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Can Do versus Do it Yourself

a "can do" attitude got us into space, but will it be enough to keep us there?
by David Barnhart
Costa Mesa - Feb 19, 2003
It is an unfortunate fact that the best retrospection comes at times of great distress or tragedy. The entire space community, as well as the world body who understands the risks and price of exploration feels the loss of Columbia. It is well that we in the community begin to examine ourselves first and foremost and to ask the tough questions before others.

There may be many arguments and discussions in the days or weeks to come, possibly re-opening the debate of manned versus unmanned, however there may be a more cogent and tangible argument that will affect not when humans return to space, but how they operate there when they do: I call it "Can Do" versus "Do it Yourself".

This hypothesis affects not only the mechanics of how humans deal with problems in a harsh environment (in this case space), but more importantly the core philosophy of how we as a community address our environment and our people in the task of exploration.

In the early 60's Gus Grissom made the famous argument regarding astronauts not wanting to be likened to "monkeys" that contributed to significant philosophical changes to the Gemini and then Apollo capsule developments.

Control devices, windows, and internal command capability was given to the pilot/astronauts to allow them control over the environment and their craft.

The argument being that they were the closest to the action and therefore the best to be able to make decisions and take action based on events, occurring in the new environment of space.

Over the years this resulted in several spectacular saves of the capsule and astronauts from possible catastrophe by their actions, followed by further supported actions and saves from mission control.

The Apollo 1 spacecraft loss was due in part to an unwieldy hatch that was not made with the rapid egress or actuation in mind for the astronauts, developed under a philosophy that believed technology would hold and save the astronauts first and foremost, thereby mitigating the need for action by them. Grissoms argument brought a more stable balance to technology versus the astronaut's ability, and many times both were proved right.

NASA and the space community in general has stated for many years its philosophy of "Can Do" could surpass any potential problem that comes up to send people to space.

However this approach may have once again tipped too far in favor of relying solely on technology and prudent preparation rather than providing tools to the astronauts to evaluate or "fix" themselves while on-orbit given a potential condition, making sure they are prepared for Mr. Murphy. To illustrate the dynamics of this argument, lets consider two relevant thoughts.

First, there have been direct assertions that there was no method or technology to evaluate areas potentially affected on the underside of the Shuttle after launch once the STS was in orbit, whether due to launch or debris. No EVA was planned for this, and no remote inspection devices were available. This is tangibly not correct.

The USAF has just realized a very successful mission called XSS-10 the week before Columbia was lost, that proved that an autonomous highly maneuverable vehicle could be used to inspect a space object up close, safely and with a high degree of autonomy. Interestingly, in the course of this project, the program manager evaluated another highly successful inspection vehicle that was flown in 1997 by a group of young engineers and managers, called AerCam Sprint.

It was a remotely operated cold-gas powered vehicle, slightly larger than a volleyball, padded on all sides, that had a high definition black and white camera on it that took incredible pictures as it flew free in space.

But what was most interesting about this project, it was flown out of the Shuttle bay on STS 87, by an astronaut inside the shuttle with a joystick, under full knowledge of mission control and approved by ground safety. Possibly more enlightening, the group of young engineers and managers were from NASA's very own Johnson Space Center.

The program, although highly successful, was canceled. The USAF's XSS series will hopefully continue. Both of these efforts are essentially ROV's for space. Light, maneuverable, safe and commandable from the ground.

There was, and is, remotely operated and safe inspection devices available today to provide on-orbit real-time information to astronauts and ground controllers about the space environment. So this first assertion can be addressed using todays technology.

The second assertion has been voiced that even if a valid evaluation could have been made and assessed, there was nothing that could have been done regarding a potential problem to the spacecraft while it was on-orbit.

This assertion, more than anything, is troubling. First, this asserts that there is no known technology available today to repair spacecraft in orbit. In the case of a tile, there are many polymer, ceramic, mechanical and structural technologies available that could be brought to bear to bond surfaces to each other in the hard vacuum of space.

Second, the body of knowledge that has been amassed by the repeated flights of re-entering manned capsules and spacecraft must provide some insight in the "repairs" most needed after a mission, and therefore an assessment on the most probable failure on-orbit, which could provide the basis for a one-time "emergency spares" kit.

Third, this assertion immediately pre-ordains a certain fate to those that are in space, such that no amount of ingenuity could affect a certain outcome. This was not the attitude the men and women on the ground had in 1970 when Apollo 13 had a failure no one could have envisioned or even planned for.

Yet, the same "can do" attitude talked about today was used at that time to save the lives of the astronauts, by using the might of a large aerospace force on the ground and the ingenuity and action of the men in the fateful situation, with no more tools than what the astronauts brought with them at the time.

To extrapolate this philosophical thought further, consider a more down to earth example. When a Navy commander takes his/her destroyer to sea, he does not go believing that if something goes wrong in the middle of the ocean in heavy seas with no possibility of timely rescue, that he will give up.

No, every man and woman becomes the engineer, the mechanic, and the technician to assess the problem and to fix it as the first line of defense. And yes, they have the capability with today's technology to not only talk to the actual engineer or mechanic who made the part in real-time, but to send a submersible ROV over the side to help assess any potential condition of the ship itself.

Yes, being on the Earth, in extreme cases a ship or aircraft can be dispatched to the distressed vessel to render further assistant, something we are not quite at with space travel.

But more importantly it is a mindset, a conscious decision that is made on how to operate this complex vehicle in a harsh environment when it is away from the stable environment of land, when real danger threatens.

Therefore, it may be time to re-evaluate the balance of self-capability versus planned non-action. If exploration is to continue to even farther and more difficult environs such as the Moon or Mars, than the people that take that trip must be given not only the greatest support from the ground that our community has to offer, but quite possibly and more importantly, they must be given a set of tools and technologies that they themselves can use to assess and evaluate their own situation.

Obviously there is a limit to what people on-orbit as of today could be expected to do or fix. Changing the entire tail section of the Shuttle as an example is most likely beyond reasonable capability. Fixing a camera, a rocket nozzle, a sensor, or even a tile, may not be.

The reality of space business is of course not so easy to implement even the most creative changes. Space program managers face an unwieldy challenge of balancing shrinking budgets, higher science and technology aspirations, drives for shorter program lifecycles, exorbitant costs of mass to orbit, and Congressional and internal policy differences than ever before.

However, the assertion by anyone in the space community today that nothing could have been done had the true status of Columbia been known, is more tragic and disheartening for the future of space exploration and today's and tomorrows generation of human space pioneers.

No, we should endeavor to give the next humans who travel to space, and there will be more, not only the intelligence, the capability, the support, and the hard lessons of experience, but more importantly the tools and the philosophical certainty that they have the ability, and the free-will, to affect their own destiny should they ultimately face hard choices.

It is only when this balance of can do attitude is metered with self-capability will we be ready to venture farther than we have gone before, and truly be prepared for the un-expected.

David Barnhart is a former DoD Program Manager and Vice President of Engineering at Millennium Space Systems in Costa Mesa CA.

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