Tag Archives: NASA

Like foam, we’re imperfect

This was another older link I wanted to note for some reason. It’s an explanation of why foam falls off space shuttle fuel tanks during liftoff, even though they know it’s a potentially catastrophic problem.

I don’t remember whatever theory was in my head about it now, but I still know why I love it:

Because it stays on only when it’s been perfectly applied. If NASA engineers leave any air pockets or bits of dirt in the foam, or miss a tiny spot, then the extreme conditions of liftoff can knock it right off. As the shuttle accelerates to more than 3,000 mph in two minutes, the foam needs to withstand violent vibrations, air friction, and sudden changes in temperature and pressure.

They explain further that while a machine can apply most of the foam (and we all know machines are perfect, don’t we?), there are difficult areas that humans have to apply. It’s the whole “We can put a man on the Moon…” problem. More precisely: “We can put a man on the Moon, but sometimes shit happens.” In fact, shit nearly happened to prevent the Moon landing itself, which would have made that 20th-century saying a little different.

[Tangent: And how weird would that have been? We’d be walking around with our heads down, all emo-like, going: “I don’t know why my Internet is down again. But I mean, we can’t even put a fucking man on the Moon, so…”]

But the human/machine/tool problem gets even better:

Unfortunately, the workers applying the foam can’t always see very well because they wear protective suits and masks. There’s also no way to test for cracks before launch; the only inspection tool is the naked eye.

I love it! Without getting into the argument about whether manned space travel is still necessary nor the merits of the shuttle program to begin with, I take from these lessons this:

For every challenge, an imperfect solution. So sometimes shit happens. That’s just the way life is.