A Daring Search for Answers in Soyuz Mystery

If you happened to tune into NASA TV on December 11th, you’d have been treated to a sight perhaps best described as “unprecedented”: Russian cosmonauts roughly cutting away the thermal insulation of a docked Soyuz spacecraft with a knife and makeshift pair of shears. Working in a cloud of material ripped loose during the highly unusual procedure, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev were effectively carving out their own unique place in space history. Their mission was to investigate the external side of the suspicious hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule which caused a loss of air pressure on the International Space Station earlier in the year.

That astronauts don’t generally climb out the hatch and use a knife to hack away at the outside of their spacecraft probably goes without saying. Such an event has never happened before, and while nobody can predict the future, odds are it’s not something we’re likely to see again. Keep in mind that this wasn’t some test capsule or a derelict, but a vehicle slated to return three human occupants to Earth in a matter of days. Cutting open a spacecraft in which human lives will shortly be entrusted is not a risk taken likely, and shows how truly desperate the Russian space agency Roscosmos is to find out just who or what put a hole in the side of one of their spacecraft.

Close inspection from the inside of the spacecraft confirmed the hole wasn’t made by an impact with a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk as was originally assumed. It appears to have been made with a drill, which really only allows for two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or a mistake and subsequent cover-up. In either event, a truly heinous crime has been committed and those responsible must be found. As luck would have it the slow leak of air pressure was detected early and the hole was patched before any damage was done, but what if it hadn’t?

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If You Are Planning On Building Your Own Space Shuttle…

One of the most complicated machines ever built was the US space shuttle (technically, the STS or Space Transportation System). Despite the title, we doubt anyone is going to duplicate it. However, one of the most interesting things about the shuttle’s avionics — the electronics that operate the machine — is that being a government project there is a ridiculous amount of material available about how it works. NASA has a page that gathers up a description of the vehicle’s avionics. If you are more interested in the actual rocket science, just back up a few levels.

We will warn you, though, that if you’ve never worked on space hardware, some of the design choices will seem strange. There are two reasons for that. First, the environment is very strange. You have to deal with high acceleration, shock, vibration, and radiation, among other things. The other reason is that the amount of time between design and deployment is so long due to testing and just plain red tape that you will almost certainly be deploying with technology that is nearly out of date if not obsolete.

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Richard Feynman: A Life Of Curiosity And Science

It was World War II and scientists belonging to the Manhattan Project worked on calculations for the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, in one of the buildings, future Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was cracking the combination lock on a safe because doing so intrigued him. That’s as good a broad summary of Feynman as any: scientific integrity with curiosity driving both his work and his fun.

If you’ve heard of him in passing it may be because of his involvement on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster commission or maybe you’ve learned something from one of his many lectures preserved on YouTube. But did you know he also played with electronics as a kid, and almost became an electrical engineer?

He was the type of person whom you might sum up by saying that he had an interesting life. The problem is, you have to wonder how he fit it all into one lifetime, let alone one article. We’ll just have to let our own curiosity pick and choose what to say about this curious character.

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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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Books You Should Read: Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Disaster Report

It isn’t really a book, but Richard Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Disaster Report is still definitely something you should read. It’s not particularly long, but it’s educational and relevant not just as an example of critical thinking in action, but as a reminder not to fool oneself; neither individually, nor on an organizational level. Sadly, while much was learned from the events leading to and surrounding the Challenger disaster, over thirty years later many of us can still find a lot of the same things to relate to in our own professional lives. There isn’t a single magic solution, because these problems are subtle and often masquerade as normal.

Feynman and the Challenger Disaster

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and one of the best-known scientists of his time. In 1986 he somewhat reluctantly agreed to join the Rogers Commission, whose task was to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded a little more than a minute after launch, killing everyone on board. The commission’s job was to find out what had gone wrong and how it had happened, and figure out how to keep it from happening again.

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Hams in Space Part 2: The Manned Spaceflights

Whether it’s trying to make contacts across the planet with a transmitter that would have a hard time lighting an LED, or blasting signals into space and bouncing them off the moon, amateur radio operators have always been on the forefront of communications technology. As mankind took to space in the 1950s and 1960s, hams went along for the ride with the first private satellites. But as successful as the OSCAR satellites were, they were still at best only beacons or repeaters in space. What was needed was the human touch – a real live operator making contacts with people on the ground, showing the capabilities of amateur radio while generating public interest in the space program. What was needed was a ham in space. Continue reading “Hams in Space Part 2: The Manned Spaceflights”

The Price of Space

Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.

We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.

This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.

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