Canada’s pivotal role in new space shuttle adventure

Video 1: Astronaut Chris Hadfield on how Canadian technologies protect Space Shuttle Discovery. Click link below to watch.Watch in Windows Media Player (File size: 9.5 MB. Length: 3.47 minutes)

Video 2: Iain Christie, Director of R&D at Neptec demonstrates how Neptec’s Laser Camera System will be used. Click link to watch.Watch in Windows Media Player(File size: 7.47 MB. Length: 3.14 minutes)

In 2003 when the Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated 40 miles above the earth killing the seven–member crew, people across the globe were stunned and devastated.

Two years on the world hasn’t forgotten that tragic February day.

But in a couple of weeks we are likely to witness what is perhaps the greatest tribute to those intrepid women and men, who sacrificed their lives for progress: the Space Shuttle’s return to flight.

The launch of Discovery STS-114 is scheduled for July 13, 2005 at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. And this time around nobody’s taking any chances. The mission sets unprecedented standards for safety, and Canadian technology is playing a key role in ensuring a Columbia-like disaster is never repeated.

At a media briefing held in Brampton, Ont. yesterday, Chris Hadfield a veteran Canadian Space Agency astronaut demonstrated Canadian technologies that are sending Discovery into space and back….safely.

Safety solutions

The event was held at the Brampton, Ont.-based MD Robotics that designed and created “Canadarm” – a shuttle remote manipulator system that places satellites into their proper orbit and retrieves malfunctioning ones for repair. The company is also the brains behind Canadarm2 – an even more powerful robotic arm capable of handling large payloads and assisting with shuttle docking. “Both arms will be very busy almost every single day of the flight,” Hadfield said. “Without them we cannot fly in space safely…we can’t build, we can’t inspect.”

He said technology from two Canadian companies – MD Robotics and Neptec, an Ottawa-based manufacturer of space vision systems – was used to develop a long (50-foot long) inspection boom that functions much like a dentist’s mirror. “[It] helps us to look into the hard to reach regions of the shuttle.” At the end of the boom is a laser built by Neptec, which is able to identify the smallest flaws such as hairline cracks and divots. “There’s just no way to inspect the hottest parts of the shuttle as it is coming in for entry, except through the boom that’s built here in Canada,” the astronaut said. “If we had that on Columbia, we may have known we had a problem.”

Columbia, he said, was destroyed by a half-a-kilogram piece of foam that came of the tank and hit the shuttle’s wing. “It was damage that couldn’t be seen during flight, because it happened in a part of the shuttle that is normally not visible.” It was only through subsequent ground tests that the type of damage Columbia had sustained became clear. “We took pieces of foam that big and fired them from a canon at the leading edge of the wing,” Hadfield said.

The canon test knocked a hole the size of a ‘Stop’ sign in the leading edge of the wing. With a hole that big in one of the highest temperature parts of the shuttle there was no way it could withstand entry into the atmosphere, Hadfield said. “In effect, a blowtorch of superheated plasma came screaming into that hole and melted the wing off the space shuttle. That’s what caused the accident.” In the wake of the catastrophe, Hadfield related how the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was set up and published 17 very specific recommendations. Those 17, he said, could be boiled down to four:

• Don’t let debris hit the shuttle during launch;

• In the event that something does hit the shuttle, detection is key;

• Have the ability to quickly repair what is detected;

• Place the lives of the crew before all else if the shuttle is irreversibly damaged.

Canada, he said, has been key in understanding and addressing all of those recommendations. “Without Canadian technological input we would not be able to fly in space here in two weeks.”

People power

But it’s not just Canadian technology that’s moved this mission forward. Talented and committed Canadians are focusing their skills and energies to ensure Discover has a safe return.

Hadfield cited a few pioneers in his presentation.

One name worthy of mention is Julie Payette from Montreal, chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency. Payette is one of the privileged three or four astronauts who will communicate with the crew while they are in space. As one of the CapComs (short for capsule communicator) she will be a focal point between the crew and the team on the ground.

Then there are also Canadians training for subsequent shuttle flights. For instance, the one scheduled for January 2006 will have Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut Steve MacLean on board. He flew a little over 10 years ago and he’ll be doing space walks. And a little over a year from now next summer, Dafydd (Dave) Williams will embark on his second flight will be doing space walks. Both of these flights are part of a mission to assemble an international space station.

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