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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Hanging Onto the World’s Greatest Piggyback Ride.

We were really sad to see NASA retire the Space Shuttle. Even though it’s being replaced with some new and exciting hardware, we have fond memories of the Shuttle program. The good news is that a lot of the old hardware can now be seen up close and personal. [Brady Haran] recently took a video tour of one of the iconic pieces of hardware from the Shuttle program, the Shuttle Carrier N905NA.

NASA purchased the Boeing 747-100 in 1974 from American Airlines, and by 1976 the jumbo jet was put on a strict diet in preparations to carry the shuttle on it’s back for transportation and initial testing. She was stripped of her interior (all but few first class seats), sound deadening, air conditioning, and baggage compartment. Vertical fins on the tail were added for yaw stability, and the four Pratt and Whitney turbofans were upgraded to more powerful units. The fuselage was strengthened, and mounting points for the shuttle added. Even with all the weight savings, it severely limited the 747’s range from about 5000 miles to about 1000 miles while the orbiter was on it’s back. The aircraft was retired from service after ferrying the Shuttles to their final destinations in 2012.

In the video after the break, you can take a short tour of the N905NA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they are preparing it for public display. Visitors will be able to tour the 747 (with exhibits inside the fuselage), and a very accurate mock-up of the shuttle that sits atop.
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