The Killer Bug in the Space Shuttle

by | Oct 21, 2005

After both the Columbia burn-up and the Challenger explosion, some people were claiming that certain environmentalist measures taken by NASA caused or at least contributed to those disasters. Since then such claims have been thoroughly debunked–at least that’s what everyone is claiming. “Everyone” being the environmentalists, naturally. Since I grew up 20 miles from the […]

After both the Columbia burn-up and the Challenger explosion, some people were claiming that certain environmentalist measures taken by NASA caused or at least contributed to those disasters. Since then such claims have been thoroughly debunked–at least that’s what everyone is claiming. “Everyone” being the environmentalists, naturally.

Since I grew up 20 miles from the Cape and followed launches from Explorer I (1958) through Apollo XVII (1972) and since my father worked with the Program from 1954 through 1972, I thought I’d do a bit of research to see whether or not “everyone” was right.

I began with Columbia and the claim that the switch by NASA to evironmentally friendly foam (used on the Shuttle’s external fuel tank) in some way precipitated the destruction of Columbia, flagship shuttle of the fleet. NASA did make the switch years back, replacing BX-250 foam (containing CFC-11) with BX-256 (foam containing HCFC-141b). However, the results as noted by NASA itself do not appear to have been very encouraging:

During the STS-87 mission, there was a change made on the external tank. Because of NASA’s goal to use environmentally friendly products, a new method of “foaming” the external tank had been used for this mission and the STS-86 mission…The extent of damage [to the thermal tiles] at the conclusion of this mission was not normal…308 hits were counted during the inspection, 132 were greater than 1-inch. Some of the hits measured 15 inches long, with depths measuring up to 1.5 inches. Considering that the depth of a tile is 2 inches, a 75 percent penetration depth had been reached. (NASA “Field Journal”; Greg Katnik, December 23, 1997) [emphasis added].

According to Florida Today, though, which is the newspaper closest, at least in proximity, to KSC, thereby certainly ensuring reasonably accurate reporting: “The big piece of foam that smashed the hole in Columbia’s wing was made from the old foam [BX-250] containing the long-banned freon blowing agent [CFC-11].”

However, here’s the first part of the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey might intone:

After extensive testing, the External Tank Project proposed as the CFC 11 replacement [the] hydro chlorofluorocarbon HCFC 141b, a blowing agent friendlier to the environment. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the External Tank program to continue use of stockpiled supplies of CFC 11 until HCFC 141b was certified for use on the Space Shuttle and phased in (“NASA Facts: External Tank Thermal Protection System,” September, 2003 (cut & paste the report’s title and date into Google to read it)) [emphasis added].

And here’s the second part:

Stockpiling or use of recycled or recovered HCFC-141b is not a viable long-term solution due to shelf life… (Space Shuttle Program Petition for HCFC 141b Exemption Allowance, “Conclusion,” p. 31; 2003) [emphasis added].

CFC-11 (BX-250) was banned in 2001. That ban required NASA, as its own Facts report points out, to use quantities of stockpiled, recycled or recovered CFC-11 foam (BX-250) on Columbia in 2003. And, as noted by Florida Today, it was a chunk of the old CFC-11 foam (BX-250) that broke off during Columbia’s launch in February, 2003, irreparably damaging the thermal tiles on Columbia’s wing and leading to the shuttle’s re-entry burn-up.

In light of all these facts, one would expect “everyone” to be asking the following:

  • If using stockpiled, recycled or recovered quantities of the newer HCFC-141b (BX-256) foam on the Shuttle tank is not “a long term-viable solution” as NASA so states in its 2003 petition for exemption to the EPA’s proposed 2005 ban, would the use of stockpiled, recycled or recovered quantities of the old CFC-11 (BX-250) foam be any more viable, especially since we’re talking about an equivalent length of time, 2 years (2003 to 2005 for HCFC-141b vs. 2001 to 2003 for CFC-11)?

