Friday, July 2, 2010

When Flight History Backfires ...

So, this doesn't really have anything to do with "small space" or Canada (at least in any direct way), but it's news and I think it's worth commenting on.

A Russian resupply ship heading for the International Space Station has apparently experienced some issues while attempting to autonomously dock with the orbiting outpost.  Here is a photo taken from the supply ship during it's "final" approach:

So, interesting news, but what does this mean (if anything) for the future of automated docking and other rendezvous activities in space?  It's hard to forget the issues that happened in 1997 when a Progress resupply ship collided with the Russian space station Mir, causing a near catastrophe to the space station and its occupants. 

Arguably, since the collision 13 years ago, the Russians have done an incredible job perfecting their automated docking technology.  Let us not forget the many, many (probably approaching 100 by now) successful automated dockings that have taken place since then by outstanding Russian hardware.  While we usually only hear about space shuttles visiting the International Space Station, much of the resupply missions have actually been carried out by Russian resupply ships like this one without any human intervention at all.

However, often all it takes is one failure (perhaps like the one that just happened) for the space community to make an about face.  Is this really warranted?  Should we now look at the Russian docking technology or the whole idea of automated docking with a suspicious and questionable eye now? 

I would like to think not.  As much as we would like to think that spaceflight is as routine as a freight train making a trans-continental trip, it's simply not.  A lot of space technology is still in its infancy (relatively speaking).  This isn't to say that we shouldn't take a long and hard look at what went wrong and how to learn from this mistake.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I think we should scrutinize this event and learn as much as we can.  But, let's not get ridiculous here and take this event as an indication that automated space maneuvers like this should be avoided at all costs because of "what happened back in 2010".

I've often found it to be unfortunate that sometimes it's far too easy to forget about the many successes in the space industry in favour of the few failures.  Sure, people invest a lot of money into space, and for good reason.  But let's not let a few mistakes artificially impede our progress.  Mistakes will happen, we will learn, and the space industry will continue to move forward.

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