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Space Science

Space Shuttle to be Outfitted with New Sensors 166

Norman at Davis writes " is reporting on new "sensors designed to pinpoint potential damage from falling debris or other objects [which] will be installed into the wings of NASA's remaining shuttle fleet...." Unfortunately, the sensors won't be too sophisticated, MSNBC reports that 'the extent of damage would still have to be determined by an inspection by astronauts in orbit, using an extension boom equipped with cameras and lasers.' Apparently NASA is in the process of developing three techniques which will allow astronauts to spacewalk and repair holes up to fourteen inches in diameter. Finally... the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is also running an article on the topic, stating that "not only will computers provide state-of-the-art imaging, but Defence Department satellites will supplement inspections made by the shuttle astronauts themselves and photographs taken from the International Space Station." 'NASA's efforts to improve its ability to detect whether the shuttle has been struck during flight have evolved remarkably since Columbia's January launch, when engineers watched loops of film sent to Miami for development and projected against a wall by a noisy old projector.' Hopefully this new technology will prevent another Columbia-like disaster, as a space shuttle replacement is looking less likely by the day."
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Space Shuttle to be Outfitted with New Sensors

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  • 14 inch hole? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zog The Undeniable ( 632031 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:04AM (#7700069)
    Apparently the astronauts will have a "patch kit" for holes up to 14" in diameter. That's a pretty big hole; how big do they think the hole on Columbia was (before it fell apart, obviously)?
  • Repair (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Davak ( 526912 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:07AM (#7700098) Homepage
    The astronauts will be equipped with the capability to patch a hole as large as 14 inches in diameter, using one of three repair techniques still being developed. The best method will be selected around March of next year, officials said.

    Holy cow. Can you imagine the stress of repairing a foot-sized hole in the shuttle? Talking about your a$ being on the line.

    The problem is now the shuttle suddenly got more expensive. By investing in all of this, they are going to make inspection and repair of even minor stuff a big part of every mission.

    Taking a look at the surface is the shuttle is slightly more complex than walking around and kicking the tires of your car. This is going to add expensive time to every mission.

    Plus, they are now going to find tons of breaks that are not important... but they will be obligated to fix anyway.


  • Why sensors? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:12AM (#7700133)
    Unfortunately, the sensors won't be too sophisticated, MSNBC reports that 'the extent of damage would still have to be determined by an inspection by astronauts in orbit, using an extension boom equipped with cameras and lasers.

    The problem with this scenario is that it is a remedy for the wrong cure. Nasa knew that something could be broken, because they had seen the piece of debris falling. So the equivalent of the crude sensors that they are going to use, was already there. It was (once again) NASAs failure to respond to the worries of the people on the work floor that were the problem.

    Fitting sensors on the shuttle is just a way to avoid having to admit that nothing has changed in NASAs orginization since the Challenger disaster.
    The cause of the accident was not the O-ring, it was the choice to let political pressure cut into safety margins. It was the failure to listen to worries of the people who actually build the thing.

    The second disaster is no different. The potential problem was already identified and some effort was undertaken to run computer simulations on the debris impact on the underside of the wing.
    However, these were not written to simulate such a large chunk of debris. The coders of the software mentioned this, but this was ignored, because the conclusion was convenient. Ofcourse, it turned out to be the leading edge of the wing that was the problem, which was not even investigated because it was supposed to be indistructable.

    I think that Feynmans report on the Challenger dissaster can be transfered to this dissaster. The details are different, but these details are symptoms of a common problem, which is NASAs chain of command.
  • Sort of a good thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Akasha ( 122427 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:15AM (#7700154) Homepage Journal
    I remember my two stays at Space Camp... both times a group of campers screwed up on ther mission at the end of the week and burn up on re-entry or collide with the space station. While we explored the aspects of using the shuttle's computer to compensate for mistakes and accidents (such as fuel loss) we pretty much considered any physical damage to be a lost cause.

    From the looks of how NASA really runs the show, it appears they held the same attitude with the shuttle fleet. Granted, it's nigh impossible to do complex repairs in space (especially to repair a heat shield) and inspecting an in-flight shuttle for damage analogous to a medevial European investigating himself for any wounds and praying he hasn't gotten an infection. Because of this "hope we don't get hit" attitude, the shuttle fleet needs some kind of in-flight repair process. Unfortunately, the nature of the shuttle design makes it extremely hard to perform such repairs. Sure, there is a repair process being develop (good) but it's a repair process for an out of date product used by an agency that refuses to replace it (bad).

    I'm glad the shuttle fleet was made and it's something that needed to be done. But it has served its purpose and is now outdated. It's time we upgraded and it's time NASA's management understands they are not the top dogs of engineering and astrophysics anymore.
  • NASA's Problem (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:18AM (#7700172)
    "as a space shuttle replacement is looking less likely by the day."

    Thats because NASA has 2 big mental problems. They are a huge Government Beauracracy that suffers from Not Invented Here(NIH) Syndrome. Their other huge issue is the 'It Has to be Reusable' Mytosis.

