Buckling Barrels to Build Better Rockets

NASA is going to crush a giant can. The “can” is a 27.5-foot-wide-by-20-foot-tall, barrel-shaped section similar to the space shuttle external tank. The “crushing” is the application of potentially more than 1 million pounds of force on the barrel. At some point in the test, the force being applied to the barrel will cause the barrel to buckle. It’s that point that NASA engineers want to understand. They’ve used computer models to predict it and now they want to test it out. Does the moment at which the computer says the cylinder will buckle prove to be right?

Imagine taking your foot and stepping on a soda can. The soda can will buckle and bend and eventually crush underneath your weight. That’s the same thing NASA is doing here, except bigger! They want to know the exact point at which the giant aluminum lithium tank buckles. Launch vehicles experience pressure from all directions during a launch, whether it is due to the vehicle’s weight, thrust, aerodynamic pressure, and so on. Launch vehicles have to be built to withstand these millions of pounds of pressures, or loads, from multiple directions. This test is a critical part of that research.

I took a tour this week of the Structural and Dynamics Engineering Test Laboratory, where the oversize experiment is being conducted the morning of March 23 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala. Guiding me on the tour were NASA test engineers Dee VanCleave and George Olden. Dee and George are part of the Structural Strength Test Group at Marshall.

These two and the whole Structural Test Group team have been preparing for this test for more than a year. Something of this magnitude took a lot of pre-planning. During the tour they told us how they had to manufacture larger tools just to do the necessary tasks to prepare the barrel (or test article, as it’s more officially known) and the facility for the test.

The results of the test will help NASA and commercial partners develop lighter launch vehicles. Today’s rockets are more robust than they have to be because the standards being used to make them are decades old. The findings from this research would be applied to the design and the development of rockets and aircraft — or anything with a buckling critical cylindrical structure, George explained.

The Load Test Annex where the test will happen was built decades ago during the development of the Saturn V rocket. It was used in the late ’70s in the structural testing of the space shuttle external tank. Testing for the International Space Station, and other shuttle-related projects, took place in the adjoining Load Test Annex Extension. But the LTA is geared toward structural test projects of a larger magnitude — large like the Saturn V and large like the external tank.

The test is a big deal — literally, of course, but also in terms of the data NASA will gain. The data from this research will be used to make launch vehicles lighter, which means they are cheaper to launch and that they could carry more cargo. It’s also interesting to me to see a facility that was used in the testing of moon rockets and in the development of the space shuttle come back to life.

You can participate in a live webcast of the event via the MSFC Ustream channel, which will include video, Facebook and Twitter updates, beginning at 10:30 a.m. EDT the day of the event.


During the two-hour live stream you can see the test and also hear from the people behind it. Dee and George will be there talking about what’s going on and about some of the smaller-scale research that led up to this point. Also aired will be interviews with Dr. Mark Hilburger, senior research engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center and the principal investigator behind the project, and Mike Roberts, an engineer in Marshall’s Structural Strength Test branch and Marshall’s lead for this test activity.

Check out also the Shell Buckling Knockdown Factor Facebook page and the @nescnews Twitter feed.

Want to know more? Background information on the test and the research behind it can be found in the NASA news feature “NASA Readies for World’s Largest Can Crusher Test” and in the NASA Media Advisory about the event. There’s also an article from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, or NESC who has requested the test, explaining how preliminary tests on smaller eight-foot cylinders confirm launch vehicle weight and cost savings. The NESC also published an article detailing the purpose of the Shell Buckling Knockdown Factor project.

NASA Values Education

Taking Up Space welcomes guest blogger Joe Charbonnet, a student at Georgia Tech and an intern at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Charbonnet participated in the March 4, 2011, in-flight education downlink with astronauts on the International Space Station.

