Aerospace Beats Odds to Deliver New REBR in Record Time

Geoff Maul sands excess sealing compound from the REBR-W heat shield on Nov. 11. (Photo: Dave Hinkley)

When the unmanned Antares rocket exploded Oct. 28, along with an Aerospace-built  Reentry Breakup Recorder-Wireless (REBR-W), it took only three minutes before NASA was on the phone with Aerospace asking for a replacement REBR-W.

The REBR-Ws are used to collect and transfer reentry data from vehicles returning to Earth from space. They measure hull temperatures, tumble and breakup dynamics and speed changes. NASA originally ordered two of these devices from Aerospace in July 2013 to be used as part of its safety verification process for the future reentry of the ISS. The first REBR-W was delivered one year later in July of this year, with the second one stored away in pieces for an undetermined future launch.

The REBR-W had been outfitted with custom wireless external sensors specifically designed to attach to the hull of an ATV-5 cargo carrier. The plan was for the REBR-W to arrive at the ISS and into the hands of the astronauts stationed there, who would later attach it to an ATV-5 that would then plummet back to Earth with a load of trash from the space station. The REBR-W would record the vessel’s breakup data. The second ordered REBR-W was built simultaneously, but without any customization, as it was not yet scheduled for any particular launch.

It took the Aerospace team a year to create, test, troubleshoot and deliver the first REBR-W. Troubleshooting alone can eat up months of time because of the nature of the comprehensive testing and retesting that has to be completed. Just one of the errors discovered while building the first REBR-W required six weeks to troubleshoot and correct.

When NASA called requesting a second REBR-W, Aerospace got back to them that same day with an optimistic prediction that the second REBR-W could definitely be ready in four weeks, and possibly in three weeks, if no errors occurred during testing, said Mike Weaver, section manager in the Fluid Mechanics Department and project manager for REBR-W.

A small team consisting primarily of Geoff Maul, Dave Hinkley, Brian Hardy, and Petras Karuza got to work immediately, before any logistics could be worked out. To make this happen, the funding needed to be turned on; the customized parts manufactured; the stored parts readied, assembled, and tested; troubleshooting completed; and a ride on another launch and delivery date negotiated. Thankfully, a complete set of parts, including heat shield, were in storage, and the funding was arranged within two days instead of the weeks or months it could normally take.

“We were assuming we’d have a ride, and assuming three weeks would be enough,” Weaver said.

NASA and the Department of Defense Space Test Program (DOD STP) negotiated a delivery date and space on a fast-approaching December Falcon 9 launch. The ISS Program agreed, but their delivery date required the REBR-W to be ready in two weeks, not the hoped-for three.

“Once we found out three weeks was too much, Dave Hinkley found an expediency in the parts-manufacturing process. He cut the time down to one week when it would originally have taken two,” Weaver said.

Luckily, there were no negative results during the testing and troubleshooting stage, and the DOD STP helped by sorting out what needed to be retested since the REBR-W was built a year ago and which of the original tests were acceptable to recycle.

“They (DOD STP) handle our safety verification,” Weaver said. “They very efficiently defined what we needed to test and how it needed to be documented for the Payload Safety Review Panel. They really are part of our team.

“Within one week, we saw we could deliver within the requested two-week time period,” Weaver added.

What started as a frantic and hopeful “maybe” ended as a rousing success story. The second REBR-W is complete, customized, and delivered, and awaiting its trip to the ISS in mid-December.

“It turned out flawlessly; none of us expected this when we got that call,” Weaver said. “It is very rare to have a chance to re-fly, and to have everything ready in time to make the second flight opportunity; this is unprecedented.”