Communion Of Dreams


Learning lessons.
October 16, 2007, 12:43 pm
Filed under: Failure, General Musings, Government, ISS, NASA, NYT, Predictions, Science, Space, tech

Here’s a prediction: more people are going to die in space.

Not exactly newsworthy, is it? When you engage in the sort of dangerous enterprise like spacetravel (or even just getting there), the learning curve is steep and marked with blood. I can’t see any other way around it – as carefully designed and tested as every component is, there are still going to be failures, and some of those failures are going to mean that good men and women die. I know it. You know it. The astronauts certainly know it.

But just as today’s cars and aircraft are *thousands* of times safer than early cars and airplanes were, so will spacecraft become safer through use and experimentation. Via today’s NYT, the opening paragraphs of this article by James Oberg seems to understand how this learning process works:

4 October 2007—Aboard the International Space Station, the three Russian computers that control the station’s orientation have been happily humming away now for several weeks. And that’s proof that the crisis in June that crippled the ISS and bloodied the U.S.-Russian partnership that supports it, has been solved.

But the technological—and diplomatic—lessons of that crisis need to be fully understood and appreciated. Because if the failure had occurred on the way to Mars, say, it probably would have been fatal, and it will likely be the same international partnership that builds the hardware for a future Mars mission.

The critical computer systems, it turned out, had been designed, built, and operated incorrectly—and the failure was inevitable. Only being so relatively close to Earth, in range of resupply and support missions, saved the spacecraft from catastrophe.

Oberg gives a nice, complete explanation of what happened and how it was overcome. But the concluding paragraph may come as a bit of a surprise:

It is dismaying that after decades of experience with manned space stations, Russian space engineers still couldn’t keep unwanted condensation at bay. But what’s worse is that they designed circuitry that would allow one spot of corrosion to fell a supposedly triply redundant control computer complex. Another cause for dismay is that when trouble did develop, the Russians’ first instinct was to blame their American partners. Such deficiencies need to be worked out in the years ahead, on the space station, before both the technology and the diplomacy can be thought reliable enough for far-ranging missions that replacement shipments wouldn’t be able to reach.

Why is he so harsh? Because, as his wiki entry explains:

During the 1990s, he was involved in NASA studies of the Soviet space program, with particular emphasis on safety aspects; these had often been covered up or downplayed, and with the advent of the ISS and the Shuttle-Mir programs, NASA was keen to study them as much as possible.

Ah. Got it – he’s professionally aggravated that the Russians *haven’t* been willing to learn the lessons of their mistakes. Because until you ‘fess up to the mistakes you make, you can’t learn from them . . . and more people will die, needlessly.

Jim Downey


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[…] Original post by Communion Of Dreams […]

Pingback by Learning lessons. at Aircraft Loan

[…] in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. […]

Pingback by “Yes.” « Communion Of Dreams

[…] in my own mind, and was pleased to hear him say the same thing. Because as I have mentioned before, I think that a realistic assessment of the risks involved with the space program is necessary. […]

Pingback by Looking back: “Yes.” « Communion Of Dreams




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