by Stephanie Osborn
I suppose it's appropriate to discuss this at this time of the year. You see, as it turns out, all three of the major catastrophes in our national space program landed in the same week of the calendar. The Apollo 1 fire occurred on January 27. The Challenger disaster took place on January 28. The Columbia disaster occurred on February 1. The dates spread over a scant six days. Friends have told me that NASA should shut down that week, from now on. I try to explain that need for supplies, and orbital mechanics, doesn't work like that.
I'm old enough to remember all three disasters, though the Apollo 1 fire, well, I was SO small I really didn't quite get it. (It helps, I suppose, that my memory goes back an astounding way, at least according to my mom, back into infancy, it seems.) But it was what first drew my attention to NASA and the space program. I'd just moved to Huntsville not a full two months before the Challenger disaster, and I managed to cram an entire career in the space program in between the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And had a friend aboard Columbia's final flight. (For details of these disasters, see my blog posts: Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia part 1, part 2.)
The gist of it is that my friend, Kalpana Chawla, was aboard. And Columbia was the bird I'd worked with the most. AND...I'd just finished the first draft of Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281, which featured a Shuttle disaster that very nearly perfectly mimics what happened to Columbia, with the few minor differences caused by the fact my fictional scenario was due to sabotage. To say I was devastated would be putting it mildly. And the more I found out, the more upset I got. And I found out a lot, what with reading the reports as they came out, and even getting a chance to chat with one of the field coroners. Without putting too fine a point on it, or telling my readers details that, frankly, contain images that nobody needs in their heads, suffice it that if I could find a way to prevent such a thing ever happening again, while still permitting space flight, I'd consider my life had been worthwhile.
In the same year I talked to the field coroner, Felix Baumgartner made his historic "jump from the edge of space." And something in my head clicked. I contacted my colleagues in SIGMA, the science fiction think tank, and founder Arlan Andrews and Dr. Tom Ligon signed on for the duration.
And SPEARED was born.
SPEARED is an acronym that stands for Single-Person Emergency Atmospheric Re-Entry Device. Cool name, huh? What we're trying to do is to develop what is essentially an ejection seat/escape pod combo for astronauts (or cosmonauts, taikonauts, whoever wants to go into space that might have issues coming home again). We're still in early stages yet, just very basic R&D (research & development), working on what materials we can use, and what shape things need to be in -- no, I mean literally, what geometric shapes this stuff needs to have to protect the space travelers in an emergency atmospheric entry.
We already have a preliminary patent, have done some materials testing that indicate that we are headed in the right direction, and have presented the concept at a couple of professional conferences, to interested audiences. What we don't got is funding...yet.
We've been doing this all with our own money, see -- that's how strongly we feel about it, and how sure we are that we can find a way to make it work. But we can't afford to keep pouring our own funds into it indefinitely, and there are starting to be things that we need done that all three of us together don't have the funds to do -- like have some very sophisticated computer modeling run, to help us determine what the best shape for the pod is (we're divided between spherical and aerobrake shapes). It needs to be as simple as possible to follow the adage of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid -- the simpler a device, the fewer things there are to go wrong), yet sophisticated enough to accomplish several functions, including:
1) protecting the astronaut from the heat of re-entry,
2) protecting the astronaut from impact,
3) preferentially having some degree of steering/guidance so that the landing point is not too inimical an environment,
4) notifying rescuers of the astronaut's location,
among other things.
So it isn't a simplistic problem, even if our final design proves to be relatively simple.
I can't go into a whole lot of detail yet. We just finished and submitted an article on SPEARED to Analog magazine, and Analog only publishes first-run stuff -- it can't have been in print before. So if and when the article gets published, I'll be sure to note it here, so you can all go get copies and read it. It'll have a lot more detail in it than I could put in here, anyway, and it tells the story of SPEARED's development from the points of view of all three SPEARED researchers -- myself, Arlan, and Tom.
I'm really hoping that we'll get some serious interest in it -- from NASA, from ESA, from the various commercial space leaders -- because I am passionate about this system, about seeing it developed, about seeing it put into place as a standard emergency system. I worked for a couple decades in the civilian and military space industries. I know my stuff. I know what my friend KC went through. And if I can help prevent that from happening to any other space explorer, then it can never be said that I lived my life in vain.