Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Like Skipping a Rock on a Pond

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet, the US depends entirely on the Russians for access to the ISS (International Space Station). Since the Russians have had some trouble with their rockets lately, the future of the space station is… well…up in the air. Perhaps it is just as well. The current plan is to decommission the $100,000,000,000 boondoggle in 2016. This may be extended to 2020 if enough participating countries are willing to cough up more cash. So far, though, the best idea anyone has for the thing is to dump it in the Pacific. This is not as easy as it sounds for such a big non-aerodynamic contraption, but I’m guessing there is a pretty good chance of hitting the world’s biggest ocean.

We should have known better than to participate in building it at all. We’d already been through it before with Skylab, the 1970s space station for which no one could think of a good use. It fell out of orbit by accident in the period between the last Apollo flight and the first space shuttle. The space shuttle was supposed to lift it to a safer orbit, but the first shuttle mission was delayed until it was too late. There were lotteries at the time over where Skylab would hit, and novelty items such as hardhats labeled “Skylab protection” sold well. In the event, a few pieces landed in Australia, and the rest went in the Pacific. The ISS is much larger and no one really knows how much of it will make it to the surface.

NASA’s policy is to keep the risk of injuring anyone on the ground from an object falling from space to 1 in 10,000 – yes, someone actually thought it over and came up with that specific number. The Hubble Telescope, if allowed to come down on its own has a 1 in 1,000 risk of injuring someone, so it will require intervention no later than 2019. So far, groundlings have been lucky. To date, only one person is documented to have been hit by space debris. Lottie Williams was jogging for her health in Tulsa when she was struck by a piece of a Delta II rocket. Air resistance had slowed the chunk of mesh down, so she wasn’t seriously injured.

The ISS weighs 334 tons (303,663 kg) so it probably would be best to aim carefully.

Soviet Satellite Captures Skylab’s Fall

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