When I got the call asking if I’d be willing to fly down to Kennedy Space Center and cover an event, I agreed immediately. Then about a week later, I remembered to call back and ask what I was supposed to be doing. Not that it mattered, I’d gladly write a few thousand words about the National Crocheting Championships if they started holding them at KSC. I hadn’t been there in years, since before the Space Shuttle program had ended, and I was eager to see the exhibit created for the fourth member of the Shuttle fleet, Atlantis.
So you can imagine my reaction when I learned that the event Hackaday wanted me to cover, the Cornell Cup Finals, would culminate in a private viewing of the Atlantis exhibit after normal park hours. After which, the winners of the competition would be announced during a dinner held under the orbiter itself. It promised to be a memorable evening for the students, a well deserved reward for the incredible work they put in during the competition.
Thinking back on it now, the organizers of the Cornell Cup and the staff at Kennedy Space Center should truly be commended. It was an incredible night, and everyone I spoke to felt humbled by the unique experience. There was a real, palpable, energy about it that you simply can’t manufacture. Of course, nobody sitting under Atlantis that night was more excited than the students. Though I may have come in as a close second.
I’ll admit it was somewhat bittersweet to see such an incredible piece of engineering turned into a museum piece; it looked as if Atlantis could blast off for another mission at any moment. But there’s no denying that the exhibit does a fantastic job of celebrating the history and accomplishments of the Space Shuttle program. NASA officially considers the surviving Shuttle orbiters to be on a “Mission of Inspiration”, so rather than being mothballed in a hangar somewhere in the desert, they are out on display where the public can get up close and personal with one of humanities greatest achievements. Judging by the response I saw, the mission is going quite well indeed.
If you have the means to do so, you should absolutely make the trip to Cape Canaveral to see Atlantis and all the other fascinating pieces of space history housed at KSC. There’s absolutely no substitute for seeing the real thing, but if you can’t quite make the trip to Florida, hopefully this account courtesy of your humble scribe will serve to give you a taste of what the exhibit has to offer.
Recently there’s been some buzz in the news that Pepsi, or more accurately the company’s Russian division, had partnered with a startup by the name of StartRocket to experiment with the idea of putting “billboards” in space. After overwhelmingly negative response to the idea on social media, Pepsi’s official line is that the StartRocket experiment was a one-time partnership, and that the company has no plans to push ahead with a space advertising program “at this time”.
Had this been the first time a worldwide conglomerate like Pepsi had turned their eyes up into the black and saw dollar signs, you might think that humanity’s brief flirtation with space-bound advertisements was nothing but a social media stunt. But the truth of the matter is that companies such as Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut have been trying to get their products off terra firma since the 1980’s. This isn’t even Pepsi’s first attempt, despite what their PR department might want you to believe right about now.
So why haven’t we seen advertisers putting their money into space advertising schemes? Well, we have, actually. They just haven’t been terribly effective and the average person likely has no recollection of them. We’re seeing considerable excitement about spaceflight in the new media right now with billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos battling to see who can build the most outlandish rockets, but historically, you’d do better getting a 10 second spot during the Super Bowl than plastering your logo on the side of a weather satellite.
In honor of Pepsi’s recent blunder, let’s take a look at some of the standout attempts to conquer advertising’s true true final frontier from the last few decades.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.