NASA and The Aerospace Corporation
NASA and The Aerospace Corporation
For half a century, NASA and Aerospace have worked closely to increase the scientific and technical knowledge base of the nation and establish the United States as a leader in space technologies and explorations.
Dave Bearden and Roy Chiulli
Established October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a U.S. government agency responsible for advancing flight-related technology. NASA added the development of space technology to the NACA aeronautics mission.
NASA’s first high-profile human spaceflight program was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight. Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space when he rode his Mercury capsule on a 15-minute suborbital mission on May 5, 1961. John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth on February 20, 1962. With six flights, Project Mercury achieved its goal of placing piloted spacecraft into Earth orbit and retrieving the astronauts safely.
Project Gemini built on Mercury’s achievements. NASA’s 10 flights in 1965 and 1966 provided more data on weightlessness, perfected reentry and splashdown procedures, and demonstrated rendezvous and docking in space. On June 3, 1965, Gemini astronaut Ed White became the first American to perform a spacewalk.
The Aerospace Corporation supported those early Mercury and Gemini programs, parts of which were overseen by the Air Force. The corporation worked on the Atlas booster and an abort sensing system that would initiate capsule separation in case the Atlas malfunctioned. Aerospace developed a “man-rating” system for the Mercury spacecraft to certify that the craft was reliable enough for transporting humans.
Since that time, Aerospace has supported a number of NASA programs. During the 1970s, for example, Aerospace contributed to early concept studies for the space shuttle. Aerospace worked with NASA on Skylab, the country’s first operational space station, as well as its successor, the International Space Station. The Landsat program, which has been gathering and relaying images of Earth since 1972, has also benefitted from Aerospace support. More recently, Aerospace has made critical contributions to four major NASA programs: the space shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and the Mars Exploration Rovers.
The Space Shuttle
Following the success of the Apollo missions, NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) embarked on an effort to make space access more routine. Although the concept of a reusable space vehicle had been discussed for many years, NASA officially began work on such a vehicle in 1970. The Space Transportation System—commonly known as the space shuttle—was formally commenced in 1972 when President Nixon announced that NASA would develop a reusable space shuttle system. Considerable debate surrounded the selection of a shuttle design that would optimally balance capability with development and operating costs. The shuttle was expected to handle DOD payloads as well as NASA projects, and Aerospace helped ensure that DOD requirements were adequately addressed in the final design. Aerospace developed performance specifications and provided cost analyses for the proposed shuttle and related proposals, such as an orbit-to-orbit “tug” and space vehicles equipped with chemical and nuclear propulsion.
NASA decided on a partially reusable, crewed orbiter with an enlarged cargo bay carried by two reusable solid-propellant rocket boosters and an expendable fuel tank. The first orbiter was to be named Constitution, but a national write-in campaign from fans of the Star Trek television series convinced administrators to change the name to Enterprise. The vehicle was rolled out in 1976 and conducted a successful series of glide-approach and landing tests that were the first validation of the shuttle design. The first fully functional orbiter was the Columbia, launched on April 12, 1981, with a crew of two.
The shuttle program has suffered two tragic accidents. The first was in 1986, when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing its crew of seven. The program was halted until the cause of the accident could be determined. Aerospace supported NASA in the investigation required for the shuttle’s return to flight. In 2003, the shuttle Columbia with seven crew members disintegrated during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, only minutes before the scheduled conclusion of its 28th mission. The cause of the disaster was traced back to the launch, when a piece of insulation foam on the external tank broke free and struck the leading edge of orbiter’s left wing, damaging the protective heat shielding tiles. Upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, this damage allowed superheated gases to penetrate Columbia’s wing structure, causing the shuttle to break up.
NASA convened the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to determine the cause of the accident and recommend changes to increase safety and enhance mission assurance for future shuttle flights. The Aerospace Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) had been established in 1998 to track space debris and investigate reentry breakup characteristics of satellites and rocket stages. During the Columbia accident investigation, CORDS estimated where to look for debris from the orbiter and provided testimony on launch readiness review processes that could help avoid future failures.
As part of shuttle return-to-flight activity, Aerospace engineers used physics and statistics to analyze probabilities that foam or ice from the external tank could again damage the shuttle. Aerospace performed hundreds of impact tests, using actual flight tiles and foam projectiles. Aerospace worked with the space shuttle debris team to refine and improve the analytical models using these test data to better characterize small foam-on-tile damage and refine the understanding of risk posed by small foam debris.
