Friday, March 14, 2008

A Week in Space: Success Built on Failure

The Fountains of Enceladus

"Institutional memory is no luxury at NASA."
Joel Raupe

The week in space saw demonstrations of astounding success, with stubbed toes and skinned knees here and there. Around Saturn, in low-Earth-orbit and here on the surface humans are building success on the shoulders of monumental failure.

Twentieth Century astronomer Harlow Shapley may have been wrong to disagree with Edmund Hubble’s theory that the Milky Way is yet another Galaxy, in a universe filled with similar “islands” in "the Great Debate" with Heber D. Curtis in 1920, but Shapley was prophetic in believing the quest for the stars would be a rugged one.

Planning for Failure:

At Langley Research Center NASA showed off an engineering mock up of an Orion engineering mock-up built to test launch failure escape systems. It evoked memories of similar Apollo mock-ups rolled out in 1961, even as Project Mercury was barely underway, and also memories also of Apollo 1 and the launch test Oxygen fire incinerating it's crew, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967.

"Institutional Memory isn't a luxury with NASA. Failure to remember is far too expensive.

Last month Thomas D. Jones remembered his friends aboard Columbia five years ago when he wrote in Popular Science that “Orion will launch with a powerful escape motor that can rocket its crew away from a disintegrating booster. A conical crew cabin structure will protect the heat shield beneath it from a debris strike like the one that doomed Columbia.”

Institutional Memory isn't a luxury with NASA. Failure to remember is far too expensive, as is contingency planning that would give a soccer mom a brain cramp. The costly fire on the pad killing the crew of Apollo 1, and the Apollo 204 Investigation Board, led by future Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, and the discovering of 20,000 design flaws in the Apollo/Saturn vehicles, saved future success for Apollo and nine visits by 27 people to lunar realm.

Of course, the pad fire would not have been prevented by a capsule escape system, a contingency never used in American manned spaceflight, but it does show contingency planning works. It works where failure is anticipated. Critical faults that did end up failing in the future appear always to be ones not planned for in contingency policy, but deadly failure always brought harsh light to systemic and mechanical flaws in need of being contingency planning priorities.

Capsule escape systems were never used during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, but early NASA officials were informed by the spectacular booster explosions on the pad and just after lift-off of unmanned vehicles before and after, just as they're reminded today by more recent failure. Thomas D. Jones' article in POPSCI shows a return to expendable boosters and “capsules” won't mean that Constellation will be uninformed by the space shuttle and the lessons of both Challenger and Columbia, perhaps in finally giving design and mission critics a voice equal to those of accountants and vendors, and their friends in Congress.

Working the Problem:

In low-Earth-orbit, STS-123 and Endeavour docked with the International Space Station and joined Expedition 16 a few minutes later than planned, and by the end of our work week the first of five planned spacewalks during the shuttle's stay ended with attachment of the Japanese Kibo module and new dexterity added to the space station’s robotic Canadarm2 and crane with Dextre properly installed, at least where it should be.

Initial Power Couplings for the improvement didn't power-up, however, but costly failure was diverted in time when Primary Couplings were installed on the second spacewalk of STS-123, Saturday.

It's been a working weekend for NASA-Houston, and mostly according to plan for the ten people falling around Earth five miles a second, and 200 miles overhead.

On the first spacewalk, EVA record holder and ISS Expedition 16 commander Dr. Peggy Whitson reported her first look inside Kibo from the station showed "nothing unexpected." She was also happy to confirm no "floaters" inside the new station segment, now the first manned space vehicle built by Japan.

Expedition 16 flight engineer Dr. Garrett Reisman and STS-123 mission specialist Dr. Rick Linnehan completed the first spacewalk of the shuttle mission at 0919 UT, out in the void for seven hours and one minute.


Far beyond the Moon, and just past conjunction, the soft yellowish star overhead before sidereal midnight testifies to the distance Cassini first had to travel even to begin its mission at Saturn.

It has been darting up and around and over and under the gaseous giant, using orbital mechanics of astounding complexities and Saturn and its many moon's gravity wells as third and fourth dimensional side pockets to fly out and away and quickly drawn back in again in precise maneuvering over and over again in an orbit around Saturn unlike any in nature.

Wednesday evening, in a much anticipated event Cassini was busy collecting data as it sliced just under the brightest moon in the solar system, over fresh snow on the south pole of Enceladus.

Slewing cameras as it moved by at 9 miles a second (14.4 kps); and only 32.3 miles above its surface, Cassini performed another unprecedented maneuver in a mission composed of unprecedented maneuvers to discover more about still another outer solar system discovery.

