April 2000 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
Mars, NASA, again.
For several months we have been offering here an opinion that NASA’s "faster, better, cheaper" approach to planetary exploration, and the decision to privatize part of Space Shuttle operations contained within them the seeds of failure and potential disaster. A series of reports, commissioned by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, are now providing support for those notions.
A March 10 report concluded that cost-cutting measures may have compromised Shuttle safety. The independent review panel, headed by Henry McDonald at NASA’s Ames Research Center, identified "risk management erosion, created by the desire to reduce costs" as the primary culprit in recent problems. Recall that the entire shuttle fleet was grounded last year to fix wiring problems – essentially damage from routine wear and tear on the many miles of wiring in each shuttle. Routine checks of this wiring would have found and corrected the problem, which led to a premature engine shut-down on last year’s launch of Columbia. The report further suggests that NASA must improve the emphasis on safety it communicates to the prime shuttle operations contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, doing business as United Space Alliance. With a sense of déjà vu, we note at this writing that two defective main engine seals were installed on Atlantis – seals which should have been discarded at the factory. In fact, they have flown twice because nobody caught the problem until now. The engine on which they are installed will be pulled out and replaced before the next scheduled launch of the orbiter.
Reports on the recent Mars mission failures are also beginning to come in. The team looking at the loss of the Climate Orbiter concludes that "faster, better, cheaper" created risks to mission success because the constraints were to attempt too much with inadequate resources. They suggest a new mantra called "mission success first" to keep operations focused on realistic expectations. Recall that the orbiter was lost to what amounted to a sophomore math error. The contractor built the spacecraft and documented thruster performance in English units – forces measured in pounds. The flight team at JPL assumed that the specifications were in the SI units used by the scientific community, with force measured in newtons. Less forgivable, is that nobody caught it, even though it should be routine practice to identify the system of measurement used in the specifications.
Expect subsequent reports to recommend a 2-year delay in the next Mars lander, essentially to retrofit the spacecraft with better telemetry and the equivalent of a flight data recorder so that controllers will know what’s happening, rather than waiting for an automated program to initiate communication. Also, expect that the next planned orbiter will likely be launched as scheduled, but that the thruster specifications will be clearly translated and double-checked.
Lunar phases for April: (Note that we shift to Daylight saving time on the morning of April 2nd – set clocks ahead one hour!) All times are EDT. New Moon on the 4th at 2:12 pm; First Quarter on the 11th at 9:30 am; Full Moon on the 18th at 1:41 pm; Last Quarter on the 26th at 3:30 pm.
This will not be a great month for observing planets. Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn will all be visible in evening twilight above the southwest horizon at the beginning of the month. By month’s end, only Mars will be visible, as Jupiter and Saturn are lost in the glare of the Sun. Yet, the grouping will be compact and impressive in binoculars, spanning less than 5 degrees on the 14th. Mars and Jupiter will actually pass within a degree or so on the 5th. Morning twilight finds Venus and Mercury low on the eastern horizon.
Orion, Taurus, and the faint band of the Milky Way set about 10:30 by mid-month, a fitting farewell to the winter’s dominant constellations. Castor and Pollux, the two bright stars in Gemini remain high over the western horizon. To the northwest lies Auriga, with its two brightest stars, Capella and Elnath. Overhead at about 10:00, we see relatively few stars, since we are now looking out of the plane of the Galaxy. The constellation Leo, with the familiar sickle shape of the "Lion’s Head" is high and to the south – the bright star at the base of the sickle (the "heart of the Lion") is Regulus, also known as the Royal Star. To the southeast we see bright Spica, in the constellation Virgo, to the east is Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. This is a good time of year to observe the vicinity of Ursa Major (the "great bear", more commonly the "Big Dipper"). It lies high to the north, with the "pointer stars" almost vertical to the horizon, directly above Polaris, the Pole Star. Binoculars, used on a clear, moonless night will allow you to find several distant galaxies as you search along the handle of the dipper.