Joel Stein, Joe Charbonnet and Heather Smith

From inside NASA’s Payload Operations Center, Joe Charbonnet(center) talks to the astronauts on the International Space Station. On eitherside of Charbonnet are NASA intern Joe Stein and NASA writer Heather R. Smith,who also talked to astronauts during the call. Image Credit: Emmett Given/NASA

Participating in the downlink with the STS-133 and Expedition 26 crew was a truly special experience. Beyond just the undeniable and perhaps cliché “cool factor” of being in a control room surrounded by people simultaneously monitoring six display consoles and wearing a headset while talking to astronauts in space, the event was enlightening in the insight that it provided to the perspective of our astronauts.

It was commented that given the cost of having the ear of eight astronauts for 25 minutes, this is likely the most expensive phone call I will have ever made in my life. It is a testament then to the value that we put on education here at NASA, that this opportunity was deemed worthy of those resources.  I believe that the astronauts themselves endorsed this value when Captain Steve Bowen said that the inspiration of young people to pursue the sciences is the most valuable accomplishment to come out of spaceflight so far. I can think of no better way to invest our time and resources at NASA than encouraging the pursuit of scientific discovery and exploration that can liberate the minds and spirits of our youth.

I was particularly struck by Mission Specialist Nicole Stott’s answer to the question of which missions from spaceflight’s history she would most like to have flown on. In responding that she would most like to fly on the missions that she has, in fact, flown during her career, she reminded me that despite its recent relative lack of media coverage, spaceflight is still exceptionally rare and that each mission is extremely valuable. We have made a mere handful –less than 200 — manned trips into space. We are making excitingly new and significant discoveries each time we fly and truly blazing the way for future generations of astronauts to make bounds beyond what we can conceive of at this time. And though not quite as select a group as the Mercury Seven, today’s astronauts will still be seen as the venerable pioneers of the frontier of space. This was a thought that had not occurred to me until hearing Mission Specialist Stott’s answer, and consequently was one of the most intellectually enlightening points of the downlink for me personally.

I also was struck by the heavy focus that robotics received in the blog readers’ questions. A full 20 percent of the questions explicitly discussed robotics in space, and I believe that that shows great promise for this field of study as we as a society progress technologically. I think that the response to the question which I asked Colonel Eric Boe really set the stage for that line of discussion throughout the half hour. By responding that our progress in the development of robots today is analogous to that of computers 50 years ago, he conjectured a future in which robotics plays an integral role in not just spaceflight but everyday life. This is an exciting implication of the progress that NASA has made towards technology that could one day be considered essential to life on Earth. As Mission Specialist Stott later pointed out, robots are primarily a convenience — albeit a tremendous one — at this point in our spaceflight systems. From the prospective of these astronauts, one day soon we will have robots contributing not only in ways that humans couldn’t perform physically, but also in roles that are imperative to life in space.

It was also refreshing, if not totally unexpected, to see the unabashed joy these astronauts have to be doing what they do. Be it the “stupid astronaut tricks” that Commander Steve Lindsey spoke of and the crew needed little prompting to perform, or Colonel Cady Coleman’s comment that the thing that she most likes to look for on Earth is the absence of political boundaries, it is clear the astronauts are aware of the greatness of their opportunity. It is also loud and clear (or 5×5 in Communications parlance) that they come to space to have fun, to do important science, to inspire, and to be inspired.

Joe Charbonnet and Heather Smith

Joe Charbonnet adjusts his headset in preparationfor the downlink event. Image Credit: Emmett Given/NASA

With Two Seconds to Spare

The education downlink with the STS-133 and International Space Station crew went off this morning without a hitch. Voice checks were good. We started on time. We made it through all 20 questions with just enough time to say a sincere and heartfelt thanks to the crews for talking to us when our time drew to a close.

The astronauts gave great answers to questions about robotics, the legacy of the space shuttle, what it’s like in microgravity and how they tackle problems in space. We’ve got it all on video, and we will be sharing their responses and those videos here on the blog. For now, a few pictures from the event and the promise of more to come.

Downlink Tips From Up Above

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger floating on the International Space Station

In preparation for tomorrow’s downlink interview with the STS-133 crew we thought it would be fun to talk to an astronaut who’s participated in the in-flight conversations with students and hear what the experience is like for the astronauts. We know what it’s like for students, but what do astronauts think about talking with students from space?