Almost everyone who read a newspaper on Earth knew the purpose. Ice geysers, shooting towers of wispy strands the fan directly away at distances far greater than Enceladus' width had been discovered where a heat signature was spotted in the Infrared spectrum earlier in the mission. Cassini, steered by controllers at JPL a billion miles away in Pasadena, was forced to zip directly through what apparently were the highest water fountains known to exist in our star system.

Enceladus has joined its Saturnian sister Titan, and Jupiter’s Io and Europa, as a member of the human "Hit Parade" of most intriguing moons.” It's large enough for its mass to have crushed itself into a sphere, but has a snow-blinding diameter roughly equal to the length of Interstate 95 in North Carolina.

As monumental a success as the maneuver turned out to be in adding another achievement to Pasadena’s long list of unsurpassed magic, as JPL waited for the data to download as it arrived in packets from 90 light minutes away as it was being scooped up by the Deep Space Network, and as Cassini continued a mad dash toward Titan, it became clear after a time that a “software hiccup” had spoiled a most important part of the show.

Planetary scientists won’t be disappointed with the pictures. They may even yet begin to answer the question of what forces are at play making Enceladus so “dynamic” and new in its south while so obviously ancient and quiet in its north. Those same scientists continue to puzzle over the awesome complexities of Saturn’s rings, and Enceladus with her high fountains of water ice somehow plays a role in that mystery.

Leading into the flyby Cassini shot side glances of those rings nearly edge on and caught now alomost routine shots of more than a few of the Ring’s Shepherd Moons, dancing to a melody we still can’t quite hear. Enceladus may be chief among them, particulary concerning its part in the cycling of Saturn's E-Ring.

But the very experiment onboard Cassini needing to be inside those tremendous Fountains of Enceladus became useless at the very moment it was most needed, though shuffling of software that had been rehearsed and rehearsed, and rehearsed again in the days beforehand. It was an anomaly suitable to a short story by Arthur C. Clarke.

JPL explained the "hiccup" this way:

"During Cassini's closest approach, two instruments were collecting data--the Cosmic Dust Analyzer and the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer. An unexplained software hiccup with Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer instrument prevented it from collecting any data during closest approach, although the instrument did get data before and after the approach. During the flyby, the instrument was switching between two versions of software programs. The new version was designed to increase the ability to count particle hits by several hundred hits per second. The other four fields and particles instruments on the spacecraft, in addition to the ion and neutral mass spectrometer, did capture all of their data, which will complement the overall composition studies and elucidate the unique plume environment of Enceladus."And the raw imagery doesn't disappoint, with promising new information promising to be teased out in the days ahead.

Amazing Cassini, unscathed, roboticly unembarrassed, now speeds on toward Titan, continuing a long and amazing tour.

Cassini returns to Enceladus next October.

Europe’s Progress:

And then there’s the Jules Verne, ESA's new unmanned ATV space truck, which was inserted safely into a parking orbit after being lifted high and fast aloft from equatorial Kourou while perched atop a powerful Ariane 5.

During initial orbital checkout, in a “holding pattern” and with time to kill as controllers waits for Endeavour to depart for its turn at the Harmony Node at ISS, ESA ground controllers worked feverishly to restore 7 of 28 reaction control thrusters and one of three of the ATV’s main engines, failing to respond to command.

They were successful in restoring the fire (though ESA was confident the cargo vessel would safely make it to ISS regardless) and they can stop sweating, for the moment, ahead they can look forward to new ATV’s first semi-automated docking depending the hardcore-proven Russian-supplied and Ukrainian-built Kurs docking system.


Noteworthy in all this are simple facts illustrating little problems are always essential parts of the stories of big successes, and big success seems highly dependant upon now-working systems that were once spectacular failures.

That Kurs docking system, an unquestioned success today and essential to the ISS and Russia's Progress, was a buggy and unholy mess, playing a role in breath-stealing human and mechanical error such as more than one complete miss, near miss and at least one catastrophic accident in the days of the Soviet MIR space station program only eleven years ago.

And Jules Verne was successfully propelled to its present station-keeping orbit by the once- equally disastrous Ariane 5, which exploded nine miles up and rained debris on the French Guyana and Brazilian coast over an area of many miles twelve years ago.

Remembered clearly that day the cry of a Kourou facility launch director, when it happened, who reported with tears, “it is all over, it is all finished.”

Clearly, it was not.

And then the beginning of this present NewSpace Race, even throughout the world, might well be marked by the hellish disintegration of Columbia over Texas on February 1, 2003., though some would mark it with Ronald Reagan's determination to open the sky to entrepreneurship the previous decade. It was Columbia that refocused public attention, and without political will, Lincoln believed, nothing is possible.

Far from ending manned and unmanned space exploration, renewed Vision starts with documented mechanical and systemic failure. Failure may not be "an option," but it is a proven element essential to success.

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