Endeavor mission lands safely

By Sarelle Azuelos

In 2003, the world watched as the Columbia space shuttle exploded when re-entering the atmosphere because of a crack in the foam. When NASA’s recent Endeavor faced the same problem–and a hurricane threat–everyone looked to mission control to ensure the safety of the astronauts onboard.

One Lead Mission Designer that brought the crew to safety was Laura Lucier. She spent the last three years planning and training for every possible situation during NASA’s last trip to space, specializing in the Canadarm2 and other robotic systems aboard the space station. With a Bachelor of Sciences degree, Lucier decided to come to the University of Calgary to pursue mechanical engineering in case a career in aerospace was unobtainable.

“Every morning you drive through the security checkpoint at NASA and you drive past the sign that says ‘NASA Johnson Space Center’ with the big NASA symbol. For someone like me–who, ever since I was a little girl, always thought it was so amazing to see the space shuttle–every morning going past that sign is a big rush,” Lucier gushed.

On STS-118–the Endeavor mission that landed Tue., Aug. 21–Lucier’s intense training came into use once the images taken of the ship from the space station arrived at Mission Control. A small piece of foam fell off of the external fuel tank which holds fuel for three main engines. These tanks are filled with liquid oxygen and constantly expand and contract under the forces of take off, landing and breaking the sound barrier.

“They were able to look at [the damage] and take very detailed photos,” said Lucier. “We took tiles that we had here on the ground and recreated damage that was done on that tile and subjected it to testing to simulate the environment that the tile would be subjected to when they re-entered the atmosphere.”

She also explained that while foam cracking is expected, multiple inspections are still essential, especially after the loss of the Columbia and its seven-person crew.

The second milestone for NASA came after the ship succeeded in reaching the International Space Station, when worries grew on earth about the approaching Hurricane Dean. Houston was the planned landing site for the ship, but any signs of a storm would force mission control to make critical changes to the schedule for Endeavour.

“A couple years ago, when Hurricane Rita came near Houston my husband and I chose to evacuate from the city and it took us 21 hours to drive about 400 kilometres,” said Lucier. “It was a horrible experience so we were really hoping that Hurricane Dean wouldn’t be an issue for us, especially with the shuttle up there and me being mission designer for that flight.”

In the end, scientists on the ground predicted that the hurricane would instead head south and the original dates were safe.

Lucier’s intense training ensured she was well-prepared for any obstacles. Simulations were an average of six to seven hours, sometimes lasting up to 48 hours with people working on shifts.

“They throw everything imaginable and even things that aren’t imaginable at us to see how we respond, how we react,” said Lucier.

Simulations included a fire on board, all computers crashing and an astronaut getting stranded on the end of the Canadarm2.

“When you’re working on mis- sion control, it is very stressful because you’re usually working long shifts–eight to 10 hours each,” she said. “During that time you never really get to take a break, only when you do not have communication with the astronauts [do] you get to go off, maybe for two minutes at a time, to quickly use the rest room or heat up your lunch.”

Now that she is free to rest in Ontario, Lucier has already made future plans.

“The next big project I’m working on is a joint project with the Japanese Space Agency,” she said. “They’re creating a new vehicle that will launch and fly very close to the Space Station to supply [it with] food and clothing and water and scientific equipment.”

The project is planned for 2009 and is planned to phase out the outdated American shuttles that currently transport supplies to the Space Station.

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