Tag Archives: technology

My Favorite Shuttle Flight

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Today seems like an appropriate day to start reminiscing about the ol’ shuttle program, so here goes.

 

Sooner or later everybody is going to get to pick their favorite shuttle flight. 

 

There is a lot to choose from; the boldest test flight in history (STS-1), launching the Hubble (STS-31), or servicing the Hubble (several flights), or assembling the space station (STS-88 and many more), or . . . well, you name it.

 

My favorite flight was STS-77.  This is partly personal, it was the first time I was Lead Flight Director, in charge of the planning and development for the flight as well as the actual execution.  

 

Other than that personal reason, STS-77 may seem an odd choice for favorite flight, but after I tell you about it, you may change your mind.  On that flight we carried a double SpaceHab module with many science experiments on board.  Doing microgravity science on short term (approximately two weeks) shuttle flights is tough, but some good science was done by the crew.  But the other payloads that captured most of our interest and had the potential to yield the most significant results. 

 

One experiment consisted of a small cylindrical sub satellite (shown in the following picture) which was covered by reflective material.  It was ejected from the shuttle payload bay early in the flight.  The cylinder also included a couple of permanent magnets.  The entire experiment consisted of using those magnets to align the satellite with the earth’s magnetic field; a very passive way to provide attitude control for small satellites.  The plan was to kick the satellite out, with a lot of wobble – clearly out of control, fly away for a day, come back, and observe how stable the satellite had become. 

 

Test Satellite ejected from Shuttle Payload Bay

 

 

In actual practice, . . . well. 

 

The shuttle rendezvoused with the satellite 24 hours later, and it was still wobbling all over the sky, so we went away.   We came back another 24 hours later, and it was still wobbling significantly, so we went away again.  We then waited 48 hours and came back and it was nearly stable, but not completely.  End of experiment.  Nice idea, came close to working, but took too long and never quite did what it was supposed to do.

 

 

 

Did I tell you that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous operations of any space flight?  The crew got really good at those procedures.

 

Even more impressive was the Inflatable Antenna Experiment (IAE).  The Spartan free flyer was originally designed to be a platform for astronomical experiments (one of the A’s in Spartan is for astronomy).  On this flight, a box with a tightly packaged balloon was mounted on the Spartan.  We put the Spartan/IAE out with the shuttle arm, let it go, flew a few hundred feet away, and watched the sequence.  The box was to pop open and pressurized gas at just a few psi would inflate a huge antenna.  If the antenna were stable and the geometry was right, we could have a new way of building light weight, inexpensive radio antennas in orbit.  What a great concept!  The Spartan had cold gas thrusters to maintain attitude control and would point this test antenna in a direction where we could observe whether or not it performed as expected. 

 

IAE & Spartan over the Grand Canyon

 

Things did not go as planned. 

 

Rather than a straightforward inflation of the balloon, the antenna looked at first like an octopus with multiple entangling arms.  After several minutes it achieved a stable shape as we had expected, but the entire Spartan/IAE package was tumbling end over end. 

 

Clearly the inflation had set up a motion that the Spartan’s attitude control system could not overcome. 

 

Even worse, when the “lens” part of the antenna came clearly into view, the surface was not smooth but wrinkled and those wrinkles fluttered across the surface of the lens in constant motion.  This would not provide the smooth, stable surface necessary for radio transmission. 

 

After observing at a close distance for the planned time; the shuttle crew backed off to a safe distance, the balloon was jettisoned, and the Spartan bus stabilized itself. 

 

A day later the shuttle rendezvoused with the Spartan bus, grappled it with the arm,  and stowed the Spartan safely in the payload bay.

 

Did I mention that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous executed by any single space mission?

 

So here is the scorecard:  several of the SpaceHab science experiments provided interesting results.  The Passive Attitude Control sub-satellite using magnets and the earth’s magnetic field did not achieve the expected results.  The Inflatable Antenna Experiment was, in that configuration, a failure.  And of course, the record number of rendezvous!

 

So, what do we say about this flight?

 

Both of these showy free flying experiments were radical, even revolutionary ways of doing business in space.  They were bold in their conception and execution.  If successful, those technologies would have been “game-changing” to use a phrase in current vogue.  But they failed.  That happens sometimes when you test radical innovative technologies.  On the other hand, sometimes you actually succeed.  You always learn.  If we were to try those experiments again, with the knowledge of what didn’t work last time, they might just work.  The revolution may still be just out there. 

