The Weekender: July 29, 2016

1) “The audacious rescue plan that might have saved space shuttle Columbia” (Ars Technica, 33 minutes, February 2016). On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere — but something went wrong. The shuttle’s wing was damaged and couldn’t withstand the turmoil of re-entry, dooming the crew to a terrible fate. But could NASA have done an in-space repair job? It would have been risky, of course, but maybe.

Imagine an alternate timeline for the Columbia mission in which NASA quickly realized just how devastating the foam strike had been. Could the Columbia astronauts have been safely retrieved from orbit?

During the writing of its report, the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board] had the same question, so it asked NASA to develop a theoretical repair and rescue plan for Columbia “based on the premise that the wing damage events during launch were recognized early during the mission.” The result was an absolutely remarkable set of documents, which appear at the end of the report as Appendix D.13. They carry the low-key title “STS-107 In-Flight Options Assessment,” but the scenario they outline would have pushed NASA to its absolute limits as it mounted the most dramatic space mission of all time.

NASA planners did have one fortuitous ace in the hole that made the plan possible: while Columbia’s STS-107 mission was in progress, Atlantis was already undergoing preparation for flight as STS-114, scheduled for launch on March 1. As Columbia thundered into orbit, the younger shuttle was staged in Orbital Processing Facility 1 (OPF-1) at the Kennedy Space Center. Its three main engines had already been installed, but it didn’t yet have a payload or remote manipulator arm in its cargo bay. Two more weeks of refurbishment and prep work remained before it would be wheeled across the space center to the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building and hoisted up for attachment to an external tank and a pair of solid rocket boosters.

So an in-orbit rescue was at least feasible—but making a shuttle ready to fly is an incredibly complicated procedure involving millions of discrete steps. In order to pull Atlantis’ launch forward, mission planners had to determine which steps if any in the procedure could be safely skipped without endangering the rescue crew.

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3) “Inside the underground economy propping up New York City’s food carts ” (17 minutes, Crain’s, June 2016). This is crazy:

Even for bosses like Sharif [he owns his own food cart], financial autonomy is not guaranteed. Though Sharif owns the actual food cart—“I built it three years ago,” he said—a portion of his earnings is sent to “a guy in New Jersey.”

According to records obtained by Crain’s through a Freedom of Information Law request, that guy is in all likelihood “Mr. Q.” While Sharif owns the food cart and his own vendor’s license, it’s Mr. Q who controls the mobile food vending permit—a tiny piece of adhesive plastic that makes this cart more than just a griddle on wheels. Without it, Sharif has no business.

On a nearby block, it’s a similar story. In a smaller cart equipped to sell just coffee and baked goods, another Afghan, a 54-year-old man who asked to be identified only as Steve, has been fighting for market share with Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and their predecessors for 27 years. He supports a wife and five children on the $600 to $700 he earns every week—about $35,000 a year.

At least, like Sharif, Steve is the boss—almost.

“I own 35% of the cart,” Steve said proudly. “When I started 20 years ago, they paid me a salary.” It was unclear if Steve bought or earned a share in the cart; it was also unclear who “they” are. Like most of the vendors interviewed for this article, Steve wasn’t keen to elaborate on his business.

One thing is certain: The name on the permit is not his. Either like Sharif, Steve leases his permit from the legitimate owner—for upward of $10,000 a year—or that’s why he’s ceded nearly two-thirds of his business to silent partners.

4) “When Yahoo Ruled the Valley: Stories of the Original ‘Surfers’” (New York Times, July 2016). Yahoo was a major, major player in the early web. Now, it borders on an afterthought — which sold at a bargain to Verizon. Here are some stories from its early days. The accounts are more folksy than techy, more personal than professional.


5) “Why One Woman Pretended to Be a High-School Cheerleader” (The Atlantic, 16 minutes, July 2016). The subhead: “At 33, Wendy Brown stole her daughter’s name, grabbed a pair of pom-poms, lived a teenage dream—then she went to jail for it.” The story isn’t funny, despite the absurdity of the title. It’s depressing, sad — but it will make you think.

6) “The Contentious Tale of the McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” Jingle” (Pitchfork, 8 minutes, July 2016). This is a short-ish read, but it’s entertaining and entirely surprising — there’s so much grey area when it comes to music, and

Have a great weekend!