[extropy-chat] SPACE: Shuttle will never fly...

Amara Graps amara at amara.com
Fri Feb 20 14:24:48 UTC 2004

Dear Extropes,

Last Christmastime the Los Angeles Times published a series of articles
on the Columbia story by writer Robert Lee Hotz. Even though I know that
he probably had to add some sensationalist elements to make it into
a good newspaper story, he didn't need to embellish it very much because
it is a gripping story on its own. Plus I think that he is a talented

I jumped into the middle of the series last December, catching the story
regarding the impressive detective work by the astronomers. Here, allow
me to quote part of the story:


The astronomer and the physicist were certain that the first debris fell not
over East Texas, where so much attention centered, but a thousand miles to
the west.

They enlisted Brian Kern, another astronomer from Caltech, and three experts
in space navigation from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

They called themselves the skunk team.

Beasley eventually counted 6,541 images and 34 video recordings of the
shuttle's last reentry, covering its entire flight path across the United

Amateurs had taken them all.

Beasley and Dimotakis studied two shaky videos shot with camcorders.

Immediately, they noticed that in the first video, recorded by a man near
Reno, the shuttle passed Venus in the sky.

They seized the clue.

By knowing Columbia's planned trajectory, the relative position of the
planet and the constant rate of the video frames, they worked out the
timing, speed and direction of the flight to within a fraction of a second.

The second video was from Springville, Calif., near Sequoia National Forest.
In it, they spotted the star Deneb and the compass star Polaris. Other stars
- Alpha Cepheus, Vega and Beta Cassiopeia - could be plotted. This allowed
them to confirm the timing of the flashes and the position of the shuttle.

By enhancing the stars digitally and then working with the constellations
they revealed, the two men determined that Columbia's actual flight path had
been barely a mile off its predicted reentry. Navigation experts at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory quickly confirmed their work.

The skunk team could then estimate the mass and size of the debris the
spacecraft was shedding.

By knowing the properties of the exotic materials used in shuttle
construction - recorded in three 22-year-old notebooks archived in the
Caltech library - they calculated how quickly each piece was left behind by
the spacecraft.

A theory took form.


The scientific work of these three people used techniques that are
well known to meteorite researchers and amateurs who record (often
with video cameras) the meteors' entries and calculate their orbits
and, occasionally, search for the objects' fall location (and
sometimes succeed to find them). The work of these three was
particularly comprehensive and detailed and well-done, I thought.

Even though I know these techniques, to see it well-written in a
major newspaper, and more,  to know its importance in solving the
mystery of the shuttle explosion,  gave me goosebumps.

I saw the first landing of the First US spaceshuttle on April 12,
1981. I still have my photographs and I remember the crowd at
Edwards Air Force base. So then the birth and death of that tool for
discovery is close to my heart, and the whole story makes me sad.
Not for NASA, because I think that the problems with the space
agency are now clearer than ever, but I am sad that alot of human's
excitement and curiosity for exploring the universe have become
buried under politics and some dirty business and other activities.

But I continue to try to help keep alive the curiosity for exploring
the universe (or maybe it is just a selfish interest to share what
I like about it myself). Here are the links to the whole story.

Sunday, December 21, 2003
Decoding Columbia: A detective story
By Robert Lee Hotz
In an inquest fraught with questions of guilt and shame, scientists
unravel the mystery of a shuttle's demise.

Monday, December 22, 2003
Curious outsiders get the jump on NASA
By Robert Lee Hotz
Columbia was a white butterfly bolted to a bullet.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003
Exhuming Columbia, one piece at a time
By Robert Lee Hotz
Early investigators had to rely on informed guesswork. But clues were 
puring in.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003
The fate of a wing shaped by politics
By Robert Lee Hotz
Fragments of Columbia were laid out on a vast concrete floor like 
broken bones on an
autopsy table.

Thursday, December 25, 2003
Firing point-blank at NASA's illusions

Friday, December 26, 2003
Swallowing the fire: Columbia's final voyage
By Robert Lee Hotz
It was at best a make-work mission.


Switching gears in a different view on this Columbia Story.

Edward Tufte is one of my heroes, and he has written alot recently
about why PowerPoint is one of the worst ways to communicate and
present information. While searching for something else, I stumbled
across these Columbia writings at his web site:

http://www.edwardtufte.com/ and  his bulletin board:
http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a?topic_id=1 ,

in particular: (related to the Columbia)


especially this:

where he says:

{beginning quote}
page 191:
from the
Columbia Accident Investigation Board

"At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to
receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of
technical reports. the Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint
briefing slices instead of technical papers as an illustration of
the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA."
{end quote}

This is one of those comitragedy things, isn't it?

Also, extropes, check this out!


Have a good weekend,


Amara Graps, PhD          email: amara at amara.com
Computational Physics     vita:  ftp://ftp.amara.com/pub/resume.txt
Multiplex Answers         URL:   http://www.amara.com/
"I couldn't read it because my parents forgot to pay the gravity
bill." --Calvin

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