Some little-known facts about the space shuttle

(Note: This was originally published on the Globe and Mail’s website)

The Canadarm ice scraper

It’s well known that the shuttle’s robotic arm is used to lift satellites out of the cargo bay, and that on the current mission a new version will be used to check the surface of the orbiter with a special camera. But the arm has also been used to “knock the ice off the shuttle’s crapper,” as one NASA scientist put it, and to smack the occasional balky communications satellite whose solar panels didn’t unfurl properly.

“I think the arm has been used more for things it wasn’t designed for than things it was designed for,” one senior engineer said.

The shuttle twang

At the point that NASA calls “T minus 6.6 seconds,” or launch time minus 6.6 seconds, the shuttle’s massive engines fire. But it only takes about three seconds for them to get to full throttle, so why do they start at 6.6 seconds?

This is because when the engines start up, the force of that thrust actually bends the upper part of the external fuel tank backward by up to one metre, and it takes several seconds for it to swing back to vertical – a process NASA engineers call “the twang.”

Once the twang is done, the shuttle is ready to go.

Bad jokes come in handy

Astronauts know a lot of bad jokes. During the launch countdown, they spend several hours lying flat on their backs, in full flight gear and space suit, unable to move. To pass the time, they often compete to come up with the dirtiest or stupidest joke — and there is plenty of competition, members of the space program say. Because the only people listening to the audio channel at that point are the other crew members and NASA physicians, they don’t have to worry about offending anyone. “You just have to make sure you don’t hit the wrong button and put it on the public channel by mistake,” one astronaut said.

Prone to pain

The amount of time astronauts spend on their backs in the orbiter before launch (up to six hours if there are problems or weather delays) can be hardest on the fighter pilots among the crew. This is because when pilots fly their high-speed manoeuvres, they are subject to severe gravitational forces that put a strain on their vertebrae. “We’ve had fighter pilots actually break their necks while they were flying” because of the gravitational pull, one astronaut who is also a pilot, said. This leads to back problems that are aggravated by lying motionless in a heavy flight suit for several hours.

The ice that wouldn’t melt

You might think nothing could survive on the surface of the shuttle after its re-entry into the atmosphere when it is subjected to temperatures of up to 1,650 degrees Centigrade, but you’d be wrong, a NASA insider said.

On one mission, the liquid waste expelled from the toilet while in orbit created a giant, horn-like icicle that stuck up from the top of the shuttle. As the orbiter cruised to a landing after re-entry, a large frozen chunk of the horn slid off and landed with a thunk on the runway. “I guess we don’t need any more insulation on that part of the shuttle,” one of the NASA engineers said with a laugh.

Out of the depths of despair and into flight

(Note: This was originally published on the Globe and Mail website)

Can an entire country heave a single, collective sigh of relief? If so, then that’s what the United States did yesterday morning when the space shuttle Discovery lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:39 a.m. and soared skyward, 2½ years after an explosion destroyed its sister ship Columbia as it was returning to Earth, killing its entire crew and bringing the U.S. shuttle program to a screeching halt.

As Discovery’s massive engines fired yesterday, the ground rumbled and shuddered as far as six kilometres from the launch pad, setting off car alarms throughout the space centre’s parking lot. Within seconds, the shuttle was just a glowing ember at the end of a giant column of smoke, and less than 10 minutes later it was coasting through space — at almost 30,000 kilometres an hour — on its way toward a hookup with the International Space Station.

Although it appeared to be a relatively flawless launch, there was some initial concern about a couple of small pieces of debris seen on videos of the liftoff, and NASA’s senior engineers admitted the agency won’t really have closed the door on the 2003 disaster until the Discovery crew lands safely on Aug. 7.

“I ask you all to take note of what you saw here today — the power and the majesty of launch, of course, but also . . . the pluckiness, the grittiness of this team, who pulled this program out of the depths of despair 2½ years ago and made it fly,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin told reporters after the launch. The mood in the launch control room “was giddy,” said NASA flight director Mike Leinbach. “People were slapping each other on the back.” The only thing better than a successful launch, he said, “will be landing in 12 days.” Only then, he said, can NASA “say that we’ve come full circle” from the Columbia disaster.

Canadian Space Agency director Marc Garneau, who has been in space three times, said he also wants to wait until the mission is over before describing it as a success. “I want to see how things go in the next few days,” he said in an interview. “They’ve got to inspect all those tiles, analyze all those camera videos that were used at liftoff to see that nothing damaged the tiles, and so I’ll reserve judgment on that.”

