Friday, July 29, 2005

Water Blogged: I wish space shuttles had names like monster trucks...

"Leader of the free world..."

Check out the newest shuttle flap...W's viewing of the launch on an old-school 13"

[via Something Cheeky]

Monday, July 25, 2005

"Why don't you just fix your little problem and light this candle?"

Words as significant now as they were 44 years ago. Al Shepard said these words, tired after more than 3 hours of holding inside his tiny Mercury capsule on the pad at Cape Canaveral. His launch had been delayed by several weeks initially, so much so that we missed sending up the first person into space because of administrative delays. It would take us years to catch up with the Soviets in the space race.

Today I feel like saying the same thing. Let's light this candle. Some of you already know this, but for those of you who don't: I'm a huge space buff. Space.com, NASA Watch, and Spaceflight Now are among my daily reads. I've watched Apollo 13 so many times I know not only the dialogue but the way the actors deliver the lines. HBO's miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon", hosted and produced by Tom Hanks, is highly cherished. I've read more books on the subject (Failure is Not an Option, by Apollo Flight Director Gene Krantz, remains my favorite,) than I can remember. To this day I wish Comcast would stop wasting bandwidth on stupid channels and just carry NASA TV. (They broadcast it, in digital, for free!! All you have to do it point a dish at the satellite!)

I've been waiting for the Return to Flight launch for months now. The current delays make me look back to the first Mercury flight and laugh. I could see the old curmudgeonly Al Shepard in the seat of the shuttle saying "You know what, I don't give a shit about some damned sensor, let's light this candle."

For those of you who don't understand exactly what is kept NASA management from letting Discovery fly on July 13th, I'll explain it to you. The big orange thing attached to the shuttle at the pad, that's the fuel tank, External Tank to be exact. During launch the main engines on the shuttle need so much fuel that it has to carry an ET with separate sections for the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The larger of the two sections inside that tank is the liquid hydrogen tank, and at the very bottom of that tank is a sensor called the Engine Cutoff Sensor. It's the one that is causing the problem...during the countdown on July 13th, readings intermittently read dry when it is obviously supposed to be reading wet while the tank is fueled. The launch was scrubbed because, according to post-Challenger rules, this sensor and 3 others exactly like it must read correctly. Yep, that's right, this sensor is one of 4 in the tank that senses how much fuel is still in tank.

So let's imagine, for a moment, if you had a big bottle of Coke (or Pepsi, or RC, or Barq's. Whatever you prefer.) The bottle is completely opaque except for four windows, equally spaced down the side of the bottle, so that the status of the bottle can be quickly determined just by looking at it (Full, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4.) You don't know the exact level, because looking through the window you can only see when the soda is at that particular level. Unlike a car gas tank, which is usually a strip-type or a float-type, that can show you the level of the gas on a gauge that is infinitely adjustable anywhere from full or empty, you only have a 'wet' or 'dry' status on 4 windows. Now imagine a 'soda' bottle 738,418 times the size of your regular 2 liter. That's 1.48-ish million liters, or about 390,283 gallons of liquid hydrogen, which is what a fully fueled ET has in it at launch. For all the rocket science, Mission Control on the ground can only tell how full this tank is at 4 different points. The sensor at the bottom protects the main engines from getting damaged in the event that the fuel tank runs dry (or at least gets that to that bottom sensor...there is a bit of fuel that remains under the level of the sensor that would act as a buffer in this case.) The condition that would cause the fuel to run that low as to cause an engine cutoff is rare. So rare, in fact, that it's never happened. That's right, after 113 flights in 24 years we've never had this problem. NASA finally decided last week to launch anyway, which has caused a lot of criticism that NASA is experiencing 'go-fever' and 'launch madness.' In my mind I see it the other way, even writing off the post-Columbia moratorium on launches, the Discovery mission has been delayed from its original Return to Flight schedule several times, pushing the launch behind my months. If that's NASA 'go-fever', I would hate to see their 'stay-fever.'