So we asked astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who I’ve blogged about before. Dottie was a mission specialist on the STS-131 space shuttle mission in 2010. During the mission she participated in two education downlinks: one with more than 1,000 students gathered at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey Bay, Calif., and one with students in Gibsonville, N.C., from the auditorium at Eastern Guilford High School.

One of the first things I asked Dottie was to compare the experience of talking to students while standing flat-footed at their school and talking to them with feet floating in the air. How is that experience different for the astronaut being interviewed? Dottie said the space environment lends the conversation to more improvisational moments. “When you’re on Earth and you’re trying to talk about space, it’s hard to make the demonstrations because you’re not in 0 g and you’re in the 1 g environment. I think you can still make (a) great impact (on Earth). It’s just maybe you want to show some clips of video or show some pictures of people that are working or doing things in space to illustrate what you’re trying to talk about. …

“Having now been in space it’s a lot easier to be excited when you’re there in space. I’m always excited about our space program, but I just think when you’re there floating around you don’t even have to work at the excitement energy, while here (on Earth) you might put a little more effort. … You can’t help but be excited while you’re in space!”

We talked about if any moments stood out from either of the in-flight downlinks in which Dottie participated. “I remember a student asking what type of science we were doing in space, and (I) just tried to explain to them there is all the different spectrums of science from your physical and chemical sciences, to engineering, to astronomy, especially with AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) coming, but also there are some other astronomy payloads that are up there, to biological on humans, plants and animals, so that all of the sciences that they learn in school happen on the International Space Station, and it really is a science lab.

“It’s hard to tell students about all those payloads because a lot of the investigations are at a post-graduate level but wanting to get them interested in these different sciences that they’re going to have the opportunity to study in school so I remember trying to think ‘how could I put that into something that they know right now at middle school (level)’ and put it into their words because they haven’t maybe even been exposed to some of these sciences yet, so that’s hard. That was a hard question for me!

“And then of course the easier questions that are always fun are what are your favorite foods or what are you eating in space, how do you sleep there. We got those on both of the downlinks we did.”

Dottie said she tried to make the downlink personal to the students and the school they were talking with. She wanted to make a personal connection with them so they would know that the astronauts were interested in them too and not focused only on answering their question.

“We knew before we were flying who we were going to be talking to, and so while I was quarantined I just got some information about the high school so we could kind of give a little shout-out to the school and know their mascot, maybe know the names of a couple of the teachers that were going to be there just so the kids see that you’re trying to be invested in them too,” Dottie said. “When we were on orbit and actually doing (the downlink), since it is kids, we tried to also show that we were having a lot of fun up there because if you just answer the question, if you just tuck you feet under a handrail and look like you’re standing there then the kids don’t really understand that you’re in space. So Clay (Anderson) hung upside down from one area, and we did some flips and Dex (Commander Alan Poindexter) was throwing food to us, and so we were just trying to make it interactive but also just demonstrate ‘hey, we’re really in space.’”

Dottie had one piece of advice for me tomorrow: speak clearly into the phone. “It was helpful to have that list of questions because sometimes it’s hard to understand the kids. When they get to the mic they get excited or they get nervous or maybe they get too close to the mic. A couple of the questions were actually difficult to understand. Some kids came through much more clearly then others. I wanted to be able to answer the question with the student’s name in the question and make sure I was answering the right type of question. So I think it will be easier for you guys because you’ll speak very clear, and if there’s any miscommunication with the question you can repeat it. It’s harder to get kids (to repeat it) because then they move away from the mic. They ask their question then they move away, they don’t even wait for the answer, and part of that is just the nature of the (event). I think it will be good for your event. I think you’ll have an easier time.”

