight by the United States until a new spacecraft (See Crew Exploration Vehicle) is developed for Moon Shot 2.

There are two reasons that I find NASA’s decision to go ahead with the launch ominious.

First, similar warning preceded the 1986 Challenger disaster. Those warnings never made it to public ears until it was too late.

Secondly, NASA said before they had fixed the foam insulation problem that destroyed Columbia. Of course, that proved to be false, as video showed that large pieces of foam were shed during last July’s much anticipated and highly over-billed “Return to Flight.”

Forgive me if I am not reassured by O’Connor’s “downplaying of his concerns.”

What does it take to get the folks at NASA to quit burying their heads in the sand? How many people have to die before safety is no longer sacrificed in the name of effciency, speed and deadline?

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Pluto’s newest moons have official names from the International Astronomical Union. Joining Charon in the Plutonian system are Hydra and Nix, ever evoking the underworld the tiny satellites new names were also chosen because the initials “H” and “N” match that of the New Horizons space craft which is speeding toward an encounter with the mysterious planet.

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