During the launch and ascent in 2005 of Discovery—the first shuttle mission after Columbia—a large piece of insulating foam broke free from the external tank. Aerospace used findings from its work with foam and ice debris to estimate the chances that the foam had damaged the shuttle. Aerospace’s trajectory and impact analyses became a key input in NASA’s decision not to inspect and repair the shuttle in space. Discovery touched down safely at Edwards Air Force Base in California on August 9, 2005.
Hubble Space Telescope
NASA began working with the European Space Agency in 1975 on a plan that would become the HubbleSpace Telescope. Congress approved funding in 1977, and NASA assigned Marshall Space Flight Center the responsibility for the design, development, and construction of the telescope and its support system. Goddard Space Flight Center was responsible for the science instruments aboard the telescope as well as ground control.
Astronauts were training for the mission by 1979, using a telescope mock-up in an underwater tank to simulate weightlessness. The Hubble was originally scheduled for launch in October 1986. However, the Challenger explosion put shuttle flights on hold for the next two years, and the Hubble was placed in storage. On April 24, 1990, the Hubble was launched aboard the shuttle Discovery. The telescope includes five instruments: the Wide Field/Planetary Camera, the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph, the Faint Object Camera, the Faint Object Spectrograph, and the High Speed Photometer.
Aerospace support for the Hubble has included many independent assessments. One such assessment in 1993 analyzed the Hubble’s first servicing mission. Since the rescue of a valuable national asset was on the line, NASA wanted to ensure that the risk of the servicing mission was sufficiently low. A team of 20 engineers had just three weeks to review the nine subsystems on the mission and make appropriate recommendations.
Aerospace provided major contributions to the fourth Hubble servicing mission in 2002, performing an independent evaluation of risk management practices, addressing the benefits and shortfalls of the risk management methodology, and making recommendations for improvement. Aerospace also evaluated the Hubble reliability model and predictions. Mike Weiss, deputy program manager for Hubble at Goddard, provided the following assessment of Aerospace’s contributions: “The Hubble Team’s ability to plan for and execute complex on-orbit servicing missions is built around fundamental risk management practices. To a great extent, we use reliability models and predictions to understand and predict health and safety risks to the HST [Hubble Space Telescope] vehicle. The Aerospace Corporation provided valuable oversight for Hubble’s risk management implementation and reliability modeling.”
In 2006, an Aerospace team received the corporation’s President’s Achievement Award for providing a critical analysis of alternatives for the Hubble Space Telescope servicing and repair mission. The report concluded that a robotic servicing mission being considered by NASA could not be developed in time to prevent the Hubble from lapsing into an unrecoverable state. The Aerospace report and subsequent testimony before Congress influenced NASA’s decision to scrap the robotic servicing mission in favor of sending a crew of astronauts. A National Research Council committee noted that Aerospace’s analysis was “the only quantitative analysis” of the problem. The astronaut servicing mission was ultimately successful.
The International Space Station
During the early 1980s, NASA planned to launch a modular space station called Freedom, but budget and design constraints prevented it from progressing past mock-ups and component tests. In the early 1990s, U.S. officials negotiated with international partners to begin a collaborative space station project—the International Space Station (ISS). The program would combine the proposed space stations of all participating space agencies, including NASA’s Freedom, the Russian Mir, the European Columbus, and the Japanese Kibo. Construction of the ISS began in 1998 with the launch of the U.S.-owned, Russian-built Zarya control module from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Aerospace provided support in analyzing many ISS technical challenges. During the station’s development phase, for example, Aerospace looked at component breakdown phenomena in the design of the electrical power system, such as the dc-to-dc converter unit and the remote power control module. Aerospace also investigated the fiber optics associated with the onboard avionics computer network because NASA was concerned that the installation procedures could degrade the transmission quality of the communication path between avionics boxes. Aerospace assisted in evaluating technology for maintaining the fiber-optic cable installation and signal-integrity equipment. The flight equipment, an optical time-domain reflectometer, was based on technology evaluated by Aerospace prior to the ISS 6A mission, which launched in 2001.
Aerospace evaluated the plasma charging models developed for the space station because NASA was concerned about the level of electrical discharge that might traverse a spacesuit during a spacewalk. Aerospace and NASA examined the orbital environment (i.e., the ambient electron density and temperature, and variations based on orbital parameters and seasons) and the contractor-developed models and compared them with those used for military satellite operations.