 

I recently heard a radio program discussing what makes America so successful, how we have built such an innovative, creative society.  Part of the reason, it was stated, is that we are not afraid to try something and fail.  In fact, it expected that we will encounter failure. You cannot be innovative and not have failures.  Being paralyzed at the prospect of a potential failure is the greatest failure of all.

 

Try something.  Be bold, revolutionary, even game changing.  Just don’t be surprised if you have to pick yourself up off the ground and dust off your pants from time to time.  It’s the American way.

One tenth of one percent of anything

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

          Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

We really like to believe we have got it all figured out.  We feel that we know most everything.  Ask anybody on the street and they can tell you exactly how the world works.  We are sure of our place in it.  We have it all figured out, just like they taught us in school.

Right.

In Shakespeare’s most profound play there are several singular and remarkable statements about who we are and exactly how much we really know.  Horatio and Hamlet are students at the University of Wittenberg, at least before certain troubles called them home.  Horatio studies science – what they called in those days “natural philosophy”.  Like all good students of science, he believes that the universe is well understood and we know our place in it.  Hamlet is not so certain; you can almost hear his sarcasm as he tells his friend (in modern terms) “Your science doesn’t begin to understand the universe”.  The bard puts it more memorably, of course. 

 

In Shakespeare’s time, or Hamlet’s, the future was unimaginable.  Life and technology was not very different from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  There was not even the expectation that change was possible.  But a revolution was lurking, because “natural philosophers” (scientists) were finding out that just a little more about how the universe works. 

 

Copernicus and Kepler built on the observations of Tycho Brahe and found that we were not the center of the universe; other planets revolved around the sun, and so do we.  This improved understanding of the universe, plus maybe a falling apple, inspired Newton to formulate new laws of science.  Laws that became the basis of a technological and social revolution:  steam power and the industrial revolution.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, the ancient Greeks and Romans could not imagine steam engines, railways, and the industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.  But those changes can be directly mapped from a better understanding of the universe.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, everyone was certain, just like Horatio, that we perfectly understood our place in the cosmos and the laws that govern the universe.  But William and Caroline Herschel made astounding observations of the universe that once more changed our understanding of where we are.  We live in a galaxy of other stars; the Milky Way is not merely a glowing cloud but what we have come to call a galaxy, an island universe.  And once again, we were surprised to find that humanity is not at the center of it.  Herschel did more, discovering something we now call infrared radiation.    Nobody knew what those discoveries meant and where they would lead, or if indeed they would lead anywhere.  It took James Clerk Maxwell in a later century to discover the laws of physics that were evident only after the Herschel’s observations inspired wonder.   Newton’s laws did not explain everything, it seems.  Maxwell’s laws opened the veil of the universe a little bit more.

In the 19th century we thought we knew everything.  But radio, television, and the applications of electricity were unimaginable.  Only after Maxwell’s laws were put to work did amazing new industries that were previously inconceivable come into being.  The first American Nobel Prize winner (in Physics) Albert A. Michelson observed in 1894:  “Our future discoveries must be looked for in the 6th decimal place.”  And the director of the US Patent office famously lobbied for the dissolution of his agency since all possible practical inventions had already been discovered.

Don’t laugh at them; they have good company.  We are in that company today.

Shortly thereafter, Edwin Hubble started making observations with the new Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson and observed astounding facts.  There are other galaxies.  And we are not at the center of them.  And they are moving at incredible speeds.  Around the same time, a Swiss patent office clerk, inspired by the observations of the universe around us, postulated new physical laws.  In 1900 nobody could conceive of digital electronics, computers, and their infinite variations; these inventions were literally unimaginable.  After all we knew everything there was to know, what else could there be? 

Now, of course, we know everything about the universe.  All the laws of nature have been discovered and published by Einstein, Maxwell, and Newton.  All the possible industries have been invented.  Probably time to think about closing the patent office again.

But wait. 