    Russia has a warehouse full of brand new engines, but NASA won't buy em. We have a whole fleet of Rocket Designs that are proven, but use once. More importantly there is 'infrastructure' to support those vehicles, tools, launch pads, software. All ready.

    I've seen these NASA people...they make 46 year old Trekkers look like fscking 'Geniuses'. These are people who CANNOT get a job anywhere else in the world.

  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:4, Interesting)

    by DickBreath ( 207180 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:21AM (#7700196) Homepage
    Replaced with what?

    How about a small reusable vehicle for manned flight, and a large disposable Saturn-V style booster rocket for heavy payloads. I'm not even convinced the manned vehicle should be "reusable".
  • fleet? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tiled_rainbows ( 686195 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:29AM (#7700261) Homepage Journal
    ...installed into the wings of NASA's remaining shuttle fleet....

    Fleet? They've only got three left! How small can a fleet be?

    Anyway, what we really need to get the public interested in spaceflight again is a SSTO nuclear-powered rocket that takes off and lands vertically. That would be so cool. I honestly believe that the single best, and most logically defensible, reason for going into space is that it's cool to do so, and I believe that the hardware should be designed accordingly.

  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ShadowBlasko ( 597519 ) <> on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:29AM (#7700265)

    While I agree with you in general, I think you are missing the biggest problem with the whole thing. Overall accountability and *some* comprehensible flow of flight status go/no go operations.

    Until there is a complete overhaul of the red tape that is flight preparedness, it doesn't matter if you patch the holes in the existing shuttle or build a new one out of unobtanium.

    It was clearly evident in the months following the Challenger, and in the *minutes* following the Columbia, that the left hand does not have the slightest *clue* what the right hand is doing.

    Mission preparedness is no longer about what works and what doesn't. Its about what subcontractor is in what senators pocket that has the most to ride on whether a mission is delayed.

    Morton Thiokol's engineers knew that those rings suffered from a serious loss of functionality at those temperatures, spoke up, and nothing was done.

    Checks on the O rings do not make a damned bit of difference if the beaurocrat the safety engineer is reporting to is gagged by red tape.

    The whole freaking *world* saw that foam hit the wing, and nothing was done. (That they are going to tell us about)

    At this point in time I honestly believe that NASA could break a titanium ball bearing with a rubber mallet.

    I used to believe in the dream that was manned space exploration. I loved that dream. However, NASA is not going to get us out of LEO. Not unless we get idiots out of the loop, and get some resposible people, (IE engineers, not lawyers) to make the calls on what goes and what does not.

    Some of the equipment will *always* break when you are pushing the edge like we *want* NASA to do. Tragedies like the Columbia and the Challenger were not an example of those failures. They are examples of the flaws in the system, not the equipment.


    (And would you please answer your email you silly Paladin, It's only been 3 years since I have talked to you)

  • by Erik_ ( 183203 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:30AM (#7700267)
    Why not simply add two high-speed/high-res cameras aimed from the cockpit level towards the wings, and just record the data local in the shuttle. Once in orbit, they can download the movies for analysis by the ground engineers for impact troubles.The cameras can even burn-up on the re-entry in the atmosphere and be replaced.
  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:5, Interesting)

    by oudzeeman ( 684485 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:31AM (#7700273)
    Shuttles were designed to fly much more often than they do now. NASA had envisioned at least bi-weekly flights when they designed the shuttle. At that rate of launch there actually would have been a cost savings over an entirely disposable system.

    They have not been overworked. They were built to fly at least 100 missions without major overhauls. Columbia had completed 38 missions before the disaster.

    Now this was supposed to be in a much shorter timeframe, but its the number of missions, not age, that causes stress on the shuttle. Also they had just done an overhaul of the Columbia before the disaster, so they did shorten the number of missions between overhauls.

    I've read recent articles that NASA plans on keeping the remaining three shuttles flying for another 20 years. They plan on doing this with smaller crews, using the shuttle to tote cargo, and speeding up development of the space plane to bring crews back and forth to the space station. The reduced crew of the shuttle would make an ejection seat a viable option.

  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mrdorval ( 472908 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:47AM (#7700399)
    Simple solution: purchase seats on the Soyuz to transport people (leave the ant farms behind). Use expendable boosters (US or Russian) for heavy lifting.

    The Soyuz is simple, reliable and safe, if a bit cramped. The next-generation space transport will most likely be capsule-like rather than plane-like anyway. Incidentally, capsules are the only way back from a deep-space mission, like Apollo.

  • borked sensors.. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Hey_bob ( 6104 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @11:11AM (#7700722) Homepage
    What if the sensors that are supposed to detect if there is a hole in the shuttle, are taken out when a hole is made in the shuttle.
  • Re:AHHHH! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 12, 2003 @11:38AM (#7701064)
    The plans still exist, but they could hardly keep a three or four facility production line scattered all across the country mothballed for forty years. It would be better to start from scratch than to rebuild the Saturn really, most of the KSC facilities were converted for the shuttle, the factories no longer exist, and there can't be many people left at NASA who worked with the Saturn series. A big new booster definately seems like a good project.
  • Re:Spacewalk? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Unknown Kadath ( 685094 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @12:35PM (#7701817)
    Is it so difficult to just do a spacewalk and a visual inspection?

