Thursday, March 15, 2007

Marooned


Sorry about the interruption. Often the best work is accomplished out of publicity's glare. In Martin Caidin's novel and the movie, three astronauts from an orbiting laboratory are MAROONED by a spacecraft malfunction. (Caidin also originated THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.) Thursday I met with journalist Chris Jones. His new book TOO FAR FROM HOME tells the gripping and little-known story of Expedition Six. Astronauts Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Cosmonaut Nicolai Budarin were the crew stuck on ISS in the aftermath of the Columbia accident.

On November 23, 2002 three men rode as passengers in Endeavour's mid-deck to take over station. They were originally intended to return after 14 weeks in another shuttle. On February 1, 2003 Columbia's accident nixed that plan. TOO FAR FROM HOME includes many details the press omitted, like a Texas farmer finding the astronaut's recognisable bodies in a field. The shuttle squadron was grounded until July 2005. Keeping Bowersox, Pettit and Budarin alive until rescue suddenly became a big problem.

Sending another shuttle up in Columbia's wake would have been foolhardy. The crew always had an option of using the Soyuz docked at ISS as an escape pod. Abandoning ship would have been disastrous, for ISS was not designed to survive without a crew. With no humans aboard, the station would have drifted out of orbit until docking was impossible, then its orbit would decay until it fell into the atmosphere. The goal of a permanent human presence in Space would have gone down in flames.

Finally NASA and the Russians put together a plan to keep ISS alive with a minimum crew until Shuttle returned. For the relief crew, two men were chosen for their low food requirements. One of these was Edward Lu. This crew would fly up with a new replacement Soyuz, leaving Expedition Six to return in their old ship. The return to Earth was truly a rough ride, with forces exceeding 8 G's. During atmospheric entry, the plummeting Soyuz lost all radio communication.

Expedition Six landed hundreds of miles off target, somewhere in Central Asia. It would be hours before the crew would have contact with anyone. With fresh memories of Columbia, those were agonising hours for NASA and their families. After realising that rescue was not near, the three men cracked the hatch and crawled onto an alien Earth. For hours the men lay on their backs on the grass, whose very smells and sounds had become unfamiliar. Despite their trials, all three men yearn for a return to Space..

How did the US get into this mess? After the 1969 Moon landings, Von Braun designed an Apollo Applications Programme. It would have built giant space stations and a Moon base with Apollo hardware and the giant Saturn rockets. Skylab, which orbited a 3-person lab in one piece, was the only survivor. (MAROONED featured an early version of Skylab.) As Armstrong and Aldrin were stepping on the Moon, the Nixon administration was taking steps to junk Apollo in favour of the Shuttle. When I spoke with Michael Griffin in December 2005, he acknowledged what a huge mistake this was.

The US General Accounting Office concluded that Shuttle would only be cost-effective if it were the only US launch vehicle. In response NASA stopped production of Saturn and every other launch vehicle! The Air Force was forced to adopt Shuttle, which in turn forced the orbiter to have a larger diameter and wings. Serving every customer made the vehicle bigger, heavier and more expensive than it needed to be. As the old saying goes, an elephant is a horse built by committee. Since that time, our picture of Space travel has included the Shuttle.

From the disarray following Columbia, came a Vision for the Moon, Mars and Beyond. This has given NASA a true goal going where no one has gone before. It may lead to unexpected benefits, like a mission to an asteroid. After all the risks and trials that people have undergone learning to live in Space, it would be foolish to abandon ship on the Vision. Captain Kirk would say, "We've come too far to be stopped by this."

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff Chappell said...

Agree wholeheartedly – it's a vision that we shouldn't lose site of. People frequently forget or don't realize just how much the space program affects our daily lives. The number of applicable everyday technologies that everyone utilizes are virtually too many to count – aluminum foil and Tang come to mind, but that just scratches the surface. I recently had to remind my rather conservative-minded father, who was lamenting the money spent on the space program, that he was walking around with a defibrillator implant that his doctor can control, monitor and program wirelessly – I believe that covers several technologies originally developed for or by NASA. Not to mention the myriad cardiac monitoring technologies that have helped doctors keep him with us (for which I am truly grateful) – most if not all of which trace their origins to the space program. If it weren't for the medical technologies that arose out of the space program, he wouldn't be here today, nor would many older people. I guess maybe instead of preaching to the converted here, I should be reminding some of the crotchety old farts in Congress that would begrudge NASA adequate funding that many of them would be dead were it not for the space program.

BTW, I just discovered your blog recently, and I love it, despite the fact that some of it makes the right side of my brain hurt. I take analgesic solace, however, in your great gams. Now I'm off to the bookstore to see if I can find that Chris Jones book.

1:42 PM  
Blogger serge said...

Well written post. I enjoyed reading it. You definitively have some writing talent.

2:31 PM  
Blogger L. Riofrio said...

Welcome, Jeff and thank you. Yesterday I passed by a man on an electric wheelchair breathing through a portable oxygen supply and realised what an amazing age we live in. Martin Caidin's bionic man is just around the corner.

Hello again, Serge. I appreciate your comments too.

3:54 PM  

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