Here are a couple photos of me from 1996 wearing a NASA “bunny suit” while working the failure analysis of the broken tether on the Tethered Satellite System re-flight (TSS-1R) that had recently returned from orbit on Space Shuttle mission STS-75. I was taking magnified photographs with a fancy high-tech digital SLR camera through an old-school benchtop microscope.
These photos were taken in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building hi-bay which is a clean-room environment up on the work platforms, because the workers are adjacent to flight hardware. The blue bunny suits look kind of funny, but they help keep the flight hardware pristine and help keep our hair and our skin flakes from falling onto the flight hardware.
The Tethered Satellite System was a pretty interesting experiment. The theory was that we could extend a long electrical wire while orbiting the earth and that long wire would cut through the earth’s magnetic field lines and generate electricity. The tether on this experiment was nearly 13 miles long! Wow!
This tether experiment first flew in 1992 on Space Shuttle mission STS-46, but had trouble deploying. It deployed less than a thousand feet out from the orbiter before it jammed. But it got a second chance and flew again in 1996. The deployment during the re-flight mission went well and was nearly complete … about 95 percent complete … when the tether broke and the experiment was over.
The broken tether was reeled back in and was brought back to earth for analysis. The task was to find out if the tether was mechanically broken, like from too much tension, or maybe from a micro-meteor impact. Or whether the tether was broken due to an electrical arcing event, such as an over-current.
The final analysis showed that it was an electrical overload. But the reason for the excess current was pretty interesting and took some detective work. Around the outside of conductor was a clear Teflon insulation layer which is basically a plastic. It’s similar to the white plastic insulation layer around the center wire in a coax cable.
It was determined that this plastic Teflon layer was “breached” and electrical arcing occured between the tether’s conductor and the gantry system that was deploying the tether.
One possible cause of the break in the insulation was “foreign object debris”, which is NASA-speak for something that does not belong there. We take great efforts to keep flight hardware pristine and clean. But if a loose wire or something stiff or sharp got into the cogs of the deployment mechanism and punctured the insulation, that could have caused the electrical short.
Another possible cause was a simple manufacturing defect and subsequent quality control miss. Investigators showed that trapped air in the Nomex core could have leaked out through tiny pinholes in the plastic Teflon insulator and caused an electrical plasma arc due to the high voltages involved. The experiment was generating about 3,500 volts and about half an amp of current when the failure occurred.
Even though the tether broke and the experiment could not be completed, it was a partial success and lots of data was collected during the deployment before the failure. So it wasn’t a total loss.
Okay, so I’m a nerdy NASA engineer. Of course I loved it. But I know all you non-nerdy folks will also love this book. And here’s why:
It’s interesting & engaging
It’s a survival story set in one of the harshest locations imaginable. So many things can go wrong … and so many of them do go wrong. Every step of the way. It’s nearly constant edge of your seat entertainment. Add in some NASA politics and a few personality conflicts and you’ve got yourself a real pager turner.
It’s funny. No, it’s hilarious
The narrator … the astronaut who gets stranded on Mars … has a terrific sense of humor throughout the entire book. He’s quite a character and his personality stays upbeat despite his less than ideal circumstances. Much of the narration is of him logging his daily activities into a computer system in which he has no idea whether anyone will ever read or not. He’s basically talking to himself for much of the book and it’s quite humorous.
It’s technical, but not in a bad way
There’s a constant stream of problem solving throughout the book. But I don’t think it will make your eyes roll back in your head. Most of the time the details are given in a way that the layperson can understand. Sometimes the narrator even “dumbs” down the technical details for the reader.
Well, mostly real. This is science fiction, but it is not your typical far-fetched or far-futuristic science fiction. Much of this story could occur today using technology that we actually use today or technology that we are developing and testing today for use on future Mars missions. Most of the engineering solutions are also real and possible today using current technology. There is very little hand-waving here. And it is very satisfying.
Note: This book is not for kids. The narrator … the astronaut who gets stranded on Mars … curses like a sailor throughout the entire book.
I highly recommend this book. It’s a very interesting and engaging read that is difficult to put down. It’s entertaining for engineers and non-engineers alike.
Click below to order the book for yourself. You can buy it in paper or digital formats from Amazon, the most popular online store in the world!
NASA has always been pretty bad about marketing itself to the general population … who happen to pay for the entire agency, by the way. They’re getting better, though. NASA has been latching on to new marketing technologies recently, like social media and video streaming on the Internet. And I’ve noticed them outsourcing some of their marketing to external companies and external talent which probably means that they realize that they don’t have all the right skills and experience in house. (No offense to all my friends in NASA Public Affairs.)