    Yes, yes it is. It's very expensive and dangerous, and they have to cover the entire underside of the shuttle, the leading edge of both wings, and the nose. It's hard enough getting cameras and 3D sensors to all those areas. Getting an EVA there would be very difficult.

    Also, astronauts train for EVA's by repetition. They practice the same procedure, whether it's screwing in a single bolt on a malfunctioning satellite or replacing the Hubble's lenses, hundreds of times. Everything is choreographed to leave as little room for screwups as possible. If astronauts have to start doing unplanned or more "freeform" EVA's on a regular basis, we'll be seeing a lot more mistakes made.

  • by robbymet ( 732292 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @01:36PM (#7702645)
    First, the problem that caused the Columbia failure was not in the Shuttle's wings, but that its fuel tanks were designed with insulation that can fall off! Commercial airplanes don't have in-flight wing repairs because the FAA wouldn't let them fly if pieces of them were allowed to fall off. Then, if something did malfunction, the mission(flight) would be aborted, not continued until there was no hope for a safe return. I worked for a company that has designs sitting on the shelf of replacement fuel tanks for the Shuttle with internal insulation (it can't fall off that way!) that weighed 50% less than the current models. All with existing technology. The frustrating thing about NASA and aerospace in general is that 'unobtanium' isn't necessary for inexpensive access to space. Reusable launch vehicles can be built with existing technologies and materials, I've designed one under DARPA's RASCAL program. The problem is that there's too much money to be lost by replacing the Shuttle. A standard government contract includes a 10% profit margin, and there are no incentives for coming in ahead of schedule or under-budget. Therefore, companies lose money by supplying the government with less expensive products, because the total value of their contract decreases. You'll notice that the same companies that bid on NASP and every other 'Shuttle replacement' are the same companies that support the Shuttle. It would only undercut their profit margin to develop a more reliable and inherently less expensive vehicle. This is also because the government is their only remaining customer, and since they obviously don't hold them accountable for an inferior product, why should they change? There is no longer much of a commercial satellite industry in the US as a result. The government gave loan guarantees to cable companies so they could install cable across the country. This resulted in a huge infrastructural overhead that forced the cable industry to offer their services at a loss in order to compete with the satellite television providers. Luckily, when the cable companies went bankrupt and defaulted on their government loans, they no longer had this overhead and can now operate at a profit will undercutting satellite service costs. Now the risks associated with commercial satellite service in the US is so high, that these companies have left (to France) or gone under. So, not only has the government insure that we can't readily launch satellites, but they helped bankrupt the companies that would even use the services in the US. Man, aerospace is frustrating...
  • Re:Spacewalk? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Illserve ( 56215 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @02:08PM (#7703093)
    And what makes it worse... the astronauts can't afford to touch the surface of the shuttle while doing this.

    Those tiles are like styrofoam. If an astronaut should miscalculate and drift into the belly of the orbiter, they'd cause real problems, even if there wasn't anything wrong in the first place.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 12, 2003 @02:31PM (#7703384)
    I second all of that, and add this. NASA is not the least bit interested in the right way to do things. I've worked for a NASA contractor for years, and even now we're working on part of the return-to-flight boom sensor package. Nobody here wants to work on it.

    NASA is all about the shortest apparent distance from A to B. The SRMS (Canadarm) digitals (position feedback) was known to be insufficient to put two pieces of the ISS together. Instead of designing the interfaces with wider tolerances (like the Russians have used for years), they spent $80 million on a vision system to aid in the alignment. Now on the return-to-flight, they are using 3D sensors on the end of a long boom. It was discovered that there are some dynamics problems with oscillations on launch, so one of the sensors is being moved from a pan-tilt unit to be hardmounted, thus crippling the sensor's view. The whole point of the boom is to support the sensor, yet their answer wasn't to fix the boom, it was to cripple the sensor because that's the quickest fix, not the right one.

    Add onto this the insanely obscelete processes by which it works. Everyone else in the world writes software using the Unified Process because it is efficient. NASA still spends a year writing requirements and design documentation before a single line of code is written, and then leaves a few weeks to write the code.

    Everything NASA does is a work-around, or a work-around of a work-around. Everything is schedule driven, even moreso now than ever, despite the plea in the CAIB report to stop doing that. There is no incentive to do things right the first time, NASA will pay you for years to fix the problems and build work-arounds.

    What NASA really needs is to learn from modern processes on how to do things, and how to do them efficiently while maintaining safety. The CAIB report hints a few places to learn from, particularly the Naval nuclear program.

    Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of smart people at NASA, but they're mostly at the bottom. In order to make it to the decision making level, they first have to have common sense and good engineering practises beaten out of them.

Fear is the greatest salesman. -- Robert Klein