Hubble’s namesake has made some very troubling observations.  Almost impossible to understand.  Observations that don’t fit with the laws of Newton, Maxwell, or even Einstein.  Not only are we not at the center of the universe, but we don’t even know what the universe is.  Turns out that all our observations, all our patient learning, has been made looking at only about 5% of the universe.  Dark matter and dark energy and something that is accelerating the motions of the galaxies are at work; 95% of the universe is both unobserved and not understood.  Some cosmologists even believe there are complete other universes in dimensions we just can’t quite see. 

Where does this go?  Who will explain it to us?  When will the next Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein appear?  Unfortunately serendipity does not arrive on a precise schedule.  Great leaps in human understanding of the universe are not predictable in their occurrence.  Genius does not punch a time clock.  But one thing is true; we have to first understand that we don’t understand.  Then someone will be inspired to figure it out.  Probably she or he is out there today, working on the equations, getting ready to publish the paper that will win the Nobel Prize.  Or it may be a century or two.  Whenever it happens, it will come because we were willing to observe, explore, question. 

What will it mean? 

Only one prediction can be made with certainty:  we have no idea.  There is no way we can predict what that next level of understanding of the universe will bring.  There is no way to imagine the industries that will result.  There is no way to imagine what our great grandchildren’s lives will be like.  No way.

Could Shakespeare and Horatio have imagined the internet? 

That is where we are. 

Why do I write about this?  Because we must keep the search for knowledge going.  Where it leads I don’t know, but every leap had lead to better lives for all mankind.  If we don’t continue to search, to observe, to explore, we will cease to innovate, cease to grow, and start to die.

As the great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison once observed:  “We don’t know one tenth of one percent of anything.”  Better keep the patent office open.

So will we fly someday to the stars?  Einstein says never.  But what does a patent office clerk know?  I’d subscribe to Robert Goddard’s sunny optimism in his valedictory address:

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.”

   

 

 

Presidents' Day

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Today (as I post this) is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.  Next Monday (February 16th this year) we celebrate Presidents’ Day in honor of the birthdays of both Lincoln and George Washington.  Poor George had the misfortune to live during the period when the English speaking world changed from the Julian Calendar to the new Calendar endorsed by Pope Gregory – which caused his birthday to move about ten days on the calendar.  So we can celebrate George Washington’s birthday about anywhere in the second half of February, I guess.  Which may be why the Federal holiday is movable and always on a Monday.  Pity that we don’t celebrate Jefferson’s birthday (April 13), too but then I suppose we are to celebrate all our presidents on Monday the 16th.   I wonder what the legacy of our new President will be?

 

Enough meandering.  Change is inevitable and comes increasingly quickly.  There are plenty of news stories or sociological papers about how quickly change is accelerating in our times.  How can we possibly cope with such huge and rapid change, they all ask.

 

Interesting, then, to contemplate the changes that occurred between Washington and Lincoln.  Was there any change to speak of? 

 

To answer that question I would offer up a short selection which is more thoughtful than anything I could write on my own.

 

The following is an excerpt from “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose.  The book is about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6

 

Pay careful attention to the sentence which describes the biggest obstacle to change being that of a closed mind.

 

 

   “It seemed unlikely that one nation could govern an entire continent.  The distances were just too great.  A critical fact in the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse.  No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof, for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster.  Nothing ever had moved any faster, and, as far as Jefferson’s contemporaries were able to tell, nothing ever would. 

     And except on a racetrack, no horse moved very fast.  Road conditions in the United States ranged from bad to abominable, and there weren’t very many of them.  The best highway in the country ran from Boston to New York; it took a light stagecoach, carrying only passengers, their baggage, and the mail, changing horses at every station, three full days to make the 175 mile journey.  The hundred miles from New York to Philadelphia took two days.  South of the new capital city of Washington, D.C., there were no roads suitable for a stagecoach; everything moved on horseback.  . . .

     To the west, beyond the mountains, there were no roads at all, only trails.  To move men or mail from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Seaboard took six weeks or more; anything heavier than a letter took two months at least. . . .

     People took it for granted that things would always be this way.  The idea of progress based on technological improvements or mechanics, the notion of a power source other than muscle, falling water, or wind, was utterly alien to virtually every American.  Writing in the last decade of the nineteenth century about conditions in the year of Jefferson’s inaugural, Henry Adams observed that “great as were the material obstacles in the path of the United States, the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind.  Down to the close of the eighteenth century no change had occurred in the world which warranted practical men in assuming that great changes were to come.

