Space Shuttle Memories – Design Projects

July 19, 2011

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The following is a remembrance of the United States Space Program as I have lived it. I will restrain from naming specific people except historic figures and the actual crews of missions I have witnessed or supported. My qualifications for writing this memoir are; a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, three tours as a Co-operative engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and nine years as an engineer supporting the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs for what eventually became the United Space Alliance (USA) on the Space Transportation System Operations Contract (STSOC). For those who are interested, technical summaries of each Space Shuttle flight can be found at the NASA web site. All NASA manned missions can be viewed in the archive.

My third and final coop tour was with a different group within the same division at NASA. I moved to a hardware group to get some experience actually designing things. I shared an office with several other engineers. One of these engineers had the duty to make sure each astronaut had a fully functioning calculator for each trip. They used Hewlett Packard 41C calculators, the best on the market at that time. He made sure each one had fresh batteries and extra batteries in the carrying case. It just so happened that I had an HP41C for my college work. Unethical thoughts raced through my mind as I looked at that box of perfectly good batteries that could never be used for another space flight. Either too bad for me, or luckily for me, the calculators used by the astronauts were specially made for extra long life batteries, batteries that would not fit in my “normal” calculator.

I was allowed to work on many small projects. On mission STS-51B (the third flight of 1985 after STS-51C and STS-51D) with the Space Lab as the payload, there was a concern about noise. This Space Lab did not have additional space for the astronauts to move around in and there was a recording system inside the shuttle that had loud fans for cooling. Sound absorbing foam was put around the cabinet hold the recorder, but it’s location at the passage between the upper and lower decks meant that there was nothing on one panel. I worked on a foam insert for that panel that would not interfere with the passage between the decks. I got to watch them freeze my foam in liquid nitrogen so that it could be milled like a piece of wood. I wrote the instructions for installing before flight and removal after flight. Even though only a few people knew what I had done, I had a real feeling of accomplishment.

I also made molds to mass produce sensors for measuring the volume of blood in the astronaut’s legs. The theory was that during launch, a certain about of blood rushed to the lower extremities, the legs. If the change of volume of the leg were measured, the danger to that astronaut could be gauged. It was a simple system with a single transmitter taped to one side of the leg and two receivers on the other side. Sound waves could accurately measure the distance and using the assumption that the leg was a cylinder, the volume change could be measured. Up until I was asked to make the molds, these sensors were assembled at the University of Kentucky. As the Astronaut corps grew and the need for many more sensors came about, the professor at UK opted out of the building business. Again, my engineering curiosity was satisfied as I watched a ceramic die eat away at an aluminum block in an electrically charged oil bath.

Another project involved making a laundry basket to put all of the loose articles in until it was time to clean up. It was a simple net with a tension gap (two tight ropes that could be pushed apart to get your hand in that would snap back to closed when you pull your hand out). It only flew once. It seems that a lot of things were put into it during the flight rather than being put away. So much so, that there was a lot of work to do before re-entry to get all of it stored properly. Astronauts are just like the rest of us kids, we don’t want to clean up when there is fun stuff to do.

The neatest part of this last activity was that I got to work closely with Astronaut Judy Resnik. I really liked working with Dr. Resnik. She was always helpful in our efforts, recognizing that I was still a student, but that I did have some experience that I could leverage into completing tasks and working independently. I was saddened when she was lost on STS-51L, commonly known as the Challenger Disaster. I knew other members of that mission as well. Their loss was a loss for the entire space program.

I was in school when the Challenger was lost. I had an orbital mechanics professor who was rather abrupt, as his German upbringing would make him. He would come into class, set his brief case on top of the pile of homework we had stacked on the desk and start teaching. Just before the bell, he would open that brief case, put our graded homework on the other corner of the desk and put our newest effort in his brief case. If you were not early, you homework was not graded. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the professor walked in without his brief case and just stood in front of the desk. After a few moments, showing emotion we did not think he had, he stated “Seven people I consider friends have just died.” Then he walked out and we all went looking for a television to figure out what had happened. The University of Texas had a contract with NASA to validate all of the orbital mechanics calculation for each flight, and our professor was the leader of that project. He had met and worked with every astronaut who had ever flown in space. He was right, we had lost seven friends.

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