Aerospace assisted in developing an observation window that would satisfy stringent optical requirements for on-orbit photographic experiments. In fact, the first astronaut to view Earth from the ISS looked through an Aerospace-developed glass porthole. The internal active thermal control system was evaluated by Aerospace for corrosion and microbial contamination. Aerospace chemists reviewed the system configuration and its operation in the orbital environment, conducted analyses of the material compatibility and possible causes of corrosion, made recommendations of options, and evaluated a contractor-offered solution.
Waste and how it is discarded is a logistical problem for an orbital human-rated station. Trash in space is typically stored for eventual return to Earth via Russia’s Progress spacecraft or the shuttle orbiter. One idea was to discard the trash overboard so that it would disintegrate during reentry. Aerospace was part of a team that assessed the risks to the public from trash that would survive reentry and the potential increase in orbital debris.
The multinational nature of the ISS program offered opportunities to evaluate risk management and mission assurance processes from different cultures and nations. Aerospace supported NASA with independent assessments for encryption analysis for the command-and-control communication of the Zarya module of the space station, evaluation of Russian nickel-cadmium batteries, and analysis of the Mir space station following reentry.
The ISS was designed to operate for at least 15 years, but it could last for decades if parts are repaired and replaced as needed in a timely manner. In 2009, Aerospace was asked to examine the feasibility of extending the life of the ISS, to develop options for deorbiting it at the end of its life, and to assess crew and cargo transportation to the ISS, including commercial transportation options after the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010.
Mars Exploration Rovers
In mid-2003, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers were launched from Cape Canaveral on a 64-million-mile journey to Mars. These twin robotic geologists, Spirit and Opportunity, were to search for rocks and soils that might hold clues to past water activity on Mars. They landed on the planet in January 2004.
Aerospace’s support to this and other Mars missions in recent years has been particularly important. In 2003, Aerospace performed a complexity-based risk analysis, which looked at whether the rover mission was developed “too fast” or “too cheap” and therefore prone to failure. The study compared the relative complexity and failure rate of recent NASA and DOD spacecraft and found that the mission’s costs, after growth, appeared adequate or within reasonable limits.
Aerospace also conducted an independent cost, schedule, and affordability assessment relating to a postulated Mars sample return mission. The report provided cost and schedule analyses for the three probable elements: the surface element (e.g., rover, lander, sample return capsule), the orbital element (e.g., biocontainment system, Earth return vehicle), and the Earth element (e.g., sample curation facility, instrumentation, ground systems, mission assurance, data analysis). NASA will use the Aerospace analysis to aid key decisions and trades.
Mars Science Laboratory and Juno
Aerospace is providing mission assurance analyses on critical mechanisms, avionics, and other subsystems for two high-profile planetary missions: the Mars Science Laboratory and Juno. The science laboratory is a rover that will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. Powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the science laboratory will be able to land in regions of Mars not accessible to solar-powered systems and will carry a host of geologic, biogenic, and environmental instruments.
Juno is a $1 billion NASA project to send a robotic spacecraft to Jupiter. The Juno mission, which will study Jupiter’s interior composition as well as its magnetic and gravitational fields, is scheduled for a 2011 launch. Aerospace reviewed options for mitigating risks on a waveguide transfer switch for Juno and conducted an independent cost estimate and a complexity-based risk estimate in preparation for a Juno status report. Aerospace also supported a trade study on telemetry ground software options for the Juno project and hosted a Satellite Orbit Analysis Program training class for the JPL Juno trajectory analysis team at Aerospace’s Pasadena office.
The Path Forward
In 2009, Aerospace President and CEO Wanda Austin and the late trustee Sally Ride served on the Human Space Flight Review Committee, an independent panel established to review U.S. human spaceflight plans and programs. To support this study, Aerospace was asked to provide independent technical and programmatic assessments of NASA’s human spaceflight program, as well as options and alternatives for the future. The final report, submitted in August 2009, presented various approaches for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human spaceflight program following the space shuttle’s retirement.
Aerospace’s ability to provide NASA with useful and timely insight is aided by collocation of Aerospace offices at NASA sites, including NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California; Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In response to increasing NASA requests for Aerospace support, Aerospace formed a new division in 2006 dedicated to the agency.
Through its support in the areas of systems engineering, independent assessment and review, and conceptual design, Aerospace has contributed to NASA’s many remarkable successes. Independent assessments have been particularly important because through them, Aerospace offers comprehensive analyses that contribute to risk reduction and mission assurance. Aerospace expects its relationship with NASA to grow stronger, and looks to the future with excitement as the next frontiers of space exploration continue to reveal fascinating science and help with an understanding of the outer planets, our own planet, and the universe.
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