Discovery took off last night, and a beautiful sight it was too.
My final exam topic in the program management course I’m taking this quarter – and from which I am currently taking a break by chatting with you – is all about the Challenger disaster. Given NASA’s internal organization at the time, the austere fiscal environment they operated under and technological risk involved in pushing against the frontiers of human knowledge, the mishap seems almost inevitable in retrospect.
The STS is hideously complex of course – the disposable external fuel canister between the two solid-fuel boosters carries liquid fuel for the shuttle’s main engines, for example – 143,000 gallons of liquid oxygen cooled to -297 degrees Fahrenheit and 383,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen cooled to -423 degs F. Just think about the mechanical complexity involved in manually mating those systems to the shuttle engine controls through a hull that is designed to withstand re-entry temperature conditions – from 2,750 degs F on the leading edge of the wing to “only” 600 degs F on the upper fuselage, the coolest area and you’ll have some small notion of the challenges entailed in operationalizing the notion of “routine, economic space flight.”
Three of the Discovery astronauts on this mission are naval officers: the pilot is Commander William Oefeline, who is accompanied by mission specialists Captain Robert Curbeam and CDR Sunita Williams. Curbeam was a Tomcat RIO, while Oefeline flew Hornets out of Lemoore and Williams was an H-46 pilot. A quick scan of their biographies once again leaves your humble scribe with the simultaneous feelings that 1) he is proud to have shared service with such extraordinary people, and 2) that he was left holding the door when gifts were being passed out.