NASA enhancing unmanned orbiter capability

by Chris Bergin

While NASA continues to play down its very existence, the Autonomous Orbiter Rapid Prototype (AORP) – also known as the Remote Controlled Orbiter (IFM cable) – continues to receive enhancements.

The modification, which flew with Discovery on STS-121, is also manifested on Atlantis’ “Return to Assembly” flight STS-115, allowing an orbiter to return home unmanned in the event of a safe haven contingency being called.

Changing the primary landing site for a damaged and unmanned orbiter to Vandenberg Air Force Station, NASA have issued a software change request, noted as ‘(SCR) 93100C ‘OI-33 Remote Control Orbiter (RCO) Capability Enhancement.’

This RCO capability is a basic system that involves cables and switches that can be installed into the orbiter’s flight deck. The orbiter, which is capable of most of the re-entry and return to Earth, would avoid a ditching in the Pacific ocean with this system, should she survive re-entry with the damage that had called the safe haven requirement into effect.

‘SCR 93100C is the Operational Increment (OI)-33 version of SCR 92971D, ‘RCO-Flight Software Changes to Support Remote Control,’ which provided for the capability of performing an unmanned space shuttle deorbit from the International Space Station (ISS) and landing at White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH),’ noted documentation acquired by

‘This capability was requested by the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) in order to recover the vehicle in lieu of an ocean ditch when a ‘Safe Haven’ has been declared.

‘SCR 93100C provides for the following RCO enhancements: 1) automatic capability to arm and deploy the landing gear and drag chute if Terminal Area Energy Management guidance has terminated; and 2) resumption of Global Positioning System navigation updates during rollout to provide accurate lateral position if Microwave Landing System is no longer available.

‘Due to Range Safety issues of flying over populated land masses, Vandenberg replaces WSSH as the primary landing site.’

If the damage was deemed to be so serious that it was highly unlikely the orbiter would make it home in one piece, the orbiter would undergo a controlled disintegration.

NASA finally released documents which contained the procedures for when a safe haven contingency was called, otherwise known as contingency shuttle crew support (CSCS) in 2006.

Those documents also show that the procedure for disposing a crippled orbiter would involve the commanding of a de-orbit burn, before manoeuvring the vehicle into the opposite orientation for re-entry. With her TPS (Thermal Protection System) facing towards space, the orbiter would re-enter tail first, causing the vehicle to disintegrate and burn up in the upper atmosphere.

While the opportunity to give an orbiter a fighting chance of returning home is desirable and should be seen as a positive addition to the orbiter’s capabilities, NASA continue to be cagey towards releasing information, as requests though official lines with NASA PAO (Public Affairs Office) continue to go unanswered, possibly through fear of a negative media spin on the modification.

‘… have learned that the Remote Controlled Orbiter IFM cable is being flown on Discovery and want to know more about the RCO capability, especially how it might factor into CSCS and a potential remote-controlled landing should vehicle damage occur,’ noted an e-mail from United Space Alliance communications and NASA, which was forwarded to this site by sources.

‘It’s likely that other media will inquire about this, given the current media focus on NASA’s decision to fly STS-121 ‘despite objections.”

Despite STS-115 August 2-3 MOD Flight Readiness Review (FRR) Presentations showing Atlantis’ preparations are proceeding without objections, as they head towards the final FRR review, NASA continues to treat AORP as a taboo subject.

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