Waiting for my Lego shuttle

In part because of housing uncertainty — and mindful of George Monbiot’s excellent advice about true freedom arising from low living expenses “If you can live on five thousand pounds a year, you are six times as secure as someone who needs thirty thousand to get by” — I have been avoiding and minimizing taking on new physical possessions.

Nonetheless, with my interest in space and the Space Shuttle program specifically, I could not resist ordering Lego’s new Space Shuttle Discovery and Hubble Space Telescope set on the day of its release.

The Hubble is arguably the greatest scientific achievement of the Space Shuttle program and certainly one of the most powerful instruments humanity has ever created for understanding the vastness and history of our universe. The dimensions of the Hubble also did a lot to dictate the final size and configuration of the shuttle (less for the telescope itself, and more for the secret Earth-observing versions operated by the National Reconnaissance Office). Those design decisions, in turn, did much to shape the shuttle’s operational characteristics and history, including the design choices that contributed to the Challenger and Columbia losses.

The set will be fun to put together, and I should be able to find somewhere to display it even if I end up living in a tiny space.

Shuttle lesson: no crew capsule on the side designs

Of course, the Columbia and Challenger accidents have reminded us we need to be ever vigilant. Despite more than two years of careful work to prevent foam shedding from the shuttle’s main tank, my STS-114 mission lost a large piece of foam on ascent, in a circumstance very similar to what happened to Columbia on STS-107. Preventing foam loss was a top objective for the return-to-flight effort, and while this turned out to be an embarrassment, I believe it sent a clear message—future boosters and spacecraft should be designed to protect the ship’s reentry system (the heatshield) because rockets will always shed “stuff” like insulation and ice during the tumultuous minutes of ascent to orbit. This is why we will see future spacecraft designed with the reentry ship on the top of the rocket, rather than beside it, as was the case with the space shuttle. The STS-114 incident was a very sobering reminder that a complex system like the shuttle can never be made completely safe, despite everyone’s best efforts. Our future space travelers will be safer due to the lessons learned from the shuttle missions.

Leinbach, Michael and Jonathan Ward. Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew. Arcade Publishing; New York. 2018. p. 294

Our generalization defect

One big surprise from Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward’s Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew is the claim that people at NASA hadn’t anticipated the catastrophic loss of a Shuttle during reentry. That despite of the delicacy of the thermal protective tiles and the fatal consequences expected from their failure, the lack of engines and thus any way to salvage a single failed landing attempt, and the long period of commitment to a particular landing site from deorbit burn to touchdown. The lesson drawn from Challenger, in spite of all the training of all the people at NASA in statistics and rigour, is that ‘these things fail during liftoff’ — a bit of a mad generalization for a vehicle built to take the crew through a series of environments, each of which would almost immediately kill them without technological protection, from the extremely high pressure from drag at max-Q during liftoff, through the fatal vacuum of space, through fiery reentry through plasma above mach 18 to an unpowered glider landing. Assuming that the first thing that went fatally wrong would be the standard is like getting on the back of a charging bull covered in poison-tipped spines in the middle of a minefield and thinking: “This is the one that kills you by stomping on your head”.

One small quibble: the subtitle of this book is misleading. I expected it to be much more about Columbia’s crew and final mission, whereas the bulk of it is about the debris recovery efforts across the country after the shuttle disintegrated.

The calming quality of researching catastrophe

I find reading about and studying catastrophic accidents to the extremely calming.

First, I love the precision of the investigations into them and the determination to get as confident as possible an understanding of what failed. In the case of well-functioning regulatory systems, like the global commercial aviation industry, those findings are immediately applied to other vehicles that could be at risk of the same faults. In malfunctioning regulatory systems, as seen in the Space Shuttle program with the losses of Challenger and Columbia, the convenient but sloppy behaviour that led to unaddressed past faults persists (justifying itself misleadingly in the minds of managers because it doesn’t fail catastrophically on every mission – the “normalization of deviance” Mullane discusses) and leads to an eroded safety culture that costs lives. The meticulousness, cautiousness, and attention to detail of accident investigation reports and those who express their conclusions in the same guarded “here are the facts” style are why I love one lecture about the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Second, every specific catastrophe in the past can be emotionally distanced by anyone who is alive right now. Those of us with normally functioning cognitive capacities can mentally distinguish between events which have already happened, those that are happening now, and those that may happen in the future. By virtue of having a “past” tag mentally applied, reading about nightmares like WWI or the eastern front in WWII can be cathartic in a way that would have been inapplicable to the people actually living through it. This provides an unshakeable safety about anything you can learn about a discrete incident in the past. The incident has a bearing on what things are prudent to do today and on how to do them, which is part of what makes them interesting and worthwhile to research, but all the immediate suffering and tragedy of it is now over, though the consequences of that suffering doubtless endure among those who experienced catastrophic events in the past, and then all those whose lives were influenced by exposure to those people.

Researching my Space Shuttle screenplay, about the STS-27 and STS-107 missions and generally about the legacy of the shuttle program, can be a good way to relax in times of stress, though it almost by definition serves no productive purpose. It’s at least a meditative enterprise, and a reminder about the seriousness of consequences. It has occurred to me that there’s a similarity between the path of a blast of subatomic particles generated inside a particle accelerator, a Space Shuttle disaster, and a human life. In each one, a collection of items (atoms) move through the universe, following the laws of physics.

You can imagine each like a multidimensional plume of particles over time — perhaps staying closely grouped together, perhaps exchanging matter with the space around them, perhaps widely dispersed — with each unit of matter having a location and a particle type. Any of these events can be imagined as a an animation of frames, each depicting particle positions an hour or a minute of a nanosecond before. Each is fundamentally a one-way walk: we might seem like we get the chance to make choices all the time, but we can never really reverse a past choice now. We can make a new choice now to try to counteract the old one, but that’s not the same as having made the other choice in the first place. The past is irrevocable: a trail behind us, as well as the basis for our literal physical beings. In the case of catastrophes that happen on a fairly short timescale, like days or weeks, there is an especial emotional distance that I find accompanies them. Concerned as I might be for the fates of people aboard a burning oil platform in 1988 or the crew of a WWII submarine, I know that I can’t possibly alter their fates in any way, unless maybe there are some veterans still around to help out.

Anyhow, just some thoughts with no specific credential-chasing or financial motivations. Just checking in with my fellow sentient beings!

Recent productivity

Lately I have been getting a lot of writing done.

I have a few thousands words each in my first three thesis chapters, providing context on campus fossil fuel divestment, going through the relevant literature, and discussing the repertoires from which activists draw their tactics.

A non-academic book project is also developing, with almost 23,000 unedited words down.

I haven’t been working much on my space shuttle screenplay, which is probably a good sign. In some ways it’s my non-urgent unrelated fallback project for when everything else is going badly.


I fear that my list of project ideas, which I assemble out of an optimistic hope that the future will bring a long span of free time for such undertakings, includes an idea for a screenplay.

It would be a film in the style of Apollo 13 (technically and historically accurate, and developed with lots of research in collaboration with the people involved) based on the STS-27 and STS-107 Space Shuttle missions.

I have a bunch of ideas, but I definitely don’t have time to write such a script, given my work with Toronto350.org, photography, and being on strike as a TA at U of T.

Still, I think it could be a powerful story. Ultimately, it’s a sadder story than Apollo 13, which may limit its aesthetic and commercial appeal. Still, like any story about crewed spaceflight, this is a story of courage and dedication applied in the pursuit of scientific understanding. Twelve amazing people: 5 who lived and 7 who died.

I can provide a more detailed breakdown of the screenplay idea, if someone wants to try working on it a bit.