Called Buran (Russian for blizzard or snowstorm), the program was launched by the Kremlin as a reaction to NASA's space shuttle and an attempt to gain an edge in space against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. It was also an attempt to fulfill the Soviet Union's dream of reusable spacecraft and payloads, ideas that predated the American space program.
A massive effort began. Over a million and a half people worked on the multi-billion dollar project, while researchers developed new, elaborate schemes for Russian space exploration. Among other tasks, Russian scientists hoped that the Buran would be able to carry the space station back to Earth, and -- the reported reason for its inception -- to allow the USSR to carry out military attacks from space.
The Soviet Shuttle, the Buran (snowstorm) was an aerodynamic clone of the American orbiter, but incorporated many original features that had been considered and rejected for the American program, such as all-liquid rocket boosters, jet engines, ejection seats and an unmanned flight capability. You know you're in trouble when the Russians are adding safety features to your design.
If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).
Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.
In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?
Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
Clear thought, clear writing. Feynman was perhaps the most efficient mechanism ever conceived for consuming complexity and pumping out simplicity. (via @ptak)
This is a video showing all 135 launches of the various Space Shuttle at once.
Turn up your sound. I've seen this done with episodes of the Simpsons and Star Trek, but this is way better. The fade out on the tiny Challenger square is surprisingly affecting. Created by McLean Fahnestock.
You've likely seen other videos taken from cameras attached to the Space Shuttle and its boosters, but this is one is exceptional in two regards: it's in HD and the sound has been remastered by Skywalker Sound.
Watch, and more importantly, listen to the whole thing...at the very end, you can see the second booster land a few hundred yards away from the first one. Who knew that being in space sounds like being trapped with a whale underwater in a tin pail? (via ★mouser)
With the Discovery headed to the Smithsonian, the museum will no longer have need for the Enterprise, the shuttle that has been on display there since 2004. The Enterprise, which was used for early glide tests but was never sent into orbit, will now go the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in Manhattan.
People like to go fast and film themselves doing so. Modern technology offers a variety of ways to both go faster than ever before and record that speed for posterity. But for something to look fast on video, there needs to be a frame of reference for the viewer -- something to hurtle past or whoosh by -- and maybe even a hint of danger. Here are a selection of videos of people doing just that: traveling at high speeds in cars, on train tracks, through the air, and down mountains in close proximity to traffic, large rocks, and thin atmospheres. Most of these videos are filmed from a first-person perspective so that when you watch them, you can imagine that you're the one zooming along.
In 1976, Claude Lelouch mounted a camera on the front of his Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 and drove through the streets of Paris -- running red lights, jumping curbs and possibly reaching speeds upwards of 120 mph -- before reaching his date near the Sacré Coeur. The result is the film C'était un rendez-vous, 8 uncut minutes of insane urban driving.
Base jumpers equipped with wingsuits can glide very fast very close to the ground. Perhaps the most insane videos on the page...they're not doing 1200 mph or anything, but they are awfully close to the ground with few safety options if they slip up.
The lads at Top Gear took the Bugatti Veyron to its top speed of 253 mph on a test track. The test driver seems to have had what I would term a religious experience at the top speed.
Two gents in powder-blue suits speed down a California hill on skateboards. Holy crap!
240 mph on a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle. Oh, and he does a wheelie from 70 to 140 mph. (Note: Wikipedia says the bike has an "electronically restricted" top speed of 188 mph. Either the owner a) removed the restriction, or b) tweaked the speedometer to display higher than normal speeds.)
In 1960, Joseph Kittinger reached a speed of 714 mph after jumping from a helium balloon at an altitude of 102,800 feet.
A French TGV train reaches a top speed of 357 mph in a 2007 test.
A camera mounted on the external tank records the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2009. There's not a lot to whoosh past here, but at an eventual 18,000 mph, the pace at which the Shuttle leaves the Earth behind is astounding.
While skydiving, both of Michael Holmes' chutes failed as his helmet camera recorded his crash landing into some thick bushes. (He lived.)
Footage of Alex Roy and David Maher on the road as they sped across the entire United States in just over 32 hours, an unofficial world record. There is a book and a blog of the experience.
Passenger seat and road-side views of a Lamborghini Murcielago doing 219 mph on the 202 freeway in Mesa, Arizona.
Is PowerPoint responsible for the woes of the Space Shuttle? Well, no, but it's not helping any. "The deeper problem with the PowerPointing of America -- the PowerPointing of the planet, actually -- is that the program tends to flatten the most complex, subtle, even beautiful, ideas into tedious, bullet-pointed bureaucratese."