There are so many science events going on in London at the moment, it’s hard to know what to join and what to skip. But last night’s London Science Festival talk by NASA’s Matt Melis was a no-brainer – and quite excellent.
Not only is Melis an ‘insider’ who’s up for sharing those tidbits of information and video clips you don’t normally see; but he’s also an engineer with a math and physical modelling background that resonates a little with my own research roots; so I guess I’m a fan. The event was organised by Francisco Diego (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Melis was introduced by writer/film-maker Chris Riley (In the Shadow of the Moon, First Orbit, Space Shuttle the Final Mission). Melis collaborated with Riley on his production Final Mission with Kevin Fong, and has his own movie Ascent out on YouTube (embedded below).
Kicking off with an all-round engineering tour of the shuttle, the focus soon turned to the intensive ‘return to flight’ programme NASA pursued after the STS-107 Columbia disaster of 2003.
The cause of the accident was traced to a wing leading-edge being damaged by a briefcase-sized piece of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank during launch. Melis described the variety of model tests used to confirm the analysis and help pre-empt future impact scenarios. So, lots of high speed film of various projectiles, from foam to ice, impacting various bits of Shuttle; the whole thing made more real by the samples of foam, orbiter leading-edge material, and a cross-section of the aluminium/foam fuel tank composite he passed around the audience.
Feeling the foam’s super-lightness in your hand brings home just how counter-intuitive reality can be. Travelling fast enough – over 500 mph in this case – the impact of an apparently harmless piece of foam is devastating. Melis showed the clip in this video of a full-scale impact test of foam hitting an actual Shuttle leading-edge section:
The key take-away for NASA, and I guess for all of us, is that we learn most through failure – painful as that can be.
Management systems and general attitudes, as well as technology, changed over the Shuttle’s 30 year life. Melis showed a photo of icicles hanging off the gantry of the ill-fated Challenger launch-pad: they weren’t the cause of the disaster – that was the booster O-rings – but they could have been if they’d got caught up in the turbulence of the launch. Nobody thought that way back then though, or the information didn’t get to the right people. Similarly, on one of the HD videos that NASA started using extensively post-Columbia, Melis showed a bunch of vultures sitting on the gantry at launch, at least one of whose number (all six foot wing-span of him), spooked by the engine start-up, ended up smashing into the rising fuel tank.
All in all a great evening, but not one I’m going to recount in its entirety here. Here’s a flavor though in Melis’s Ascent:
Bonus Clips from Ascent: