NASA look to cancel WAVE capability

by Chris Bergin

The stunning video and photography gained by the high altitude flying WB-57s during shuttle launches may soon be a thing of the past, as NASA evaluated whether to cancel the use of the two aircraft.

Known as WAVE (WB-57 Ascent Video Experiment), the ability to have the additional resource of unique ascent – and to a point, re-entry – photographic capability was debated during Thursday’s PRCB (Program Requirements Control Board) meeting in Houston, in a cost over benefit evaluation.

**Over 3000mb of STS-116 onwards related presentions and mission documentation available on L2 ** 

Several WAVE presentations from PRCB (including Thursdays – 15 PRCB presentations on all shuttle related topics also available). Several hi res WAVE images from two flights. Hi Res WAVE video used in NASA evaluations (not NASA TV versions) – and more available on L2.

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Flying at 60,000 feet, the two WB-57s film the shuttle’s as they leave the pad, and follow the orbiter all the way up through Solid Rocket Booster separation, and on to MECO (Main Engine Cut Off). **CLICK IMAGES FOR EXPANDED VIEWS**

While the images are themselves stunning – some of which taken during STS-115 gained notoriety in the blogosphere when they were mistaken as images taken of a launch from the International Space Station (ISS) – their purpose is clear.

The images and video gained from the cameras placed on the nose of the aircraft are evaluated by engineers and technicians on the ground, in order to spot any foam/debris liberation during the ascent stage of the vehicle. Their data is also used in tandem with any IFA (In Flight Anomaly) that may occur during the ride uphill.

However, following their debut on the return to flight missions, NASA’s hugely successful three flights in the second half of 2006 have caused the agency to look at the possibility of cancelling both the WAVE project and required upgrades to the equipment that flies with the aircraft.

‘In November, 2006, the PRCB assigned an action to MS to assess the cost versus benefits of continued use of the WAVE for ascent and entry imaging,’ opened a the presentation that was viewed by shuttle managers at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) on Thursday, continuing with a list of benefits that are gained from the WAVE capability.

‘WAVE provides a unique capability for Shuttle imaging during ascent. Images of the whole stack on one side (ELVIS cameras focus on a specific area) all the way to Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO)

‘Can obtain shuttle imagery even when thick cloud cover obscures ground cameras. WAVE is the only imagery asset that might be able to capture the vehicle from launch to landing in a Return To Launch Site (RTLS) situation. WAVE could provide the only view of significant Shuttle anomalies during ascent if ground cameras are obscured by clouds.

‘WAVE provides the only NASA-owned opportunity for entry imaging of the Shuttle while it is over water. WAVE can not respond quickly to changes in landing site or trajectory, so acquisition of the vehicle is not always possible. WAVE could provide a view of a serious Shuttle anomaly during entry. With additional capability/sensors, WAVE could also provide Boundary Layer Transition data.’

**Ride home through the fire and plasma of re-entry with Atlantis on STS_115 – Stunning 2hr, 355mb video – from deorbit burn to post landing**

While WAVE has no operational negatives attached to it, NASA noted in the presentation that upgrades would be desirable to correct the ‘jitter’ noted on the imagery of the latter stages of ascent to orbit.

Listing operation and upgrade costs for the 2007 financial year (FY07), NASA will be looking at an invoice of around $5m, which while relatively small when compared to the total bill for reducing debris liberation in the first place, it has to be deemed as a justified cost.

‘WAVE Aircraft Operations costs for FY 07 assuming five missions (now projected to be four 2007 missions as per latest manifest) will be $3.213M,’ added the document. ‘Total: $642,600/msn for ascent and entry. This covers up to a two day slip in launch for each flight.

‘Additional slips will require additional funding. Jitter fix will cost $1.5M in FY07 plus $220K annual sensor maintenance and parts. Total FY 07 cost for WAVE ascent and entry support is $4.933M.’

A decision has not been taken on cancelling – or continuing with the potential upgrade to equipment – as the presentation ended with notes that give both the pros and cons for keeping the WAVE capability.

‘While WAVE provides a unique imaging capability for the Shuttle, the potential benefits do not justify spending $4.9M in FY-07, considering the restrictive budget climate in the Shuttle. WAVE imagery does not increase safety on the flight underway.

‘However, the potential opportunity to view major systems anomalies and thereby reduce risk on future flights is lost.’

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