A chat about the space shuttle Endeavor
February 17, 2000
(CNN) -- Miles O'Brien, CNN's science correspondent, joined the chat room, February 15, 2000, to discuss the Endeavour's recent 3-D mapping mission of the Earth. CNN.com provided a typist for Mr. O'Brien, who joined the chat from Atlanta, GA. The following is an edited transcript of the chat.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Miles O'Brien, and welcome!
Miles O達rien: Hello, everybody! Who has been paying attention to this space shuttle mission? Anybody? :)
Chat Moderator: Please give us an update on the Endeavour mission.
Miles O達rien: Right now, the astronauts are flying over Madagascar. They will be imaging the Masoala Peninsula, and they are travelling along. Everything is going well with the radar-mapping device, except for one small problem. A tiny thruster at the end of the 200-foot boom sticking out the left side of the shuttle is not working. That means that the shuttle crew has had to use its on-board thrusters to keep the boom stable. That means that they're using more on-board propellant than they anticipated, which could mean the mission may be shortened by a day. But, ground controllers in Houston are busy coming up with ways to save propellant and my sources tell me that they may have found a way to fly the full mission. Stay tuned!
Question from Doris: Miles, did I hear them say they would be bringing this shuttle back early?
Miles O達rien: The possibility still exists. They will not make the decision until the very last minute. They are very conservative about their propellant reserves, because if they can't fire the shuttle's thrusters for the right amount of time, the crew might not be able to safely guide the shuttle back into the atmosphere. But, those "can-do" engineers in Houston are apt to come up with a way to keep this mission aloft as long as they originally hoped.
Question from Wli: Why is it important to map the Masoala Peninsula?
Miles O達rien: The idea is to create the most comprehensive 3-D topographic map of the world. The Masoala Peninsula is not likely to be of any interest to the primary customer for this mission, the Pentagon, but scientists of all stripes might very well be interested in learning more about the fragile rainforests of Madagascar, in understanding the geology and the hydrology, and how plate tectonics have all come together to form Madagascar.
Question from Ken: Why was it important for a shuttle flight to perform this mission instead of an unmanned mission?
Miles O達rien: That's a good question. The nature of this stereo device is precarious, to say the least. This 200-foot boom is the longest rigid structure ever extended in space. It is uncertain if an unmanned craft could successfully fly in a stable position. The other thing is the simple fact of the data output of this device. When the shuttle returns, it will be carrying enough data to fill approximately 15,000 CDs. So, it is not practical to beam this information down from a remote craft, in any decent period of time. It's simpler to send it up there on a shuttle, record it on a bunch of tapes, and fly them home.
Question from Jon: Why CDs? Why not a few DVDs?
Miles O達rien: That was meant simply to give you a concept of the amount. The actual medium in this case is tape. I'm not sure exactly what type. They're not actually burning it onto CDs, though. Oh, here it is. It's 300 high-density tapes. Each tape records 30 minutes of c-band, or 60 minutes of x-band data. The total data is 9.8 terabytes. That should satisfy all the geeks among you. :)
Question from Trish: You said, "primary customer." You mean NASA works for other "customers" as well on a mission?
Miles O達rien: Yes, while the Pentagon is the main customer here, NASA's jet propulsion laboratory has worked closely with the military on the design and construction of this device. The end result, this unprecedented 3-D map, is of great interest to all types of scientists. But given the fact that the Pentagon has put up the lion's share of the money, they are considered the primary customer.
Question from Aurora: Miles, are there engineering applications from this 200-foot boom that could be applied to future construction in space?
Miles O達rien: As a matter of fact, this particular design is slated to be used for some key components of the International Space Station. The space station project office was watching very closely, about five hours after launch, when the structure deployed from the shuttle's payload bay. If there had been a problem with it, they might have had to go back to the drawing board.
Question from Trelane: How will this newest failure impact NASA's future? Will potential customers be more likely to go to the ESA or use another launch vehicle (Ariane, etc) to get their missions done?
Miles O達rien: I wouldn't really even call this a failure that would rise to that category of concern. The thruster which failed is a very small thing in the grand scheme of things. The back-up plan, which was to use the shuttle thrusters, is working fine. The radar device is working fine. Based on conversations I've had with folks in Houston, they should be able to fly the entire mission. I'm not sure that there will be any dissatisfied customers at the end of the day.
Question from Doris: How is the International Space Station coming along?
