One piece is sticking out 1.1 inches between the thermal tiles, the other protrudes at an angle from six-tenths to nine-tenths of an inch. For those areas, far forward near the nose, the general wisdom and flight history indicate that the limit should be a quarter-inch, said flight director Paul Hill.Fortunately for NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who appeared on Meet the Press this morning, following a taped interview with Discovery crew (transcript, .pdf,) this problem came to light after the interview, which quickly enough turned from gee-whiz good wishes to inside-the-Beltway ankle biting. Unfortunately, Mr Griffin could do no better in defense of the shuttle program than to note that "the average American spends less than 15 cents per day on the space program, less than $60 per year on the space program." That's the same special-pleading-by-de minimus defenders of Amtrak or the National Endowment for the Arts or the sugar subsidy make: look how little you are spending on this useful effort. But it's such a canard. Why can't I argue, with equal force, that my entire federal tax bill for last year, which runs into five figures, was all spent on maintaining the shuttles to service the space station, or for that matter, on mining water on the high plains to grow sugar beet?
Hill noted, however, that the quarter-inch measurement was taken following previous re-entries and the intense heat could have burned some of the material off. Discovery's flaws were spotted in orbit - a first - because of all the photography and laser imaging being aimed at normally hard-to-see spots, an outcome of the 2003 Columbia disaster.
On a flight by Columbia in 1995, the shuttle returned with a gap filler that protruded 0.6 inches, but the material was rolled up and located farther back on the belly, in an area less likely to overheat, said Steve Poulos, manager of the orbiter project office. When unrolled, it was 1.4 inches long. The only overheating effect was to nearby damaged tiles.
"Tonight they're working overtime trying to compress, I believe the phrase was, a decade's worth of study into two days," Hale told reporters.
No Oil for Pacifists and American Mind suggest it is time to retire the shuttles. There might be room to park one at the Experimental Aircraft Association's museum in Oshkosh, where, this week, rail magnate Richard Branson and canard wizard Burt Rutan brought White Knight and Space Ship One as well as the Virgin Global Flyer to Air Venture. They also announced the formation of a new business to develop spacecraft for Virgin Galactic, offering a new dimension in space travel, at a price less than the Russians are charging for a trip to the Space Station.
Wittman Field, alas, is not big enough to handle the landing roll of Space Ship One; otherwise there might have been a real spectacular during the afternoon air show.
And herewith, in a few sentences, the difference between Rutan-Branson and NASA. Reason's Ted Balaker interviews Burt Rutan.
TB: And I think the concept of fun you mentioned is hugely important and at NASA it’s very different—they can’t justify something on the basis of fun.
BR: No, and they don’t understand the concept of taking risks in order to find breakthroughs. I hate to say that because we send billions to them for what we think is research but they don’t do research, they only do development. They won’t reach out and look for new concepts.
The same thing is happening with this Bush initiative, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. NASA’s going to award multi-billion dollar contracts in September for the primes, and the primes are going to go out and they’re going to fight to make sure that they win the next phase after spending billions, and because of that, they’re not going to try new, innovative stuff. They’re just going to just build some new capsules, and they’re going to get launched by expendable boosters, and they won’t go out and solve the safety problems that are preventing us from having resort hotels in orbit.
Innovation, safety, have fun doing it. They probably aren't having much fun in Houston, Huntsville, and the Cape these days.
Now, the economics puzzle: how much of my 15 cents a day is a subsidy to Burt Rutan? I'm only being slightly facetious. Presumably the public record of shuttle design and accident investigation has provided useful information both in the form of what works and what fails. Any participant in the X-Prize would be able to make use of that information.