Mr. Garneau is also keen to see how the orbiter boom sensor system works, as well as the sensor or laser camera that scans the tiles. Both pieces were built by Canadian companies.

NASA has spent the past two years investigating the cause of the Columbia explosion — which turned out to be a piece of foam that came off the external fuel tank and damaged the shuttle’s wing — and then redesigning both the spacecraft itself and the culture at the space agency.

More than 100 still and video cameras were trained on the Discovery yesterday. Although two cameras showed two small pieces of debris — one that missed the shuttle, and another that appeared to be about 3.8 centimetres wide — NASA said it would need to study the footage before it could say whether they were important. “We’re seeing areas of the shuttle . . . that we’ve never seen before,” said NASA flight operations manager John Shannon.

“The launch was fantastic. We had perfect weather and a flawless launch,” said Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, who went into space in 1998 and is expected to fly again next year.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has been in space twice, said that he felt “relieved and very happy and proud” after the launch. “It’s been a long time getting to this point. . . . We are back in the shuttle business.”

Mr. Hadfield also noted, however, that the mission “is by no means over.” Discovery was originally supposed to lift off in May, but problems with ice on a fuel line and a faulty sensor in the external tank caused NASA to reschedule the mission for July 13. That launch was scrubbed a little more than two hours before liftoff, after a prelaunch test revealed another faulty fuel sensor in the shuttle’s external tank.

Today, Discovery’s crew will use the Canadarm and the Canadian-made inspection boom with its 3D laser camera to examine the surface of the shuttle. Although cameras spotted the piece of foam that broke off the Columbia, NASA didn’t have a way to detect how much damage it had done.

“This is a big day for Canada, and a big day for NASA,” Mr. Williams said. “Getting back to space is tremendously important.” He and other Canadian astronauts say a return to space is also a way of paying tribute to the crew of the Columbia”They would want us to continue,” Mr. Williams said.

‘Return to Flight’ shuttle mission has much to prove

(Note: This was originally published at the Globe and Mail, where I worked)

Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space and now the director of NASA’s robotics program, is standing at a podium, ready to talk about the Canadian technology that will help ensure the safety of the next shuttle, Discovery, which is set to launch on Wednesday. But first there is something he wants to do. “These are the seven people we killed 2½ years ago,” he says, pointing at a picture of the crew killed when the Columbia shuttle exploded Feb. 1, 2003, scattering their remains and the pieces of NASA’s shattered reputation over much of Texas.

Is there a catch in Mr. Hadfield’s voice as he says this? Of course not. He is, after all, a former test pilot and Canadian Air Force colonel who has flown on two shuttle missions and worked as ground support for dozens of others, and so the words are spoken in a firm, fighter-pilot kind of voice. At the same time, it’s clear he wants to recognize those who lost their lives that day.

And so he says a few words about the men and women on STS-107: about Kalpana Chawla, who was born in a small town in rural India and was her country’s first astronaut; and about Ila Ramon of Israel, son of a Holocaust survivor and the first Israeli in space. And the rest of the crew: mission commander Rick Husband; flight surgeon Laurel Salton Clark; specialist David Brown, who put himself through college by working as a circus acrobat; Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Anderson, one of the first black Americans to join the space program; and shuttle pilot Willy McCool.

In an interview later, Mr. Hadfield said the coming flight isn’t meant as a tribute to the crew; it’s a resupply mission for the International Space Station, he said, and a chance to see if the upgrades and changes made to the shuttle since the Columbia explosion work. In other words, the “Return to Flight” mission is about doing just that: getting back to business. “The purpose of a spaceship is to fly in space,” he said. “We’re not in the business of just dreaming about space flight, we’re in the business of space flight.”

At the same time, it is clear that Mr. Hadfield feels a deep sense of responsibility toward the Columbia crew. “It’s true, we did kill them,” he said in his blunt, no-nonsense way. “And I’m just as responsible as anyone else here. It was not a random act of God, it was a sequence of incorrect decision-making. I made my own particular best judgment based on what I knew and I was wrong.” NASA, he said, “decided based on all our engineering judgment and knowledge that [the damage caused by a piece of foam]wouldn’t be a problem. And we were wrong.”

Former astronaut Marc Garneau, the first Canadian aboard a shuttle and now director of the Canadian Space Agency, said he believes some of those involved in the current mission will see a successful launch as a kind of tribute to the crew of the Columbia, a way of showing that NASA has learned from the accident that led to their deaths. “I think once the shuttle is proceeding with its mission, there will probably be some comments made in that regard, that this means they did not die in vain,” he said.

