Langley eyes closely watching Discovery

by Chris Bergin

When Discovery eventually lifts off, senior researcher Eric Madaras and his Langley Research Center colleague Bill Prosser will be doing their bit at Mission Control, looking for any physical damage to the shuttle during launch from debris.

Langley’s Scott Berry will also be at Johnson Space Center in Houston, tracking temperature changes in the shuttle, which could signal a problem with its thermodynamic tiles. Langley’s Thomas Horvath will be at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the launch and then will join Berry at Johnson to monitor the rest of Discovery’s flight and descent.

And when Discovery lands, a suitcase retrieved from outside the International Space Station containing more than 450 specimens will be shipped to a clean room at Langley for evaluation. The samples, exposed to space for nearly four years, are materials that may be used on the next-generation shuttle that could one day take humans back to the moon and ultimately Mars.

These are just some of the contributions Langley researchers are making to the space program, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shifts its focus away from aeronautics – Langley’s specialty – toward space. The center is contributing more to the next space shuttle launch – tentatively scheduled for the end of July – than it has before, officials said.

“Before it was a series of e-mails,” Madaras said.

The center has been in a tailspin since President Bush asked the agency earlier this year to direct its efforts toward sending humans to outer space. His budget request for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1, reflects that. If Congress approves the budget, Langley director Roy Bridges Jr. said he would have to cut 1,000 contractor and civil service jobs, about a quarter of the work force.

In recent months, supporters of the research center have rallied to persuade members of Congress to restore the cuts and reaffirm the importance of aeronautics in NASA’s programs. Besides the layoffs, they fear the center’s wind tunnels used by contractors and researchers could be in trouble.

Without stepping into the controversy, Langley officials have maintained an optimism that the Hampton center would continue to be relevant, and on Monday they touted its expanded role in the shuttle program before invited media.

Langley researchers played a role in investigating the break up of the shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. After a number of tests, they confirmed that a piece of the fuel tank’s insulating foam came loose, struck a portion of the wing and made a gash, which caused the shuttle to become unstable upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere and break apart. Now the agency is asking them to prevent it from happening again.

“They see Langley’s capabilities as an asset even more so than before,” said Harry Belvin, deputy manager of Langley’s Return to Flight project.

Langley researchers are making a number of contributions to the next five scheduled flights that they hope will prevent another accident. They involve technologies that haven’t been used in space. They developed a sensor system that alerts astronauts and mission control to potential structure damage after launch. They built an infrared camera that astronauts can use to spot sub-surface damage on the shuttle. They developed “plugs” astronauts can use to cover cracks or gouges in the shuttle’s wings while in space. They built a water-propelled sled to test the durability of the shuttle’s tires while touching down on dry and wet surfaces at 250 miles per hour.

The launch of Discovery has been delayed at least twice because of safety concerns. Edwin Fasanalla, who heads Langley’s reconstruction team, began his Power Point presentation Monday by showing a photo of the lost Columbia crew.

“We don’t want that to happen again,” he said.

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