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February 7, 2008

Miles from Earth: Rocket Science and Weather

Posted: 01:32 PM ET

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – Predicting the weather is complicated. So is rocket science. When you combine the two – as they do whenever a space shuttle must fly, things can get pretty mind-boggling


First, you need to understand the space shuttle is a complex web of contradictions – as well as a space vehicle.

It travels at twenty five times the speed of sound, and yet cannot safely pass through even a slight shower.

It can withstand temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees F during re-entry and yet is not rated to land in a cross wind that exceeds 17 knots (19 mph).

It has the finest navigational systems in the world and is flown the by best pilots anywhere, and yet it does not have the right stuff to be cleared to land through a cloud deck below 5,000 feet.

These are just some of the factors that come into play as mission managers make a decision on whether to launch. And their decision-making dilemma is unique in the world of space.

Years ago, I went to the Baikonour Commodore in the former Soviet Republic (you know, Borat’s turf). The morning of the launch, the Soyuz rocket on the pad – which is much closer to the viewing area than it is here in Florida – was invisible to us – shrouded in pea soup fog.

This wouldn’t have been a “no-go” for NASA – it would have been a “Hell-no-go!”
And yet the Russians lit the candle that day and the first crew of the International Space Station safely made it to orbit.

But there are some key differences between the vehicles. For one thing, the Soyuz is not covered in heat resistant tiles as fragile as your grandmother’s china. For another, the Soyuz pilot does not have to safely glide his craft to a runway landing. If there is trouble, he simply pulls the magic handle, the capsule separates from the rocket and it heads to Earth for a relatively gentle landing beneath a parachute.

The next generation of US spacecraft will return to that concept – and that will mean happy landings and on-time launches for US spacecraft will not be so dependent on the whims of Mother Nature.

- From Miles O’Brien, CNN’s chief technology and environment correspondent

Filed under: Uncategorized

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Ernest   February 7th, 2008 1:46 pm ET

yeah ...what the Hell!! if they can do in the rain why can't we ....with all the techo we have NASA shouldn't have a PROBLEMO doing this ..COME ON NASA !!!!

louis pasternak   February 7th, 2008 2:06 pm ET

Hurry to the past. Our countries technological reversal is no more apparent than in the space program. If they took the cantankerous high tech main engines off the shuttle and put one F-1 Saturn V engine that burns kerosene on it and reengineered it to have a titanium under structure, put brand new technology computers on it, and used paraffin throttleable solids on it, it would be what we want. It costs as much as an aircraft carrier, why not?

Sam W   February 7th, 2008 2:12 pm ET

Ernest, hope you are joking around, if not need to lay off the coffee... The tiles, flight systems, etc where designed more then a few years back. Lacking key items for ILS approach is far from shocking with this kind of craft, I dont see Space Ship 2 even being able to deal with weather. The Soyuz is just a capsule so no real flight concerns, just parachutes to bring it back. Even with the new system NASA is working on we are far to risk averse to launch in weather like that discribed. I am sure we will launch in worse weather then we do now but I can't see NASA launching in heavy fog. Anyway...

Mr O'Brien, it is great to see you covering this launch, I really enjoy your coverage and work in general. I hope your flying time has been good this year. I am looking at re-starting my private pilots certificate, being next to EAA Oshkosh is hard when you can't fly in and have to drive in. Thanks for all your hard work at CNN.


Ernest   February 7th, 2008 2:19 pm ET

anyway ........

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