Miles O達rien: Not very well. The Russian component of the space station, which everybody has been waiting for, still sits on the ground. The Russians are now saying they will launch the service module in mid-July, and that would put it more than two years late. But, quite frankly, NASA is skeptical of the Russian's promises, because so many of them have been broken in the past. Until that service module is launched and attached to the space station, not much can happen to continue construction. The service module is designed to provide life-support, keep the space station in orbit, and provide the early crew's living quarters. It is the log which is causing the jam right now. Until it flies, the space station flounders.
Question from Trelane: What long-range plans does NASA have on the slate for after the space station?
Miles O達rien: They don't have anything past the space station right now. There's no specific plan or program at NASA right now to return to the moon, or perhaps launch a manned mission to Mars. The space station is going to take up a lot of their time and effort and money for at least the next decade and beyond. As a result, not much is being considered at the moment for what happens next.
Question from Derek: What do you think about the safety panel's concerns about shuttle safety during 2001, when nine flights are planned?
Miles O達rien: The shuttle program needs more people. The first people who will tell you that are the people of the shuttle program. Since the days after the Challenger disaster, the number of people involved in processing the orbiters at the Cape has dropped significantly. Now, there is widespread agreement in and outside the agency, that they have reached the bone. That is why NASA has asked for more money to hire people at the Cape in the next fiscal year. It remains to be seen if they can sustain a nine-flight year. That's a very, very busy year for the space shuttle fleet.
Question from pinky: What is it like interviewing people who are not on the same planet?
Miles O達rien: If you ever take something like that for granted, it's time to get out of the business! Every time I do that, I marvel at the miracles of technology that make that possible, to have a little chat with a crew hurtling along at 17,000 miles per hour, 150 miles above Australia, as if they were at the other end of a telephone line.
Question from Switch625: Is there any news today from NEAR, and are we going to be seeing more pictures of Eros?
Miles O達rien: Yes, there will be more pictures of Eros coming. I haven't seen anything released today on NASA television, though. I must confess that I've been so focused on the shuttle today that I don't know when they'll be released. They'll be coming at a steady stream. I'm looking forward to seeing them. They should be very interesting.
Question from LJNoel: Did NASA ever determine what went wrong with the Mars lander?
Miles O達rien: No, they don't know yet. The investigative boards are still doing their work. They're in the process of concluding some of the work, and they'll be reporting back in the next month to NASA headquarters in Washington. Frankly, it will be difficult to come to any concrete conclusions about its fate. It was designed to turn its back to earth and cease transmitting to earth about 15 minutes prior to landing. So, what happened after that is really anybody's guess. A couple of things to consider, though, the Mars Global Surveyor has been training its camera on the area where the polar lander should have reached the surface, to see if there is any sign of the craft, a crater, or perhaps, its parachute. The other intriguing tidbit is the interesting UHF radio signals that have been picked up by sensitive radio telescopes here on Earth. There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that those signals may have come from the lander. That doesn't mean anyone is holding out hope for a science mission, but if that UHF transmitter did survive, it will allow engineers to eliminate a lot of possible failures.
Question from Wli: How would you compare the relative importance of the International Space Station against, say, manned missions to the moon or to Mars?
Miles O達rien: Well, my personal opinion is that the space station will never capture the imagination of the public at large like a true mission of exploration would. I believe that people are fascinated with the thought of human beings reaching and settling other worlds. I don't think the thought of people spinning around the globe for years at a time, 300 miles above us, is as intrinsically exciting as a risky mission to Mars might be. There's my plug for a manned mission to Mars! If they need a reporter, I'm the guy!
Question from Derek: If NASA were to offer a seat on the shuttle to a journalist, would your name be on the list?
Miles O達rien: In a heartbeat! I would love that opportunity. I've been lobbying as best I can through NASA and CNN to try to make that happen sometime. I don't think, quite frankly, that NASA astronauts are very good at explaining to the general public the excitement and the wonder of their missions. That isn't their fault. They are trained as engineers and test pilots and scientists. They do their job very well. But with just a few exceptions, they are not good at communicating the nuances of their extraordinary missions to average people. That is why it would be good to send a reporter, or a writer, or for that matter, a poet, just as long as the reporter goes first. :)
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final observations you would like to share with us?
Miles O達rien: On Thursday of this week, we'll do a story on the announcement by a private company that it will be leasing the MIR Space Station, and trying to turn it into a profitable venture. Perhaps the next time we chat, we'll see if you think they have a completely sane business plan.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for chatting with us today!
Miles O達rien: Thanks, everybody, for dropping by!
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