(Editor’s Note:  The following is a reprint of  an Aug. 22,  2012 ScienceDaily article .  The original  is available at  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120822122908.  htm  )

Working side-by-side with designers developing technologies  of the future are engineers deciphering what went wrong with  some of the technologies of the present.  They analyze readouts from precision tools, devise ways to test  large pieces of rocket hardware without damaging the rocket  itself, and burn, blow up or vaporize leftover fragments in an  effort to find out why something failed.  Think of it as CSI: KSC.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is home to a failure  analysis lab system whose ancestral roots extend back to the  1960’s when failures were not uncommon during early days of  rocket development.

These days, the stakes are far greater for engineers and  designers and a significant failure on a launch can ground a  rocket fleet for more than a year, let alone an afternoon. One of  the first teams called into action is the failure analysts.  “Everyone’s looking to you to come up with the answer,” said  Chad Carl, who leads the Materials and Processes Engineering  Section of the Failure Analysis and Materials Evaluation Lab  at Kennedy.

Their analyses cover such a wide range of failures in  everything from tiny valves in processing equipment to  nosecones that the lab is nicknamed “Malfunction Junction.”  “It was like solving puzzles all the time,” said Rick Rapson, a  retired engineer who examined everything from quick- disconnect valves on shuttle components to a propane tank that  exploded on a turkey farm in Iowa. “Like a policeman solves  crimes by looking at the evidence, you’re looking for the piece  of the puzzle that caused the event to occur and sometimes you  had to look a long time to find the right piece. But it was pretty  rare that you got stumped.

Making the work much harder was the fact that when rockets  fail, there isn’t often much left to study.  “When something fails, it’s usually a long way away and it’s  not coming back, so we won’t get to look at it,” said Todd  Campbell, an engineer with NASA’s Launch Services Program,  which is responsible for sending many of the space agency’s  flagship missions into space.

The failure analysts and the engineering teams consider

themselves a critical element in minimizing the disruption by tracking down what went wrong, finding out if more rockets  have the same problem and going with a way to fix it.  “If there’s something that’s supposed to fly and it can’t because  it has a crack in it or there’s some unknown, we’re called in to  solve the mystery, figure out what happened and why and what  we can do to get flying again,” said Bryan Tucker, an engineer  in the lab.

Working at the agency’s primary launch site means Kennedy’s  analysis teams work mostly with rockets and ground support  equipment, though there are occasional times when the  spacecraft is also evaluated to determine its role in a problem.  “At the end of the day it’s all about Earth to space,” said Dave  Sollberger, deputy chief engineer of NASA’s Launch Service  Program and the person who determines that a rocket is ready  to go from an engineering standpoint. “Our job is not the  science of what the satellite does, our job is altitude and  velocity to get the spacecraft either to low earth orbit or on a  deep space trajectory.

He depends on his team of engineers and data drawn from  stringent evaluations of a rocket’s components and materials to  help him feel comfortable that a launcher will perform  correctly.

Sometimes a launch does not go well, such as two recent  occasions in which payload fairings did not separate correctly  from around the spacecraft and the missions were lost.  In the past, Sollberger did not have the Kennedy lab to call on  since it spent the vast amount of its time studying space shuttle  components. With the shuttle program winding down and then  retiring, though, the LSP engineer found a sound source of  expertise to help his work.

The labs have been around for decades, but our involvement  with using the labs has increased dramatically over the last  year,” Sollberger said. “They have some real top-notch  technical expertise. And they’ve got some phenomenal  equipment so clearly we want to take advantage of that and we  have been taking advantage of that.

Before, the LSP engineers farmed testing to outside labs, but  that meant the engineers and analysts didn’t meet face-to-face  much and the communication back-and-forth was often very  formal, Sollberger said. With this approach, if something  comes up the engineers can simply walk over and share a  finding or new theory easily.

There’s historical ways to do tests and then there’s capabilities  that they’ve developed that are really unique that are shuttle  driven that we didn’t even know were available until we had  that communication,” Sollberger said.

Much of the work this year has centered on making sure the  payload fairing problems did not extend to other rockets and  missions. While engineering boards determine a categorical  cause for the failure, NASA still had upcoming missions to  launch.

Although rocket designs fly dozens and dozens of times

successfully, to an engineer certifying that a rocket is ready to

safely deliver a cutting edge spacecraft into orbit, there still are

plenty of things that can go wrong on each flight simply

because launchers are not reused. Ground tests routinely are

performed on components and engines are test-fired, but on  launch day, the rocket carrying a satellite into space is doing  something it has never done before.

On the LSP side, every launch vehicle is brand new,” Carl  said. “So every single time you are dealing with a set of parts  coming together to make a launch vehicle that have never  flown before, and essentially it’s an all-new vehicle every  single time.

We can’t test absolutely every component that we fly because  a lot of the tests to verify proper mechanical properties, they’re  destructive and you can’t destroy everything you’re trying to  fly, obviously,” Tucker said.

So what does it take to successfully analyze spaceflight failures  aside from an engineering degree?

For one thing, it requires a desire to deal with different  problems every day without becoming stressed out.  “I can’t think of anybody out here that’s got a really excitable,  short attention span, ADHD kind of personality,” Carl said.  “You’re more likely to find OCD (obsessive compulsive  disorder),” Tucker joked.

Also, knowing how to place the details that are found in to the  larger scope of a rocket or spacecraft is important.  “I think it’s important in that position to have a big picture  orientation, but also be detail-oriented to pick up the clues,”  Carl said.

Sometimes we have to ignore the forest and look at the trees,”  said Tucker. “You can’t miss anything, but you realize the  forest is there, but you’ve got to look at every tree. You have to  be able to see all those details because those details lead you to  a solution.” Understand, also, that even when they are not  thinking about a problem or test result, these engineers still  arrive at a solution. “I’ve popped awake at 3 o’clock in the  morning, bam, there it is, the a-ha moment” Tucker said. “I  thought I was peacefully sleeping.” Rapson came up with the  cause of the drag chute door popping off the shuttle at launch  of STS-95 while driving into work, six weeks after they’d  starting looking into the issue. Turned out the sheer pins  holding the door on were not strong enough for the design.  They were strengthened to solve the issue.  “We looked at everything we could think of,” Rapson said. “I  figured it out driving in. The one piece of the puzzle, it can be  a thing where all of the sudden a light comes on.” Long airplane flights can also do the trick.  “I can’t tell you how many times I was on a plane and have  been working on my laptop, maybe cleaning up email and out  of nowhere it just hits you, we need to look at that, that’s going  to be where the answer is,” Carl said.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by  NASA.     Note: Materials may be edited for content and  length. NASA (2012, August 22). CSI: NASA—Deciphering  today’s technological failures to prevent future problems.

ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 18, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com- /releases/2012/08/120822122908.htm Note: If no author is given, the source is cited instead.  Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article do not necessarily  reflect those of ScienceDaily or its staff.

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