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Friday, February 24, 2012

Reading List: Launch On Need

Guiteras, Daniel. Launch On Need. Unknown: T-Cell Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-615-37221-1.
An almost universal convention of the alternative history genre is that there is a single point of departure (which I call “the veer”) where an event or fact in the narrative differs from that in the historical record, whence the rest of the story plays out with the same logic and plausibility as what actually happened in our timeline. When this is done well, it makes for engaging and thought-provoking fiction, as there are few things which so engage the cognitive veneer of our ancient brains as asking “what if?” This book is a superb exemplar of this genre, which works both as a thriller and an exploration of how the Space Shuttle program might have coped with the damage to orbiter Columbia due to foam shed from the bipod ramp of the external tank during its launch on STS-107.

Here, the veer is imagining NASA remained the kind of “can do”, “whatever it takes” organisation that it was in the early days of space flight through the rescue of Apollo 13 instead of the sclerotic bureaucracy it had become in the Shuttle era (and remains today). Dismissing evidence of damage to Columbia's thermal protection system (TPS) due to a foam strike, and not even seeking imagery from spy satellites, NASA's passive “managers” sighed and said “nothing could be done anyway” and allowed the crew to complete their mission and die during re-entry.

This needn't have happened. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) explored whether a rescue mission (PDF, scroll down to page 173), mounted as soon as possible after the possible damage to Columbia's TPS was detected, might have been able to rescue the crew before the expendables aboard Columbia were exhausted. Their conclusion? A rescue mission was possible, but only at the cost of cutting corners on safety margins and assuming nothing went wrong in the process of bringing the rescue shuttle, Atlantis, to the pad and launching her.

In this novel, the author takes great care to respect the dead, only referring to members of Columbia's crew by their crew positions such as “commander” or “mission specialist”, and invents names for those in NASA involved in the management of the actual mission. He draws upon the CAIB-envisioned rescue mission, including tables and graphics from their report, while humanising their dry prose with views of events as they unfold by fallible humans living them.

You knew this was coming, didn't you? You were waiting for it—confess! So here we go, into the quibbles. Some of these are substantial spoilers, so be warned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Page numbers in the items below are from the Kindle edition, in which page numbers and their correspondence to print editions tend to be somewhat fluid. Consequently, depending upon how you arrive there, the page number in your edition may differ by ±1 page.

On p. 2, Brown “knew E208 was a high-resolution video camera…” which “By T-plus-240 seconds … had run through 1,000 feet of film.”
Video cameras do not use film. The confusion between video and film persists for several subsequent chapters.
On p. 5 the fifth Space Shuttle orbiter constructed is referred to as “Endeavor”.
In fact, this ship's name is properly spelled “Endeavour”, named after the Royal Navy research ship.
On p. 28 “…the crew members spent an additional 3,500 hundred hours studying and training…”
That's forty years—I think not.
On p. 55 Kalpana Chawla is described as a “female Indian astronaut.”
While Chawla was born in India, she became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and presumably relinquished her Indian citizenship in the process of naturalisation.
On p. 57 “Both [STS-107] astronauts selected for this EVA have previous spacewalk experience…”.
In fact, none of the STS-107 astronauts had ever performed an EVA.
On p. 65 “Normally, when spacewalks were part of the mission plan, the entire cabin of the orbiter was decompressed at least 24 hours prior to the start of the spacewalk.”
Are you crazy! EVA crewmembers pre-breathe pure oxygen in the cabin, then adapt to the low pressure of the spacesuit in the airlock, but the Shuttle cabin is never depressurised. If it were what would the other crewmembers breathe—Fireball XL5 oxygen pills?
On p. 75 the EVA astronaut looks out from Columbia's airlock and sees Cape Horn.
But the mission has been launched into an inclination of 39 degrees, so Cape Horn (55°59' S) should be out of sight to the South. Here is the view from Columbia's altitude on a pass over South America at the latitude of Cape Horn.
On p. 221 the countdown clock is said to have been “stuck on nine minutes zero seconds for the past three hours and twenty-seven minutes.”
The T−9 minute hold is never remotely that long. It's usually on the order of 10 to 20 minutes. If there were a reason for such a long hold, it would have been performed much earlier in the count. In any case, given the short launch window for the rendezvous, there'd be no reason for a long planned hold, and an unplanned hold would have resulted in a scrub of the mission until the next alignment with the plane of Columbia's orbit.
On p. 271 the crew of Atlantis open the payload bay doors shortly before the rendezvous with Columbia.
This makes no sense. Shuttles have to open their payload bay doors shortly after achieving orbit so that the radiators can discard heat. Atlantis would have opened its payload bay doors on the first orbit, not 24 hours later whilst approaching Columbia.
On p. 299 the consequences of blowing the crew ingress/egress hatch with the pyrotechnics is discussed.
There is no reason to consider doing this. From the inception of the shuttle program, the orbiter hatch has been able to be opened from the inside. The crew need only depressurise the orbiter and then operate the hatch opening mechanism.
On p. 332 “Standing by for communications blackout.”
The communications blackout is a staple of spaceflight drama but, in the shuttle era described in this novel, a thing of the past. While communications from the ground are blocked by plasma during reentry, communications from the shuttle routed through the TDRSS satellites are available throughout reentry except for brief periods when the orbiter's antennas are not aimed at the relay satellite overhead.
On p. 349 an Aegis guided missile cruiser shoots down the abandoned Columbia.
Where do I start? A space shuttle orbiter weighs about 100 tonnes. An SM-3 has a kinetic kill energy of around 130 megajoules, which is impressive, but is likely to pass through the structure of the shuttle, dispersing some debris, but leaving most of the mass behind. But let's suppose Columbia were dispersed into her component parts. Well, then the massive parts, such as the three main engines, would remain in orbit even longer, freed of the high-drag encumbrance of the rest of the structure, and come down hot and hard at random places around the globe. Probably, they'd splash in the ocean, but maybe they wouldn't—we'll never know.
Spoilers end here.  

While it's fun to spot and research goofs like these, I found they did not detract in any way from enjoyment of the novel, which is a perfectly plausible alternative history of Columbia's last mission.

Posted at February 24, 2012 20:35