Thursday, October 10, 2002

Run For Your Lives! It's....

Choose one of the following scary things:

a) EL NINO!! That's right folks, everyone's favourite scapegoat is on its way back into the hearts, minds, and imaginations of members of the media everywhere. According to Environment Canada, "the new El Nino should send temperatures about two degrees above normal in most parts of southern Canada this winter. There will probably be less snow, too." The horror! Oh, and we should also be ready for "wacky weather." Very scientific, isn't it? The truth of the matter is, this may mean some serious hardships for the drought-ridden prairie farmers in Canada and the US, not to mention a whole pile of other instabilities. It won't be as strong an effect as the last one, though, so save your swim shorts for the summer. And what is El Nino, exactly? Learn about it here.

b) the SPACE SHUTTLE!! Is it me, or has the space shuttle turned into NASA's equivalent of a 1982 Chevette that's still on the road today? It's a piece of space junk. Like a Chevette, the shuttle spends more time in the garage than on the road and costs you a mint every time it's in it's ugly and your friends laugh at you when you drive it. Each Shuttle flight costs $1.5 billion, every mission, and a huge chunk of that is in maintenance to keep these patched-up Junkyard Wars space ships flying.

Not only that, but they recently found out that the shuttles' fuel lines were covered in tiny hairline cracks, which grounded all flights for the majority of this past year (they're flying again now). Then, bigger cracks were found in the platforms, those giant tank-tread "crawler" things that carry the shuttles to their launch pads. In 1999, all flights were put on hold when damaged wiring halted launches for five months. And the computers? I heard that they were overhauled a bit recently, but as of a few years ago, the computer sitting on the desk in front of you is many thousands of times more advanced than the onboard computers that were flying the shuttle. We're talking old-school arcade Pac Man, here.

Some of the NASA engineers are actually becoming scared to work with the shuttles, calling them vulnerable and dangerous. The problems continue. Many of the computers at the Kennedy Space Center's launch control center are up to 20 years out-of date. In the Vehicle Assembly Building at the center, they hung a giant net for catching chunks of crumbling ceiling so they don't tumble onto a space shuttle parked below. A NET!! Rivets regularly snap off the building's exterior walls, the roof leaks through poor attempts to patch it, and the whole building is covered in rust. Is this how the world's most advanced space agency protects their reputation?

NASA's funding, however, has barely risen since the mid-1980s. NASA estimates it'll cost $600 million to fix the infrastructure serving the shuttle program (that's without repairs to the orbiters). And this is all to slap a gigantic band-aid over decrepit space junk rather than spending the money to build a newer, safer, and more economical launch system. I recently discovered that development project for the next generation Space Shuttle, the Venture Star, was canned by the US government without any kind of notion of if and when the project would be started up again.

The current failure rate for systems on the shuttle is 1-in-500. When you consider that there are human lives involved and several tons of highly-explosive fuel, that kind of rate is atrocious. The shuttle doesn't even have a proper escape system, in the event of an accident. And yet, NASA expects to keep using the shuttles for another two decades! Insane!

I think another Challenger disaster is going to happen all over again. And what is congress gonna say? "Whoopsie! I didn't know the technology dates back to the 1970's! Silly Me"?!?

Oh, but by the way, Atlantis docked with the ISS today, delivering a $390-million, 13-tonne aluminum girder to the station. Why should a simple girder cost $390-million? Beats me, but it sounds like someone took NASA for a RIDE, there, boy. Maybe they should be spending less money on the girder and more on THE FREAKIN' PIECE OF JUNK that's getting it there!

So, uh, watch your heads. Or something.


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