Wednesday, December 26, 2007

NASA's holiday break

At Launch Pad 39A, a United Space Alliance technician carefully cuts away the foam insulation surrounding the covers over the feed-through connector box on the external tank for space shuttle Atlantis' STS-122 mission, revealing the fastener holes on the covers.The folks at NASA enjoy a few well-deserved days off during the holiday season. They have worked very hard and finally gotten close to the root cause of the ECO sensor problem. Well done!

As reports, there are some new problem reports. However, I think this is nothing really unusual, problems appear every now and then. Right now, we are just more aware of them. I personally think we should not get to concerned about them, at least not until further facts are known.

The mission management team is set to meet again on December, 27th. Then, they will look at the work done so far. Besides some work at the orbiter, this most importantly includes plans drawn to address the ECO sensor problem.

From what I have read, the actual root cause is still unknown. It is know that the problem is inside the LH2 feedthrough connector, which is good and provides a lot of repair options. However, the question why the connector suffers problems is not answered yet. As of my understanding, NASA prefers to get hold of Atlantis' feedthrough connector. That would enable detailed analysis with the actual failed part - and thus there is an excellent chance of finding the root cause. However, that is probably one of the more time consuming options. If that route is taken, launch would be further delayed, and January 10th would not be an option any more.

With just the little information I know, I think it would be useful to sacrifice the launch date in order to get access to the failing feedthrough connector. Remember: the external tank is the only part of the space shuttle stack that is not reusable. As such, analyzing the feedthrough connector after launch is not an option. I personally think it would make more sense to launch, let's say, in February if that offers the choice to find the root cause. That would not only be good for the remaining shuttle flights, but could also provide valuable "lessons learned" for the Constellation program. Even if Ares will not fly ECO sensors (I don't know...), the root cause may show something that we do not yet know, be it electrical engineering related, material sciences or whatever else. Getting that missing information can possible increase our understanding and help prevent other, not yet know, problems in future equipment.

But again, keep in mind I have very limited insight. Maybe NASA has even a way to find root cause and still maintain the January, 10th launch attempt. I don't know for sure. But I know that after the December, 27th press briefing we'll probably know more. And if you plan to travel to see Atlantis January launch, I wouldn't book my tickets too early...

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