Discount space exploration

crash
What remains of Schiaparelli test lab

 

This is the first time I read something like this in space exploration history:

according to the Italian newspaper Repubblica there is a controversy ongoing between Italian Space Agency (ASI) and ESA.

Italian Agency accuses ESA to have subcontracted Schiaparelli landing system tests to Astra, a Romanian space company without the skills required for testing the probe. I quote and translate part of the article from the newspaper:

According to ASI technicians, with the parachute deployed and while the atmosphere was becoming more dense, Schiaparelli started to swing like a crazed pendulum. An out of control movement that crashed the magnetic positioning systems. “In that moment” they say at ASI, “the on board computer received conflicting informations: altimeter correctly read an altitude of 2000 meters, while the gyroscopes even marked -10, as if Schiaparelli was below the martian soil.” The on board computer must have believed to gyroscopes and switched off the engines after just 3 seconds, condemning Schiaparelli to the crash.

Couldn’t this be foreseen? Yes, according to Flamini [Enrico Flamini, planetologist and head of ASI scientific team – E.N], if only ESA would have made a test requested over and over again by Italians: a Schiaparelli prototype should have been launched from a stratospheric balloon on Earth in order to check the behavior of the probe, the parachute and the retro rockets struggling with atmosphere traversal. 

 

The industries involved in the probe construction suggested that the test was entrusted to a company skilled in stratospheric launches, the Swedish Space Corporation. Instead ESA, one says in order to save 1 million of Euros, assigned it to “an organisation without a sufficient specific competency” as Flamini writes:  the Romanian Arca. The test has been prepared for a long time but then, when one realized the company wasn’t capable to arrange it, ESA renounced and settled for computer simulations elaborated by an English company. “But with these specific crucial tests” Flamini concludes “the scarce experience of ESA project team has been highlighted”.

Apparently, ESA has compromised a 1.2 billions worth mission just for sparing 1 million €. If Flamini’s accusations turned out to be well-founded it would be a worrying episode that must be eradicated immediately from space agencies. The problem is not the loss of a probe and some hundreds million Euros vaporized in the atmosphere of another planet (for the joy of tax-payers) but the fact that there are people who chase the dream of sending a man to Mars: not only the biggest Space Agencies on Earth but also private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, with his Mars One.

The goal is noble and fascinating but if we put together budget cuts and the complete inadequacy of our propulsion technology to transport human beings on other planets there is the serious risk that someone will get hurt for real, maybe they’ll set a new record for the first human beings died on another planet (if they ever manage to get there, of course).

Personally I believe that until PNN (or EmDrive, Cannae or any future E.M engine) won’t become the standard propulsion system a manned interplanetary spaceship will always be just a very expensive lethal trap.

 

 

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