We closed out our talk with talking about the importance of in-flight education downlinks for inspiring and exciting students about space and human spaceflight. “They are definitely important events,” Dottie said. “We do, when we’re on orbit, take a couple of minutes to collect up some items to make demonstrations. We take them seriously too, and we get to have some fun and we appreciate that too. Of course we were all once their age so we want to inspire them. It’s a fun event for us too.”

The Time Has Come

The launch of STS-133 meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me and to the team behind this blog and other NASA.gov education content, it meant we were much, much closer to having our long-distance phone call to the International Space Station.

We’ve been planning the education downlink with this crew for about six months and are so excited that it’s finally here! The plan is that two NASA interns and I will talk with the crew early in the morning on Friday, March 4, asking them as many questions as we can during the 25-minute downlink.

This downlink event is unique for several reasons. First, we used social media to poll students about what questions they’d most like to see asked. We also involved students by allowing NASA interns to give us their question ideas as well.

It’s unique also because we’ll be talking to the entire shuttle crew plus Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Cady Coleman. That’s a total of eight astronauts! I’m not even sure how they’ll all fit in the camera shot!

Another way it’s unique is that we’ll be talking to the astronauts from inside NASA’s Payload Operations Center, or POC (pronounced pock).

Inside the Payload Operations Center

The Payload Operations Center is the science command post for the space station, located at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The POC manages the operations of science and research experiments aboard the station.

The downlink will be streamed live on NASA TV. The current time is 6:08 a.m. CST. Watch here and on the NASA Taking Up Space Facebook page and @NASAblogTUS feed on Twitter for changes and updates.

Seeing the Shuttle Launch

The STS-133 launch

Image Credit: David Hitt

“Whew. That was close. Everything was looking ideal for launch and then there was a problem and then we were in a hold with less than two minutes to fix the problem. Then the Shuttle Range Office gave the green light, just in the nick of time. We counted backwards from 10 to 1, and she launched!”

Those were my thoughts Thursday as I reflected on watching the STS-133 launch. It’s still crazy to me to think about it.

It was a gorgeous day in Florida. But a perfect Florida day doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect launch day so I didn’t want to let the beautiful weather fool me. NASA was saying weather conditions were at 90 percent “go.” A couple of us even commented that we couldn’t recall ever seeing it that high.

We had a great time all afternoon leading kids in launching rockets and in building and experimenting with robotic fingers and hands. Then it was time to head over to the pier to watch the launch.

Earlier in the day, we used folding chairs to stake out a place on the pier, and the kind folks around us helped secure our spot. We all got in place with the kids in our group up close to the pier, the adults standing behind them and all eyes looking east toward the launch pad.

A couple of us hovered around a two-way radio listening to mission control updates. In one of the updates it was announced that there was a problem. The STS-133 launch blog reported: “The Range Safety Officer reports the Eastern Range is ‘no-go’ due to problems with its central command computer. Standby to see if the issue is resolved.”

The decision was made to come out of the nine-minute hold but to stop the clock again at T minus five minutes to give the range more time to fix the problem.

More time, it turns out, was a little more than two minutes.

Two minutes?!? No pressure or anything, right?

We, on the pier, and as I can imagine all who were watching live and on NASATV, were on pins and needles! Finally the call came through. The Range Safety Officer had given the green light for launch. Discovery was going to launch! Yea!!

Image Credit: David Hitt

The next two minutes passed quickly. In unison we slowly counted 3-2-1. The first thing I recall seeing — the thing that told me the shuttle had indeed launched — was billowing smoke and steam and then I saw flames. I saw a bright streak moving slowly upward and for some reason this was surprising to me. I’ve watched many launches on NASA TV where the camera stays focused on the orbiter the whole time but I had never really seen or appreciated the flame before. These flames were fierce and bright and powerful.

After just a few seconds, the shuttle and the flames disappeared behind a group of clouds, briefly reappeared, and then disappeared for good. What were left were a swirling smoky contrail and a large group of smiling happy adults and children already retelling their experience — the pins and needles, the smoke, the flame, the excitement of having seen the last launch of Discovery and having participated in a historical event that they’ll remember the rest of their lives.