Tools of the Trade
NASA's three orbiters – Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour – are comprised of thousands of unique parts. Working with these parts requires special tools, which often are developed at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by a team of NASA and industry specialists for a department commonly known as the Proof of Concept Program.
The Proof of Concept Program is a joint effort between Kennedy's Applied Physics Lab and ASRC Aerospace Corp. The program unofficially began in 2001 when orbiter Atlantis arrived back at the Center and water was detected in the Thermal Protection System tiles. Technicians tried several drying methods but found them to be time-consuming and ineffective.
Image right: Members of the Proof of Concept Program collaborate on an invention requested by the Space Shuttle ground processing team. Image credit: NASA
A team of physicists, led by Dr. Bob Youngquist, senior scientist in the lab, worked with NASA and United Space Alliance to develop a water-detection tool and a fast and efficient water removal system.
"This Proof of Concept program takes small, definable problems and works to solve them in a timely manner at an affordable cost," said Craig Rosczypala, Proof of Concept Program manager.
According to Youngquist, the process begins when Space Shuttle ground processing has a need for a new or improved tool or shop aid. A concept is proposed and a prototype is developed for review. The tool may go through several design adjustments before the final version is approved and produced.
Tools recently developed for Return to Flight include a crane contact sensor, a device to measure External Tank (ET) damage, an ET Alignment Camera, and a tool to inspect orbiter exterior windows for imperfections or damage.
"The Proof of Concept Program is very helpful to KSC's ground processing activities," said Michael Wetmore, Kennedy's director of Space Shuttle processing. "The grassroots collaboration of NASA and contractor engineers working together to develop practical solutions to processing problems is a significant contributor to the continued safe and efficient operations at KSC."
Youngquist said many of the problems being addressed by this program are applicable to future launch programs. "Our hope is that by steadily advancing spaceport technologies and solving problems, we will be in a better position to process future launch vehicles," Youngquist said.
Mark Minich, a senior project manager with ASRC Aerospace Corp., said several of the prototypes have potential for commercial crossover.
"The laser scaling device developed to measure ET damage is currently being sold commercially in the forensic science industry to investigate murder scenes without disturbing the evidence," Minich said.
Image left: Doug Willard, a NASA physicist in the Applied Physics Lab, demonstrates the tool developed to detect water in Space Shuttle Thermal Portection System tiles. Image credit: NASA
According to Youngquist, the work has increased in the last three years from a few projects to more than 30 of them. Scientists in the Applied Physics Lab are developing radio frequency detectors to warn technicians in the Orbiter Processing Facilities when an orbiter antenna is on. Developers also recently produced 14 lighted inspection mirrors to help technicians see inside hard-to-reach areas.
Linda Herridge, KSC Staff Writer
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center