View Full Version : Columbia's Last Flight-NatGeo Errors

2005-Nov-09, 07:03 AM
Just watched this for the first time, although it was produced (and I would imagine broadcast) in 2004. It's part of National Geographic's Seconds From Disaster series. Amazing how many errors crept into the script.

For example,

- When the SSMEs were ignited the narrator said there was now no turning back on the launch. Actually there's 6.6 seconds of time available to turn these liquid-fueled engines off. This has happened on at least one (probably more) of the shuttle missions. Once the SRBs are ignited then there's no turning back.

- The narrator said that the SRBs provide the necessary thrust for the shuttle to achieve escape velocity. Escape velocity is 25,000 MPH. The shuttle, after the SRBs burn for a little over two minutes and the SSMEs continue to burn for an additional 6.5 minutes achieves 17,500 MPH, orbital velocity, not escape velocity. At SRB separation the vehicle's velocity is a bit over 3,000 MPH.

- Friction with the atmosphere was identified as the cause of heating during entry.

- Rick Husband's wife was depicted as communicating with him the night before the disaster. The communication was described as taking place over a distance of 38 miles. The shuttle is at that altitude only during launch and entry. Its orbit is a bit higher.

- In the final minute, after having detailed the CAIB's findings re NASA management hubris, the program stated that the foam problems had been fixed and would not pose a threat to future missions. This was written in 2004. I guess the scriptwriter didn't take the CAIB's findings to heart.

There were other glitches, but these are the ones I recall.

From an aesthetic perspective, when are TV composers going to come up with something to replace those tinkly piano ostinatos that apparently indicate we're supposed to have deep feelings about what's being shown?

On the plus side, Oberg's contributions were solid, as usual. And Admiral Gehman's no-pulled-punchs condemnation of NASA mismanagement was presented in great detail, by Gehman himself. I get the feeling that if Oberg and Gehman had been allowed to review the final product, a lot, if not all, of the errors would have been found and corrected. But I'm sure the show's producers, like NASA, were on a tight schedule and had to "get the show on the road".

David Knisely
2005-Nov-16, 08:02 AM
Well, I wouldn't be too terribly hard on them for the "friction with the atmosphere" heating idea, even if the mechanism behind the heating is wrong. It is hard enough to describe what happens when a body enters the atmosphere at high velocity without introducing the ideal gas law or thermodynamics into the mix. I guess calling the gas compression due to entry "atmospheric friction" isn't terribly far gone, as if the body wasn't moving, it wouldn't exactly be getting hot. There probably is some friction going on (i.e. drag), but that compression idea just takes a while to explain to people (even using the old bicycle air pump example). They like the idea of friction as a heating mechanism, as more people seem to understand this than understand what happens to the temperature of a gas when it is compressed. Clear skies to you.

2005-Nov-16, 02:36 PM
Well, I wouldn't be too terribly hard on them for the "friction with the atmosphere" heating idea, even if the mechanism behind the heating is wrong. It is hard enough to describe snip
I would tend to disagree in this case. Normally, I don't mind using sloppy terms when it comes to the non-technical, as long as the idea is conveyed. Unfortunately, in this case, the idea does not get conveyed. I've grown up hearing about re-entry friction, and until recently, never knew it was mostly compression.
They could have said compression of the atmosphere, or something like that, and leave it at that. On the other had, the general public might have gone HUH? So maybe a quick statement like "like the heating of a bicycle pump" could suffice.

(And don't ask about skipping off the atmosphere, although explained, my thought processes are still absorbing it :shhh: )