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Spinoff 2001

 
Johnson Space Center

Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, established in 1961, is NASA's primary center for: design, development and testing of spacecraft and associated systems for human flight; selection and training of astronauts; planning and conducting of human space flight missions; and participation in medical and engineering experiments carried aboard space flights. Located just outside of Houston, Texas, the Johnson Space Center houses NASA Mission Control and is responsible for all on-orbit Space Shuttle operations.

The International Space Station (ISS) program involves 16 partner nations, 5 space agencies, as well as several languages and cultures. ISS operations require attention--all day, every day, all year long--from Mission Control Centers at Johnson, in Russia, and also from the flight control centers of our international partners. During the past year, the ISS has grown to 105 tons--about the mass of a Space Shuttle--and measures 240 feet wide. In August 2000, the new Johnson ISS flight control training facility opened. Named the "Red Flight Control Room," it is used alone or in concert with the "Blue" shuttle flight control room and the "White" ISS control room, to train teams for future assignments. Near the year's end, on November 2, 2000, the Expedition One crew arrived in a Russian Soyuz capsule to begin a new era of continuous international cooperation in space.

Because Mission Control is a major provider of communications, Johnson Space Center personnel took pride when Soft phone was installed aboard ISS. Softphone makes calling someone from orbit as easy as placing a call from any desk at Johnson. Donning a headset plugged into their laptops, the astronauts can reach anyone with a Johnson extension by dialing a five-digit number. Should an astronaut wish to place a local, long-distance, or international call, they simply dial nine first.

Softphone, though not critical to keeping the outpost in orbit, has already become a much-appreciated luxury. "We're really enjoying it and getting a lot of use out of the Softphone," said Jim Voss in a voicemail message left for Brett Parrish, a Johnson engineer who worked on the project. "Thanks a lot It's great to have it on board."

For decades, the only way to communicate with astronauts was via radio, which had several limitations and relatively low signal quality. During those years, only the privileged Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) sat in ready contact with astronauts. Limitations existed as to where and when the astronauts could talk with their families over the old radio system. "In the past the CAPCOM was the one that talked to the astronauts and that was it--period," Parrish said. "There were a few exceptions like flight surgeons, the President, or the family in a protected room. Now it's as comfortable as calling from the office, which is something we take for granted. But if you're in a tin can for six months, it's a long time to go without talking to your kids or your spouse."

Softphone is a dream come true for many people. Johnson and Cisco Systems updated the phone system for communications operations on the ground like those in the Mission Control Center and between certain directorates. Cisco reengineered its Softphone program, because the design was not able to survive the NASA satellite network. The network sometimes requires signals to be bounced around for tens of thousands of miles before reaching their target--in this case the ISS. But, technical problems arose involving signal delay and the inability of the Shuttle and ISS communication systems to carry Internet Protocol "packets" of information. Cisco engineers revamped the program until it could handle all of the difficulties.

The Softphone, as well as other advanced communication capabilities, could not exist without the help of the Orbiter Communication Adapter (OCA). The little computer card and routing equipment have revolutionized data transfer, networking, and communications with vehicles in orbit. The OCA "tricks" old NASA satellite links into thinking they are a modern Ethernet network. It can be built into almost any communication system, and can serve as a relatively inexpensive basis for communication systems that used to cost millions.

Astronaut Jim Voss using the Softphone Astronaut Jim Voss using the Softphone.


Another NASA project uses Johnson-developed technology to help in the search for "heavenly coffee." The mission will use an unpiloted aircraft, known as an "Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle" or "UAV," to aid Hawaiian coffee growers by providing the growers with color images of their crops. From this information the growers will know, down to the day, the best time for harvesting the beans, thus bringing the best flavor to consumers.

Part of NASA's UAV-based science demonstration program, these flights will show the ability of this aircraft to carry Earth-viewing scientific payloads in long-duration missions at altitudes exceeding the endurance of a pilot in a traditional aircraft.

The research team will use the Pathfinder-Plus aircraft; a high-flying solar-powered UAV built by AeroVironment, Inc., Monrovia, California. The craft will loiter over crop fields for long periods during the harvest season. After the flights, the Kauai Coffee Company plantation and a research team led by Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, will brief coffee industry officials on its findings.

The mission will allow NASA to provide the benefits of aerospace research to the multi-billion dollar coffee industry, while exhibiting capabilities that will benefit both scientific and commercial objectives well into the new millennium. "This mission is both scientifically exciting and commercially appealing. While validating this new breed of aircraft we're also providing sound science with real-world, practical applications to the American people," said Dr. Ghassem Asrar, Associate Administrator for Earth Sciences, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

One particular Johnson triumph was the successful test flight of the X-38 prototype "lifeboat," assembled at Johnson Space Center. The X-38 floated to a successful touchdown under the world's largest parafoil at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, completing the seventh large-scale free flight test for the X-38 project.

The landing test began at an altitude of about 37,500 feet, when the X-38 was released from NASA's B-52 aircraft. The test verified recent enhancements made to the X-38's flight control software and also checked advances in the two-stage repositioning deployment of a drogue parachute that initially slows the vehicle from 600 miles an hour to about 60 miles an hour. The parachute also sets the stage for deployment of the 7,500-square-foot-parafoil wing. After a 13-minute gliding descent, the unmanned X-38 touched down at a speed of less than 40 miles an hour.

The X-38 Crew Return Vehicle program not only conducted the first successful test flight of the world's largest parafoil, but also reached several other X-38 milestones in 2000. These include the testing aboard shuttles of the X-38 navigation system and the test flight of the X-38's final body shape configuration.

Johnson made significant progress during 2000 in critical research and development areas. The new "glass cockpit" on Space Shuttle Atlantis gives pilots more information in a more capable display. Congress provided additional funding for key safety upgrades designed to reduce the risks during ascent, orbit and re-entry, and to increase the "situational awareness" of Shuttle crews during flight.

In the area of space operations, Johnson's Space Operations Management Office worked to consolidate human spaceflight communications and data services. The launch of the latest Tracking and Data Relay Satellite marked a major achievement in this area. Through the ongoing efforts of Johnson researchers and engineers, the Center will continue to place a strong emphasis on the development and commercialization of key NASA assets and capabilities--helping U.S. businesses to "do business" in low Earth orbit as the commercial space industry rapidly expands.

Space Shuttle simulator using Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem The Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem (MEDS), otherwise known as the "glass cockpit," is shown in the fixed base Space Shuttle mission simulator at Johnson Space Center's Mission Simulation and Training Facility. MEDS is installed on the Space Shuttle Atlantis.


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