Failure Leads to Success
When the Columbia space shuttle broke apart above Texas in February 2003, no one knew that it could one day result in success. NASA astronaut Dr. Charles Camarda, however, believes the tragedy has provided both current and future engineers with a motto to live by - where there is failure, there is knowledge and understanding that doesn't come with success.
This message, along with an overview of the new technology and progress that some of the world's top aerospace engineers have made towards understanding the problems that caused the Columbia disaster and how to prevent them, were among the topics covered by Camarda during his speech, "Research and Engineering: Challenges for STS-114 return to flight," at the University of Colorado yesterday.
According to Camarda, the aim of his speech was to show how engineers have an important impact on all aspects of the aerospace industry. If it wasn't for such engineers and their research, Camarda said, advancements in space would not be where they are today.
"Astronauts get all the glory because they are (usually) the ones seen (by the public)," Camarda said. "But it's the engineers who devote 30 years or more of their lives working and researching so that we (astronauts) can continue our flights into space, and return safely."
As the deputy director for advanced projects for NASA's Safety and Engineering Center at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., Camarda played a large role in determining the believed cause of the Columbia disaster, as well as developing the necessary technology needed to ensure the safety of astronauts during future shuttle flights.
Through research, Camarda and fellow engineers were able to show that a piece of foam insulation, which weighed nothing more than a piece of Styrofoam, was able, at ballistic speeds, to damage the left wing of the Columbia space craft. This foam, which is believed to have caused the Columbia crash, broke off Columbia's propellant tank and smashed into its wing, causing damage to the wing's insulation, which proved to have catastrophic consequences when the shuttle reached high temperatures during reentry.
As with any research, there is always speculation, yet Camarda said that he didn't let anyone discourage him, or his research.
"If someone says that something can't happen," Camarda said, "never believe them."
In fact, Camarda stuck with his intuition, using new technologies in photography, analysis of the data collected from the debris that fell from Columbia, and the data from several simulations to conclude that foam can damage a spacecraft upon impact. Though certain challenges, such as determining the effects the vacuum of space has on foam and how to develop a verifiable analysis of data collected, faced Camarda and other engineers, he stressed in his speech that there is no substitute for the human mind.
"Yes, you'll look at the answers your getting through (a lot of) computer codes, but you should also use your intuition," Camarda said.
As a member of the Discovery Shuttle Mission that flew in July 2005, Camarda said that he listened to his intuition, yet came close to witnessing an anomaly because his concerns were ignored.
"Before the (Discovery) takeoff, buzzards often nest on the scaffolding above the shuttle," Camarda said. "I asked before takeoff if the birds would interfere, and I was told that they would scatter once the jets started. As we were launching, the shuttle struck a bird, and if it had hit a window, we would've been the first return-to-launch (aborted) mission."
Though the Discovery's mission began a little rocky, it nonetheless was a success. With the knowledge obtained from analyzing the Columbia crash, Camarda and his crew were able to implement new technology to make the journey safer.
One such technology was a polymer sealant used to patch any small cracks or holes in the shuttle exterior that had occurred during takeoff. The sealant had been designed to withstand temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature the shuttle encounters when re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. A crack that is 20,000ths of an inch is large enough to cause major damage to a shuttle when it encounters such high temperatures.
Camarda's speech was enough to show CU Aerospace engineering student Brett Miller 19, that intuition and research are keys when troubleshooting.
"I learned if someone says that something can't happen, it can," Miller said. "If an engineer is not sure (of an answer), don't guess, admit that you don't know, and find the answer by testing (your ideas)."
Contact Anna Haislip in regard to this story at (303) 443-6272, or at email@example.com