Ask "What If?"

"They're all a bunch of what-iffers over there at the lab," a Caltech professor's wife remarked. "They might as well ask, 'What if the sky should fall?' as far as I'm concerned."

Her disdain for "What-iffers" is a common reaction. People who ask a lot of questions can be quite annoying—particularly if the questions are good ones. The laboratory the lady was referring to was Caltech's Jet Propulsion Lab—NASA's crown jewel. The "bunch" were all the rocket scientists working there.

It's true—there is a worrywart side to rocket scientists. And for good reason: Murphy's law. "If anything can go wrong—it will." Learned from hard experience. Space travel, after all, is extremely hazardous. It involves riding a highly explosive rocket (essentially a flying bomb) into orbit, living in the space environment with its dangers of airlessness, microgravity, and radiation, and then surviving a fiery reentry through Earth's atmosphere. A lot can go wrong—and a lot has. You'd be a fool not to ask a lot of questions. This is not fear—it is reason.

Here are some what-ifs we dealt with along the way to the moon.

Question: What if the rocket blows?

Answer: Use an escape system that catapults the astronauts high above the explosion and deploys parachutes to save them. Question: What if the rocket comes crashing down in a residential or tourist area near the sunny beaches of Florida? Answer: Detonate the self-destruct system—blow the rocket to kingdom come.

Question: What if the Russians should get there first?

Answer: Build the Apollo spacecraft—but fast—and win the race. Our very survival is at stake and failure is not an option here.

Question: What if Alan Shepard has to pee?

Answer: Didn't see that one coming—let him pee in his suit.

Question: What if Gus Grissom has to pee?

Answer: Got that one covered—put a rubber on him.

Question: What if John Glenn's heat shield should detach before or during reentry?

Answer: Don't jettison the retro-rockets—the straps may hold the shield on just long enough. (The right answer, but it turned out to be a false alarm—a faulty warning light. But it's good for us, keeps everyone on his or her toes—especially Glenn.)

Question: What if the Apollo loses power on the way to the moon?

Answer: Do we have to think of everything? Oh—that's right—we do. Use the lunar lander as a lifeboat. Good thing we thought of this—it saved the Apollo 13 crew and made a pretty good movie. (See the film Apollo 13—it's great!)

We had a nice collection of what-ifs during the Apollo days.

Unfortunately, over the next three decades NASA (in a sort of institutional Alzheimer disease) forgot the hard-won lessons of its youth. Consider some of these unanswered, or poorly answered, what-ifs that apply to the shuttle program.

Question: What if the shuttle blows during launch?

Answer: First of all that's an unfair question, because it's not going to happen. We estimate that the chance that a shuttle will be destroyed during a launch is 1 in 100,000 launches.

Question: But, really, what if it does blow?

Answer: Then the astronauts die.

Question: What if the shuttle damages or loses its heat shielding before or during reentry?

Answer: Again we're talking about an extremely rare event. We estimate the odds of that happening to be infinitesimal—zero actually.

Chapter 18 Ask "What If?"

Question: But what if it does, say, lose a bunch of tiles?

Answer: Then the astronauts die.

Question: What if the shuttle guidance fails during reentry—say they lose power?

Answer: Hasn't happened.

Question: But if?

Answer: Then the astronauts die.

Question: What if we keep flying the shuttle, knowing that it has so many failure modes?

Answer: Well, space travel is not for the fainthearted. You've got to expect a few accidents, maybe a few fatalities. But if we didn't accept this, then we couldn't have a shuttle program.

Question: What if we can't get to the space station because the shuttle is too unsafe to fly?

Answer: Well, this line of questioning has been highly speculative, but if we accept this hypothetical case—then we're talking about going to the Russians and paying them to get us to the station.

Question: What if the space station didn't exist?

Answer: Then the shuttle would have nowhere to go.

I hope I don't sound too negative. Let's add a positive note to finish off:

Question: What if we decided not to complete the construction of the space station, but put those funds toward real space exploration?

Answer: Then we would save about $100 billion, which is more than enough to send the first humans to Mars!

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