Like the Challenger explosion some 17 years earlier, the Columbia disaster transformed the shuttle program in an instant. Instead of a heartwarming story of man’s ability to rise above his earthbound existence, it became a story about how NASA had become complacent about the risks. The next two years were spent in a frenzy of self-examination, as the agency tried to determine how such an event could have taken so many experts by surprise.

During that time, NASA has struggled to do three things: first, find out why the Columbia exploded when it was assumed to be resistant to damage; second, change its design so that nothing similar can happen again; and third, launch another shuttle to prove that the program can still accomplish its fundamental task of getting astronauts to space and back safely.

“Everybody wants to just get past this and get back to doing what they do for a living, which is send people into space and bring them back,” said Iain Christie of Ottawa-based Neptec, whose company made the camera that will inspect the shuttle. Unlike its sister ship Challenger, which blew up shortly after launch in 1986, the Columbia was destroyed just a few minutes away from its scheduled landing at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A suitcase-sized piece of foam came off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and hit the wing, leaving a hole — which NASA didn’t think was all that important at the time. But when the shuttle was re-entering the atmosphere, Mr. Hadfield said, “a blowtorch of superheated plasma came screaming in through that hole and melted the wing,” and the shuttle exploded. NASA says it is satisfied it understands how the incident occurred and can prevent it in the future.

However, the shuttle must be sent up again to prove conclusively that it is safe to fly. And even after all the modifications — including more than $1.4-billion (U.S.) spent to add heaters to the fuel tank to prevent a buildup of ice that could break off, and to change the way that the protecting foam is applied to the tank — something unexpected could still put the shuttle in harm’s way.

“There is no magic spaceship that is 100-per-cent safe,” Mr. Hadfield said. “We know this is not a perfect vehicle or a vehicle without risk — you can’t ever say something is without risk. But NASA has decided that we understand the risks and that we are prepared to fly again.” The seven astronauts, however, will strap themselves in knowing that a recent task force report found NASA had failed to fulfill three of the goals set out after the Columbia accident.

Those goals were to: ensure that no ice or foam would come loose from the fuel tank; make sure that if anything did hit the shuttle, it wouldn’t cause any serious damage; and if there were any damage, find a way for the astronauts to repair it before their return. According to Mr. Hadfield, those three goals were virtually impossible to meet completely. “We can’t take it to zero,” he said of the chances that something might damage the shuttle. “We can try to minimize it, but we can’t get rid of it completely. And if we do get some kind of damage, there are some holes that we simply can’t repair once we’re up there.”

If something knocks a hole the size of a stop sign in the shuttle’s wing, as the piece of foam did to the Columbia, “we can’t just get out there and throw a bunch of Bondo on it,” he said. Mr. Hadfield and others in the space program say so much study and analysis has been done over the past 2½ years that this shuttle launch could be one of the safest in the aircraft’s 25-year history. “I am confident that this is the safest launch ever attempted,” he said. “Far safer than a shuttle mission has ever been before.” In fact, he said, “I would be far more comfortable flying on this one than I should have been flying on the first two.”

Even the members of the Stafford-Covey task force (otherwise known as the Independent Return to Flight Task Group, set up by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and staffed by former astronauts) said that the shuttle was safe to launch, Mr. Hadfield said — “safer than the ones they flew on.”

Perhaps the biggest struggle for NASA since the Columbia explosion has been coming to grips with all the things that it suddenly realized it didn’t know. According to Mr. Hadfield, “there have been over 10,000 incidents of debris hitting the shuttle during launch” over the 112 flights leading up to the Columbia mission. Why did a piece of foam cause so much damage that one time?

Paul Cooper, a vice-president at MDA Ltd. of Brampton — which built the Canadarm — says the piece of foam would have had to be exactly the right size and come off at exactly the right time to hit the shuttle’s wing in such a way as to damage it so badly. The odds of that are almost impossible to calculate.

“I watched the footage of that foam over and over,” Mr. Hadfield said, “and I decided that we didn’t need to do anything.” So did most of the other NASA engineers who saw it. Now, NASA says it has come as close as it can get to ruling out a similar accident. NASA administrator Michael Griffin — a physicist and engineer — said the shuttle will still be at risk, but at least the risk is known. “Before, we were flying at risk of foam and ice,” he said, but “we really did not know how serious it was. Now we know, and we hope it will be much less because of the changes we have made. But the risk will not be zero.”