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Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Small talent pool

The Apollo astronauts were the best of the best — and the hundreds of thousands of engineers and rocket scientists behind the scenes were just as talented. But getting to the point in one's career where you have the right background experience and the right hands-on work and real-life experience to create a safe rocket is difficult. The talent pool that SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin are working with is extremely small and notoriously competitive. As these programs continue to build in credibility, it may be easier to find talent, but few engineers want to be tied to a failed launch.

The risk of failure

Usually, when you fail at something like a math test or a driver's exam, the ramifications aren't too big. But with space travel, a small problem can quickly turn into a deadly situation for those on board the rocket. Think back to the Challenger explosion in 1986. The success of previous missions (not to mention the administrative corner-cutting) led to a false sense of security when in reality they were still embarking on the insanely difficult feat of launching humans into space. The risk of failure is so great, many commercial manufacturers are cautious to put their weight behind an operation that could in all likelihood come crashing back down to Earth.

Rocket construction

Think back to when you were in school learning about Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a simple idea, but complex in reality. That law of motion forms the basis for rocket science: the combustion of rocket fuel down into the earth is one action, so the opposite reaction causes the rocket to launch upward into space. But the engineering that's needed for a launch to take place is the hard part.

As mentioned in a 2012 NPR article, there are millions of pieces in every rocket, and "therefore millions of opportunities to make errors — to make errors in calculations, to make errors in construction." The devastating Challenger mission failure is often attributed to faulty O-rings — it's a simple piece of equipment and can often be overlooked.

Even after hundreds of successful launches over the years, rocket construction is just as complex, and the process of shooting humans into space cannot be distilled to a law of motion when there is so much more involved to make that process happen.

Public perception

Throughout the '70s, Americans were enthralled by the idea of the space race and becoming the first country to set foot on the moon. But the public's passion died down after that initial landing. Today, the public perception of current space projects is making doing the actual rocket science and engineering difficult.


Objections against NASA's waste of taxpayer money on "futile" missions and the idea that space travel will only be for the mega-wealthy make any conversation around actual scientific discovery second to politics. Not to even mention the newly minted Space Force. Engineers and scientists have to navigate a hoard of political, financial, and PR battles to even get to do the work of getting people back into space.

The bottom line

Rocket science is thought of as one of the most difficult fields for a reason. Building a piece of technology capable of going into space and even housing people inside is a relatively new feat when considering the span of time. As the billionaire space race continues to unfold, scientists and engineers behind the scenes are creating feats of engineering on a regular basis that will shape the future of space travel. But, if you want to just get a taste of space life, without all the schooling, then a trip to the Johnson Space Center is for you.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

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Building Houston

 
 

Divers off the east coast of Florida have found an artifact underwater that NASA confirms is debris from the space shuttle Challenger. Photo courtesy of NASA

A TV documentary crew has just made a startling discovery linked to one of the American space program's greatest tragedies, one that deeply resonated here in Space City. Divers off the east coast of Florida have found an artifact underwater that NASA confirms is debris from the space shuttle Challenger.

While searching for wreckage of a World War II-era aircraft, documentary divers noticed a large object covered partially by sand on the seafloor, one that was clearly crafted by humans. The team contacted NASA after analyzing the proximity to the Florida Space Coast, the item’s modern construction, and presence of 8-inch square tiles, according to the space agency.

Upon viewing the TV crew's footage, NASA leaders confirmed the object is indeed part of the Challenger, which exploded during launch on January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members on board — all of whom trained in Houston.

A History Channel documentary depicting the discovery of the Challenger artifact is scheduled to air Tuesday, November 22. While the episode will screen as part of a series about the Bermuda Triangle, the artifact was found well northwest of the area popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle, researchers note.

NASA, meanwhile, is currently considering what additional actions it may take regarding the artifact that will properly honor the legacy of Challenger’s fallen astronauts and their families, the agency notes.

The Challenger disaster is now counted as one of American history's "where were you?" moments. The mission, dubbed STS-51L, was commanded by Francis R. “Dick” Scobee and piloted by Michael J. Smith. The other crew members on board were mission specialists Ronald E. McNair; Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis; and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe.

Space Shuttle Challenger crew 1986The Challenger crew poses ahead of the mission in January, 1986. Photo courtesy of NASA


McAuliffe, a charismatic civilian with a bright smile, became an international celebrity, bringing everyman accessibility to the space program. She was beloved by fans young and old, and quickly became the face of the doomed mission.

Celebrating NASA's 25th shuttle mission, the spacecraft waited overnight on Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A sudden coastal cold front brought freezing temperatures, causing ice to form on the shuttle. Launch managers cleared the mission for launch at 11:38 am on January 28, despite concerns raised by some shuttle program employees.

A mere 73 seconds after liftoff, major malfunction caused the explosion that killed the seven crew members, a moment captured on live TV and watched by millions.

Later, a NASA investigation revealed that the unexpectedly cold temperatures affected the integrity of O-ring seals in the solid rocket booster segment joints, sparking the explosion.

Challenger's loss, and later Columbia with its seven astronauts – which broke up on reentry in February 2003 over the western United States – greatly influenced NASA’s culture regarding safety. The agency went on to create an Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, developed new risk assessment procedures, and established an environment in which everyone can raise safety concerns.

NASA also created the Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program to share these lessons within the agency and with other government, public, commercial, and international audiences.

“While it has been nearly 37 years since seven daring and brave explorers lost their lives aboard Challenger, this tragedy will forever be seared in the collective memory of our country,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “For millions around the globe, myself included, January 28, 1986, still feels like yesterday. This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause once again, to uplift the legacies of the seven pioneers we lost, and to reflect on how this tragedy changed us. At NASA, the core value of safety is – and must forever remain – our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”

By law, all space shuttle artifacts are the property of the U.S. government. Members of the public who believe they have encountered any space shuttle artifacts should contact NASA at ksc-public-inquiries@mail.nasa.gov to arrange for return of the items.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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