Flight Controller Four-armed for Return to Flight
When the Space Shuttle returns to flight, NASA's Michael Wright will have four arms. All of them will be busy.
Wright’s team will oversee two robotic arms in space, one on the International Space Station and another on the Space Shuttle Discovery. He is the lead Payload Deploy and Retrieval Systems (PDRS) officer for the Shuttle's return to flight, mission STS-114.
Image at right: Michael Wright is at work inside Mission Control.
The Station and Shuttle arms are critical to the success of Discovery's flight. They'll be used to help spacewalking astronauts install a new, desk-sized gyroscope on the Station. They also are crucial to procedures Wright has helped devise to increase the safety of the Shuttle. The arms will be operated by the astronauts, with help from Wright and his team in Mission Control.
The Shuttle will carry a new 50-foot boom that can be grasped by its robotic arm. The arm will be used to maneuver the boom so that cameras and sensors at the boom’s tip can inspect the Shuttle's heat-protecting tiles for damage.
"The difficulty in working with the boom is that it is basically an extension of the arm. Very, very precise maneuvers are required to put the sensor in the right place to get the right data," Wright said. "We've had to worry about precision on past flights, but it was usually to move something to just one point, to get something installed on the Station or to get something put back into the payload bay. This work will mean we have to get to many points precisely."
Another challenge has been to develop a robotics maneuver for use if Shuttle damage is found that must be repaired. That plan would use both the Shuttle and Station arms. The Shuttle arm would grasp a fixture on the Station, holding the Shuttle in place with its bottom toward the Station. The Station arm would be used to maneuver a spacewalker into position to fix the damage.
"The repair maneuver would be one of the most complex things we've ever done," Wright said. "The mass that has to be moved, the 100-ton Shuttle, is more than three times the size of anything we've moved before with the arm. Also, the task takes four times as long as most tasks we've done in the past." He has no doubt that both of these jobs can be done successfully.
"We've been working on some of this almost since the Columbia accident. We'll learn something on the first flight … I always expect to learn something. But we'll build on the things we find out. Every flight we'll get better."
Wright is a veteran in Mission Control. He helped develop the robotic arm procedures that were used to initiate assembly of the International Space Station on Shuttle mission STS-88 in December 1998.
Since then, the robotic arms of the Shuttle and Station have been the mainstays of Station assembly. Wright is excited about new ventures on the Station ahead. He serves as the lead robotics controller in developing plans for the arrival of a new automated Japanese cargo craft, the H-II Transfer Vehicle several years from now.
Wright’s interest in space began with his family. Born in Fort Hood, Texas, Wright graduated from North Shore High School in Houston, and he considers Houston his home town. Every time his family came to Houston to see relatives, they toured the Johnson Space Center. From his first visit, Wright knew he wanted to work at NASA.
"Although they were over before I was old enough to remember them, I read about and loved the Apollo Moon flights. When I was in elementary school, I remember watching the first Shuttle tests and flights," Wright said. "There was a book called the Space Shuttle User's Manual … I read it cover to cover. I was hooked." By 12, he knew he wanted to study aerospace engineering.
Wright lives with his wife, Melanie, in Friendswood, Texas. When he is not busy with a robotic arm traveling 17,500 mph, he finds entertainment in studying more classical machinery. He is particularly interested in historic cars and motorcycles. "There’s nothing like a Mustang or Corvette from the 60’s," he said.
But some of his strongest feelings are reserved for the Space Shuttle and the continued exploration of space.
"It is human nature to push forward through adversity," he said. "We have people counting on us to get things done on the Station. We must continue to fly the Space Shuttle. We will, and I know we'll be successful."