So if NASA is open to new marketing ideas and out-of-the-box thinking, then why couldn’t NASA have a reality TV show?
I’m thinking that a documentary style program in the professional activities genre would work nicely as a marketing tool for NASA. The show could focus on the subculture of NASA geeks, engineers, scientists, and possibly also their managers.
I’m not talking about what is commonly called “reality TV” these days where it is pretty much just scripted and the characters just put on a show to please the producers and directors. I’m talking about a documentary that shows the reality of what NASA engineers and scientists actually do on a daily basis! There’s no need nor desire for any morality experiments … no social experiments … no scripts. Just real life NASA employees doing whatever they normally do.
I honestly think the general public would be interested in and also entertained by this type of show. Geeks are gaining popularity and are generally thought of as cool in this day and age.
NASA probably couldn’t justify spending tax dollars on a project like this, so it would have to be taken up by a major network or a major production company that was willing to take the risk or maybe a small news crew or similar group who already has a good working relationship with NASA. Or maybe an independent film company using a Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign to raise the funds.
On the other hand, NASA might not be real keen on allowing unrestricted access without editing rights. NASA has an image to maintain and they probably will want to have final say on what gets aired and what doesn’t. So maybe this is a project that NASA Public Affairs does take on? But I honestly think it would be a better product if an independent professional crew worked it. Maybe there is a way to make everyone happy … for an independent crew to film it and edit it and for a NASA public affairs representative to approve the edits before airing or something like that.
There could be different NASA employees (characters) starring in each episode. The show doesn’t necessarily have to follow the same 8 or 10 characters throughout the entire series, although it would be good to repeat characters occasionally during the series. And it would be even better if characters overlapped each other and the show used some characters’ experiences to introduce us to some other characters and then the show follows these new characters on tangential storylines. NASA isn’t as big as most people think it is, by the way. Employees cross paths and are inter-related more than you might think.
Here are several examples of some plots and subplots that could be explored and highlighted by the producers of such a show:
Funding the Ideas: NASA employees and managers have a lot more ideas than they can get funded to actually work on. Follow two separate employee’s fights to get their own project funded and witness what they are up against. It’s a tough battle to get your project idea funded. There are so many great technical ideas being presented to various funding boards and there is so little money that only a small percentage can actually get funded each year.
Cool Projects: Show off some of the really cool and high tech projects that are actively being developed and demonstrated around the agency. This can also lead to some really cool and interesting filming locations. Explain why they are necessary and why they are important for NASA’s mission. Show the viewer behind the scenes stuff that they never get to see otherwise. Show the excitement and the passion of the engineers and scientists who work on these cool projects.
Never Stopped: The reports of NASA’s death have been highly exaggerated. Just because the Shuttle program is gone, doesn’t mean that NASA is idle. They’re developing new rockets and spacecraft to go beyond low earth orbit. They’re developing new ground systems to support these new rockets and spacecraft. They’re helping private companies develop systems to launch astronauts into low earth orbit. Tell the story about why NASA had to make the tough decision to retire the Shuttle before they had a program to replace it. Talk nuts and bolts about budgets and why two large vehicle programs cannot run simultaneously in this day and age.
Art of Engineering: Engineering is basically the art of solving ordinary everyday problems. Introduce the viewer to some problem that the viewer may or may not realize exists in their daily life and then demonstrate how an engineer or a group of engineers has recognized that problem and are working on a solution. This subplot will help the general public make a better connection with NASA and it will show how NASA is improving lives for people here on earth through its projects that may or may not actually execute here on earth. Introduce the viewer to the concept of NASA spinoffs. Also, explore problems the employees experience while doing their jobs and show how they get past those problems.
Character Evolution: Show how a character has a bad experience and learns from that experience and does a better job next time he is faced with the same type of situation. For example, an engineer might get upset if a meeting decision doesn’t go their way, but then a coworker tells them that their attitude toward the decision makers was bad, so the engineer takes some leadership type training classes and practices what he learned and has a great experience the next time a similar situation occurs.
Communication Issues: Engineers are often known for their poor communication skills and their poor social skills. This could lead to some humorous and/or uncomfortable moments in the show. But the viewer will learn to love the characters and embrace their weaknesses. The show should also reveal their strengths and help the viewers feel for and connect to the characters.
Slow Going: NASA is doing research and development in areas that could have big impacts on the general public down the road. But unlike a big product producing company, like Procter & Gamble or similar, NASA technologies and inventions are complex enough that it takes a long time from concept to actual use in industry or out in the general public. By then, NASA rarely gets the credit for the technology that they deserve. Give a historic example for the audience to get a feel for this concept.
