The Hard-Learned Lessons Of The Columbia Disaster

On February 1st, 2003 at eighteen seconds past 9:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during atmospheric entry over Texas. Still traveling at approximately Mach 18.3, the disintegration of Columbia was complete and nearly instantaneous. According to the official accident investigation, the crew had at most one minute from realizing they were in a desperate situation to complete destruction of the spacecraft. Due to the design of the Space Shuttle, no contingency plan or emergency procedure could have saved the crew at this point in the mission: all seven crew members were lost in this tragedy.

While the Space Shuttle, officially known as the Space Transportation System (STS) would fly again after the Columbia disaster, even the program’s most ardent supporters had to admit fundamental design of the Shuttle was flawed. Steps needed to be taken to ensure no future astronauts would be lost, and ultimately, the decision was made to retire the Shuttle fleet after primary construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was complete. There was simply too much invested in the ISS at this point to cancel the only spacecraft capable of helping to assemble it, so the STS had to continue despite the crushing loss of human life it had already incurred.

Between the loss of Challenger and Columbia, the STS program claimed fourteen lives in its thirty year run. Having only flown 135 missions in that time, the STS is far and away the most deadly spacecraft to ever fly. A grim record that, with any luck, is never to be broken.

The real tragedy was, like Challenger, the loss of Columbia could have been prevented. Ground Control knew that the Shuttle had sustained damage during launch, but no procedures were in place to investigate or repair damage to the spacecraft while in orbit. Changes to the standard Shuttle mission profile gave future crews a chance of survival that the men and women aboard Columbia never had.

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Oscilloscope Art From Your Browser

Oscilloscope art is a fascinating pursuit in which waveforms are generated for the X an Y channels of an oscilloscope to draw pictures on its screen. It’s somewhat distinct from vector computer graphics of the type you might see in older arcade machines or the Vectrex console, in that while it uses a similar approach to creating a display it has a very different purpose. Sometimes these works can be breathtakingly beautiful animations, and other times maybe not so much.

If you’d like to explore the topic as a mild diversion, then maybe this Javascript oscilloscope art generator from [Neil Fraser] might be of interest. In around a hundred lines of code he’s created an in-browser scratchpad upon which a waveform can be drawn which will then be created as an audio signal on your computer’s soundcard. Hook up left and right to X and Y of your oscilloscope, and what you scribbled on the pad should pop up on the screen.

Draw it, see it on screen. Magic!
Draw it, see it on screen. Magic!

It’s an impressive piece of work that you can see in the video below or try for yourself, and your scribe’s Rigol was pressed into service to give it a go. After a bit of tweaking to find the right voltages and selecting slope triggering rather than edge triggering, we too were making squiggles appear on the screen.

It’s rather funny, he’s saved the best for last. As an afterthought, he also provides a link to another piece of his work, an oscilloscope clock in Javascript. If any of you would like to take this further and make a Javascript oscilloscope Wrencher, we’d love to make it famous.

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Sculptural Grade M&M Sorter

Sorting M&Ms is really only a major concern if you happen to be working on a Van Halen tour, but it’s a fun exercise nonetheless. It’s for this reason we see plenty of sorting projects come our way, varying from the breadboard and cardboard variety, all the way up to final university projects. Today, [Karl] has blessed us with their sculptural-grade offering, and the attention to detail is stunning.

The project has been in gestation in [Karl]’s mind, on and off, for 10 years or so. The big problem centered around reliably separating out one M&M at a time from a hopper of many. From time to time, [Karl] would speak with other builders using similar techniques to his failed experiments, who often reported that the secret to their machine’s reliability was… careful video editing. It was only when a parts sorter flashed across the Hackaday feed that [Karl] found the mechanism that would work to make his project a reality.

Now that the individual candies could readily be separated and fed through a machine, the rest of the project came together quickly. A color sensor was combined with servos and a stepper motor to duct M&Ms into separate flasks.

The real value of this build, however, is in the overall attention paid to the aesthetics of the final product. The device was built to be a kinetic sculpture, able to run reliably with the minimum of attention at the behest of even an untrained user. By carefully optimising the mechanisms inside and building an attractive enclosure, [Karl] has developed something we’d be proud to show off in a living room.