The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

How to Fix a NASA Disaster

The United States will have to decide whether it can afford safe human space flight

5 min read

NASA is broken. That's the fundamental message of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's 248-page report, released on 26 August. ”The past decisions of national leaders--the White House, Congress, and NASA Headquarters--set the Columbia accident in motion,” states the report, which details how decisions in Washington, D.C., played as much a part in the loss of Columbia and her crew as the errant piece of foam that fatally damaged the spacecraft's left wing.

As for the foam, there can be no question that 81.7 seconds after launch, a chunk of foam designed to keep propellants in the shuttle's huge external tank at cryogenic temperatures broke free. With the shuttle still accelerating, the chunk crashed into the fragile leading edge of the left wing two-tenths of a second later, at some 877 km per hour. The resulting hole, approximately 25 cm across, remained undetected throughout the flight.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

Keep Reading ↓Show less