Sandia LabNews

Wheels down: From pre-launch in 2005 to Atlantis’ final wheel stop in 2011, Sandia monitored every shuttle mission

The Sandia LOIS Ground Station In the Payloads Operation Control Center Mission Control Houston

Nine Sandians witnessed history from Mission Control at Johnson Space Center as Atlantis made its final flight, marking the end of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. For the past 22 missions — every one since NASA’s 2005 return to space — a team of Sandians has worked tirelessly to protect the astronauts by inspecting the orbiter’s thermal protection system for damage.

NASA turned to Sandia for assistance in 2003 after Columbia’s debris-damaged heat shield failed, which caused the tragic accident that took the lives of all seven on board. In response, a Sandia team developed the laser dynamic range imager, or LDRI, which generates 3-D images from two-dimensional video. The LDRI Orbiter Inspection System (LOIS) is attached to the orbiter’s boom, and scans the heat shield twice — once 18 hours after liftoff and then again the day before re-entry — to ensure that no part of the orbiter’s heat shield was damaged during launch or orbit. Without that sensor system, and its ability to detect minute anomalies, the shuttle might have remained Earthbound.

 “It’s been an excellent relationship between Sandia and NASA, and a true team effort,” says Bob Habbit, (5711) manager of Sandia’s Remote Sensing and Communications System group. “These people that we work with here are in effect co-workers. We’ve had a very tight relationship, so it’s tough to see that relationship come to a close for this project, but again, we are very proud of what we’ve been able to do and the support we’ve provided for NASA.”

The effort needed to execute the scan is extensive. In the early days, Sandia took a 24-person team to oversee all aspects of LOIS; some of that work was eventually turned over to NASA and its contractors, so for the last 17 missions, usually only nine or 10 Sandians went to Houston for the hands-on work.

“We led the inspection activity and operations in the payloads operations center for the data collections. We validated that the data was correct and that the sensor was operating properly, and then we reviewed the work of the NASA team to make sure that the data had been processed correctly,” Bob says. “That was our principal role, but in the event that there was some defect found, we provided technical expertise and support to the mission management team.”

Sandia’s role extended beyond the launch and re-entry; team members worked intensely before, during, and after each mission to ensure everything went smoothly.

“After every touchdown, once the orbiter returned to Kennedy, we did a full checkout and calibration on LOIS, and then we would integrate it back to the orbiter at the Orbiter Processing Facility,” Bob says. “Before the next launch, our team would again test the system on the launch pad before the payload bay doors were closed.” Those efforts sometimes came at great personal sacrifice to Sandia’s team, as many had to work through holidays and family occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. “We’re all very happy to do it because of the importance of our work to the mission.” 

A desire to continue NASA partnership

The shuttle program launched 359 astronauts into space since its inception in 1981, was responsible for transporting and maintaining the Hubble Telescope (which captured its millionth observation on July 4), and was the workhorse that assembled the International Space Station. As the nation waits to find out what the next manned mission in space entails, Sandia’s team is already participating in panels and committees to explore NASA’s future needs.

“There is certainly a desire to continue that partnership; we feel like we’ve provided great value to NASA and the shuttle program. Without our sensor and our ability to provide the confidence needed for a truly high-quality inspection, the whole complexion of the shuttle program would have been very different,” Bob says.

NASA gave Sandia a tremendous honor after exceptional work during STS-131 in April 2010. NASA managers invited Sandia’s team to be part of the STS-131 plaque-hanging ceremony, a long-standing tradition to acknowledge outstanding efforts during the mission. The ceremony took place in the Mission Evaluation Room’s conference room, which is across the hall from the historic Apollo Mission Control Center.

Sandia’s multidisciplinary effort for the LOIS program has spanned the Labs and has included people from divisions 2000, 5000, and 9000. Without such a collaborative effort, Bob says, the LOIS effort would not have been possible.

Sandia’s final inspection of Atlantis was July 19, and while everything checked out and all went smoothly, there was a hint of sadness among the team that day.

Bob wrote in an email to his colleagues: “This milestone is met with conflicting emotions — a great deal of pride and accomplishment for an excellent contribution to the nation and sadness to see Sandia’s NASA shuttle program partnership come to closure.”