In my mind, it's like this. The shuttle burns those 390-some-odd-thousand gallons of hydrogen in less than 10 minutes. In fact, we already know it burns at 45,283 gallons per minute, (the math doesn't work out correctly because there's fuel stashed aboard the Discovery too, albeit it in much smaller amounts.) We can tell, by timing the time between the first sensor running dry, the second sensor running dry, and the third sensor running dry how long it would take before the balky fourth sensor ran dry and ergo calculate the rate at which the tank was running empty. Imagine that bottle. Cover up the bottom window, and introduce a leak in the bottle. The flow of the soda out of the bottle is going to happen at a pretty steady rate (well actually the rate reduces slightly over time as the weight of soda is reduced, thereby reducing the pressure on the point where the soda is leaking, but I'm confident NASA engineers could graph that, even with old-school slide-rules.) Even an elementary school student could guess how long it would take for the level to get from the third to the fourth window by timing the intervals between the first and second, then the second to the third. It's easy math. In reality, there is a system for monitoring the actual fuel consumption on the shuttle anyway, any abnormality would be instantly seen.

And let's not forget one thing. If the shuttle does use enough fuel to empty the tank, and make a fully functioning fourth sensor read dry, we're already screwed. An abnormal flow condition is an abort situation on its own, and they could tell by the flow rate whether or not they'd be able to abort-to-orbit, or abort to a landing using a variety of methods. Having a faulty sensor wouldn't affect the flow rate at all, in fact it's a completely redundant thing in my mind. They'd know long before that sensor went dry if they were out of gas.

So, why don't we light this candle?

Good luck to the crew of the Discovery.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

2005 Update!

So if any of you keep an eye on this blog you will see that I started it, intially, and then failed to post. For almost a year. Well...a lot has been going on and I think I am determined, at least, to post small updates here as I see fit now. The whole blog thing sometimes seems overrated, but when one of the people I thought would be the last person on earth turns out to have a blog, I guess it's time for me to get back to business with mine.

Continuing the whole rant against nature...Hurricane Dennis rolled through Pensacola...and area that only a year ago Ivan devastated. Experts predicted at the time that it would take almost 2 years to recoup from that and Dennis comes in and basically rips up what had taken this many months to accomplish. Areas like Atlanta received more rain then they had seen in years and flooding the likes of which have never been experienced by their residents. An oyster town along the Florida coast, St. Marks, is completely devastated. Sure the oysters are still there, in some cases they are actually inside the residents' houses, but the transportation infrastructure there is destroyed so there is no way to get the product out. And of course Tropical Storm Emily seems to be following the exact same path.

The hurricane didn't hit here of course, hurricanes have almost never hit my town directly, but you couldn't tell that from watching the residents of our fair town. People acted (again) as if this hurricane was the end of the world...or the tended to ignore it. I guess I'm part of the latter group, I don't mind driving in a little rain, nor do I mind a few gusts of wind. We went out to grab a pizza and people were nuts. Don't people know that it's not only common courtesy but LAW to turn your headlights on when it's raining? Like our traffic 'doctor' here likened it to: if you are driving a green vehicle in the rain, but don't choose to turn your lights on, and I am driving a white car, you can seem me either way, but I most likely can't see you, at least until it's too late. And in this town lotsa folks like to paint their vehicles camoflauge colors (You can't see me!) which only make it worse. Come on guys, the deer can hear you coming down the road with an big block under the hood, open exhaust, and 44" SupaDupa MudSlinger Dee-Luxe tires.

The other thing is how the residents look when they have to deal with weather. I see people running around like morons with nothing but puny umbrellas. I mean with driving rain (we got 6 inches total,) and wind (20 mph sustained with 30 mph gusts,) you think people would see this and be ready for it on the way out the door. And people look at me and Raven are nuts, with my waterproof rubber sailing jacket, water resistant nylon boonie hat, quick dry nylon shorts, and sandals (no socks or soles to get soaked.) Like the when they are driving, you would think that a town accustomed to tropical weather as we are would be more prepared when such tropical weather occurs. I mean, maybe I'm a little bit more prepared for it, back in my day I was into camping, backpacking, and canoeing. In the middle of the wilderness with no shelter but a lightweight backpacking tent, you kinda get prepared for rain in a hurry.

Anyway...