     Since the birth of civilization there had been almost no changes in commerce or transportation. Americans lived in a free and democratic society, he first in the world since ancient Greece, a society that read Shakespeare and had produced George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but a society whose technology was barely advanced over that of the Greeks.  The Americans of 1801 had more gadgets, better weapons, a superior knowledge of geography, and other advantages over the ancients, but they could not move goods or themselves or information by land or water any faster than had the Greeks and Romans. 

     But only sixty years later, when Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office as the sixteenth president of the United States, Americans could move bulky items in great quantity farther in an hour than Americans of 1801 could do in a day, whether by land (twenty five miles per hour on the railroads) or water (ten miles an hour upstream on a steamboat).  This great leap forward in transportation – a factor of twenty or more – in so short a space of time must be reckoned as the greatest and most unexpected revolution of all – except for another technological revolution, the transmitting of information.  In Jefferson’s day, it took six weeks to move information from the Mississippi River to Washington, D.C.  In Lincoln’s, information moved over the same route by telegraph all but instantaneously.

     Time and distance, mountains and rivers meant something entirely different to Thomas Jefferson from what they meant to Abraham Lincoln.”

 

 

 

So with change inevitable and accelerating, our economic health depends on our innovation and flexibility to provide new products and services in the future; some of which are not even conceived in the public mind today. 

 

NASA has long been an agent of innovation, and there is ample documentation of new products, services, companies, and entire sectors of the economy that were spun off or at least advanced by what we do.  For that reason alone, NASA is a good investment for the country.

 

It is incredibly important to be innovative and that is why we must look to the best practices to encourage innovation and the development of ideas into productive parts of our economy. 

Odds and Ends

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Tomorrow I’ll try to share another old Flight Director war story.  The last one set off quite the email chain at work as all the old SRAG guys felt like I was complaining about their work; not at all.  Let me set the record straight; the folks that keep watch over the crew’s health and their possible radiation exposure are thoroughly professional and very dedicated.  And they mainly scare the Flight Director to death when they appear in the Flight Control Room.   The moral of my previous story is that there is a lot to know about how to fly safely in space and rookie Flight Directors are dangerous.  Tomorrow I’ll try to post another example of that. 

I had a little free time in Paris and tried to exercise the other hemisphere of my brain by going to the Musee d’Orsay, which is an art museum specializing in late 19th century to early (pre WWI) 20th century art.  I have a liking for the impressionist school and my friend from Marshall, Dr. John Horack likes the pointellists so I thought this would be a good place to improve my art appreciation.  The museum is housed in a converted 19th century train station and I must say that the building itself is as much a work of art as anything inside.  I am fascinated by trains and railroads and looking at this wonderful structure was great. 

The art is wonderful, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, and many many more.  It seemed like the artists have a few favorite subjects that appear again and again, however.  Among the popular subjects are scenes from the Bible, French peasant life, French countrysides, Paris street scenes, and the number one favorite subject of all the artists:  . . . nekkid ladies.  Hmm.  I guess that is how Paris got its reputation.

Being an engineer, I started looking for picures of technology and noticed how little there was.  An ox cart here and there.  A few sailboats, usually fishing sloops.  In the battle scenes there might be a cannon  or two.  But here they were in the middle of the industrial age with steam railroads, the dawn of aviation, and . . . almost nothing.  A couple of trains in the distance in landscape paintings, but nothing else.  Oh wait, hidden away in the corner was this little picture:

 

Bleriot’s little yellow monoplane crossing the English channel; one of the most significant events of early aviation history — and nothing else.  And even so, the clouds and their interesting play of light and shadow are the real subject of the painting, not the airplane.  And that was it; nothing from the Wright Brother’s famous exhibition in Paris.  Nothing.  Technology did not exist to these guys.  Engineering and technology was not a fitting subject for their art work. 

Sigh.

I thought about the great art work that I have seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington or in the Kennedy Spaceport in Florida.  People and landscapes show up there, but that art includes our machines and what we have done with them.  Even more to my liking. 

Now, do I have to connect the dots for you?  Art reflects what the artists think is important; great art reflects what the society thinks is important.  

Yes, you can learn a lot if you travel and observe and reflect on what you have seen.