Stress and Pressure: Schedules and deadlines are common at NASA. Some are just pulled out of thin air and some are critical and necessary. But both can and often do cause employees lots of stress and headache. Explore the pressures that NASA engineers and scientists encounter and show how different personalities deal with that stress and pressure differently.
Personalities and Management Styles: Just like any job, NASA is filled with employees and managers of various personality types and various management styles and leadership styles. Explore how these different types and styles collide and how they deal with each other.
Tax Dollars: Demonstrate to the viewers how much of their tax dollars actually goes to NASA as compared to other government programs. Show how much money NASA helps pump back into the economy. Prove using simple concepts that their tax dollars are well spent at NASA.
What happens when you send a camera crew behind the scenes of America’s space program? Find out on Engineers At Work!
Watch as engineers and scientists struggle to solve many of the world’s problems. Do they have the right stuff?
Wouldn’t you like to know how your tax dollars are being spent? An American Space Program is an eye opening look behind the scenes of NASA, showing the viewer how their tax dollars are ultimately being spent.
The entire point of this show is to demonstrate to the general public that their tax dollars are very well spent at NASA and that NASA has not been idle since the Shuttle program ended. Much of the general public stopped hearing about NASA after the Shuttle program ended and many think that NASA as a whole has ended. A show like this could open the eyes of the public and help spur the popularity of NASA and could even end up boosting NASA’s budget in the process. But in order to be popular and to create a buzz with the general public, this show needs to be different than all those “boring” educational shows that NASA has been producing for the last 20 or so years. The reality TV angle of being filmed as a real life unscripted documentary, I believe, is what is needed to get their attention and interest.
Most of the general public is disconnected with NASA and the work that NASA does for them. This show idea can bring the two closer together using inspiration, humor, conflict, and then wrapping it all up with a happy ending. In the end, the viewer will cheer for the engineer, cheer for the project, and cheer for our space agency!
full disclosure: I work for NASA, but I do not speak for them.
Cast your vote!
Thanks for reading the whole article! Now that you’ve heard my idea, please let me (and Hollywood) know your opinion! Please vote below and make your voice heard! Please vote whether you like this reality show idea or not! I would like to get a realistic cross section of voters! Thanks!
Where were you when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded?
24 years ago yesterday, I was almost 16 years old and a Sophomore in high school in a small town in Central Illinois. But when I heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion I was actually inside the grade school up the street where some of my friends and I occasionally went to eat lunch. We were walking down the hallway when someone came up to us and said “Did you hear that the Shuttle blew up?”. This was a kid who had gone home for lunch and had just come back to school for the afternoon. I didn’t believe it at first … thought he was trying to pull a prank or tell a bad joke or something.
We didn’t have any TVs in school way back then and the Internet and cell phones didn’t even exist, so it was all by word of mouth. If kids didn’t go home during lunch period to eat, most of the rest of us might not have even heard the news till we all got home from school that afternoon. I remember watching it over and over and over on the TV after school. They played the explosion about a million times. The newscasters were all studying the video to see if they could see the Shuttle orbiter or at least the crew cabin falling from the cloud. I wasn’t sad at the time I was watching it because I had this hope that the crew had somehow survived or gotten blown clear of that horrible looking explosion.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you probably heard that NASA launched a new rocket today. Below are some photos from in and around the NASA Press Site and also some video of the launch that I took today. The video also contains some decent manatee footage. There are usually manatees hanging around the turn basin there near the Press Site.
The Ares I is intended to replace the Space Shuttle for launching astronauts into space after it retires in the next year or so. Today’s launch, dubbed the I-X mission, was an unmanned flight test of this new rocket. Not only was it unmanned, but the whole upper stage was fake and just dropped into the ocean after separation. But we’re taking baby steps here, people. Don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. 🙂
And here are some photos. Click on any photo for a full sized version.
Obligatory photo of the countdown clock with the launch vehicle in the background. It was 5am when I arrived at the Press Site this morning. Way way earlier than my normal arrival time.
Inside the NASA Press Site where they show various camera views of the launch vehicle and they also have some cool large models of the Ares I and also the future Ares V heavy lift cargo vehicle. These models are like 7 or 8 feet tall.
Various news channels shoot interviews all day long here at the NASA Press Site. Here you can see the Air Force weather officer getting some time on camera with Fox 35.
NASA TV showed some beautiful sunrise video …
… so I went outside to see it for myself.
Live trucks lined up in the NASA Press Site parking lot. You can see the rocket in amongst the transmission towers.
The NASA Press Site is about 3.5 miles from the launch pad. You can see the white rocket and the three really tall lightning towers around the launch pad. These towers were built especially for the Ares I program.