“Everyone,” though, has chosen not to ask that question.

What about Challenger? Glad you asked.

After the Challenger disaster a few claimed that NASA had replaced asbestos-filled putty on the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters designed by Morton Thiokol with non-asbestos-filled putty. “Everyone” firmly asserted, however, that the asbestos-filled putty had been used on Challenger.

It appears, though, that “everyone” may have been mistaken:

VLS-1 [Vehicle Launch Satellite-1, which refers to the type of solid-fuel rocket booster that the Shuttle uses] should use the only flight certified joint filler material (Randolph asbestos-filled vacuum putty) in all joints” (“Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident”) [emphasis added].

The implication in the wording of this recommendation is, of course, that the asbestos-filled vacuum putty was not used in the solid-fuel boosters (VLS-1) of Challenger.

Not to be outdone, “everyone” has since pointed out that other contributing factors may have led to the Challenger explosion. Some mention the decision by NASA to launch in sub-freezing temperatures. Others have asserted that Thiokol’s basic design of the solid rocket boosters was flawed. And so on.

“Everyone” appears content with that.

Just as “everyone” appears content with the explanations for the cause of the Columbia disaster: Although the foam had been breaking off for almost three decades, in the case of Columbia it just happened to be far worse than 30 years of previous launches. Lulled by three decades of no mishaps, then, NASA just ignored this one and got caught with its pants down.

(And I haven’t even touched upon the conclusions made public this past Friday by a NASA of team of investigators concerning the damage done to Discovery by the newer foam during its July 26, 2005, launch.)

The assumption, Jupiter-sized to say the least, in both the Columbia and Challenger disasters is that environmentalism had absolutely nothing whatever to do with either disaster–except that both catastrophes involved spacecraft whose materials and parts were either made less “viable” or eliminated altogether because of environmental concerns.

There’s a much bigger assumption, however, (if that’s possible) underlying that monumentally absurd assumption: Environmentalists claims about the dangers posed to human life by the manufacture of CFC foam and asbestos-filled putty. But that assumption surely couldn’t be mistaken, could it?

OK, what about this, then? Even if environmentalists are right about the risk to human health posed by widespread manufacture of CFC foam and asbestos, is it rational to eliminate their quite limited use in the design and operation of four spacecraft? Wouldn’t it be rational to permit their use in order to ensure the safety of the crew? Wouldn’t it be rational to conclude that such limited use of CFC foam and asbestos-filled putty on four–now three–space shuttles wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans?

Rationality, though, implies that one’s moral standard is human life. That one judges human life as precious, superior to all other life forms.

What if, though, one judged that any form of life, from bacteria to cockroaches and on up, possessed equal value to that of human beings? Rats are just as precious as newborn infants. Mosquitoes have just as much right to live as do teenagers. Microbes are just as good as Jonas Salk or Thomas Edison. Love the oak tree as you love your husband.

One’s standard, then, would not be human life. One’s standard would be, quite literally, no living consciousness at all–unless one endowed animals and trees and rocks and dirt collectively as possessing some sort of mind. Nature, not as product of some deity, but as itself a deity.

Anyone following such a moral standard would not, of course, be rational. But they would most assuredly be an environmentalist.

Now you know to what the lives of the Challenger and Columbia astronauts were sacrificed, as indeed they were sacrificed.

Deep Ecology is the radical idea that all life has the right to exist, that no one species is more important than another (Church of Deep Ecology).

And rest assured, you are next.

Steven Brockerman, who has a Masters degree in English education, is the owner of WrittenWord Consulting, an education consulting company that contracts with businesses and colleges, develops 1-8 grade curriculum for the home education market and does contracted research. In addition, Mr. Brockerman has been an assistant editor of Capitalism Magazine and is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the New York Post, Florida Today, Salt Lake City Tribune, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Bangkok Daily News, Tallahassee Democrat, Charlotte Capitalist, Mideast Newswire, Free Republic and Jerusalem Post, among others.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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