“Colt” Pears had previously carried out high-temperature goal gasification work for the Bureau of Mines. His ambition was to create a world-class high-temperature materials characterization laboratory. The lab’s innovations included the development of a facility that could make accurate measurements of loads on brittle high-temperature metals and optical strain measurement techniques.
The first known measurements of tensile properties at 6,000-degrees Fahrenheit took place at Southern Research, and extreme-temperature testing and analysis became a core competency of the organization. In 1964, the American Society for Testing and Materials recognized the gas-bearing tensile-stress-strain apparatus developed by Pears as the year’s most significant contribution to testing.
Under Pear’s leadership, the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department targeted work involving U.S. aerospace needs, including high-temperature technology and characterization, macrostructural modeling, failure analysis, and core technology of materials.
Pears is a member of the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.
Engineers exposed materials to extreme conditions like those of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, providing data that helped NASA select heat-shield materials. Working with NASA’s Langley Research Center, Southern Research engineers heat-tested materials up to 5,000-degrees Fahrenheit.
Southern Research also designed radiometers that provided temperature measurements on the moon’s surface, which factored into landing site decisions.
Around the time of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, Southern Research established onsite laboratory operations at Kennedy Space Center to support contractors involved in the launches. Chemist Ruby James, an expert in gas chromatography, ran the program for two years.
Specimen materials were flex-tested and kept in a special vacuum chamber for weeks at a time to simulate space conditions. Temperatures were lowered to minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit as part of the analysis by the Mechanical Engineering Department.
Five candidate materials survived all the tests.
Voyager launched on Sept. 5, 1977, on a mission that took the space probe past Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn’s moon Titan. It is the only spacecraft now in interstellar space.
Southern Research was involved in many aspects of the Space Shuttle program. The engineering team evaluated ablative materials used to protect the Shuttle from the high thermal loads and the 5,500-degree temperatures generated by its massive solid rocket motors. The team also examined materials for the leading edges of the orbiter, which experienced temperatures ranging from –150 degrees to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit on every flight.
Other Southern Research departments also got involved in the Shuttle program. Analytical chemists conducted tests that identified compounds in charred insulation and steered NASA away from using polyurethane insulating foam with a flame-retardant additive because tests showed it produced toxic fumes when burned.
In addition, chemists and toxicologists determined harmful properties of burned insulation.
The Challenger’s 1983 mission, designated STS-8, seemed to go without a hitch, but a post-flight safety inspection of the solid rocket boosters revealed a problem with the lining of a rocket nozzle. The lining had almost completely burned away in some places, which likely would have led to a catastrophic break-up of the spacecraft.
NASA called in John Koenig’s Southern Research engineering team, which identified why the rocket nozzle had eroded and provided guidance for material design and process changes to prevent the defect. The team also developed a unique laser screening test to ensure there would be no repeat of the problem.
Photo shows John Koenig inspecting a damaged shuttle fuel nozzle
Southern Research was a pioneer in controlled release, drug delivery technologies like microencapsulation — placing doses of medicine in tiny spheres no wider than a single strand of human hair. In 1992, the organization’s technology went to space with experiments that flew on the shuttle Discovery.
The goal of the experiments was to gain insights about the production of microspheres in the absence of gravity. In one of the experiments, the antibiotic ampicillin was encapsulated within a biodegradable polymer.
Chandra’s periscope is a critical component of the telescope’s pointing mechanism and goes from the center of the X-ray mirrors to the tracking camera. To function properly, the periscope must remain thermally stable despite temperature changes.
Southern Research developed the thermal stability test for the periscope that determined the pointing accuracy of the X-ray observatory. Several test campaigns helped material and optical designers refine the periscope design.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor of Hubble. Before Northrop Grumman secured the prime contract on the project in 2002, Southern Research’s Nondestructive Characterization Group worked with team members Orbital ATK and others to develop enabling technology for the 6.5- meter space telescope on NASA’s next great observatory.
Novel interferometer-based metrology techniques pioneered at Southern Research were integral to the winning proposal and went on to be used to test over six thousand individual material components for the observatory, in addition to major substructures.
Endeavour was poised to launch from Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center when higher-than-allowable oxygen levels were detected in the orbiter’s midbody. While replacing a fatigued oxygen hose, a platform bumped the robotic arm in the shuttle’s cargo bay.
NASA officials called Southern Research engineers David Stewart and Jim Tucker and asked them to report to Kennedy Space Center the next day and bring Southern Research’s patented UltraSpec ultrasonic inspection equipment to examine the manipulator arm. This technology was uniquely capable of collecting data about the robotic arm’s composite-to-metal interfaces.
Inspection of the arm was made in the cargo bay of Endeavour on the launch pad, and Southern Research’s equipment and personnel were then immediately flown to Toronto to meet with the arm’s manufacturer to evaluate results.
Three days after the call to Southern Research was made, Endeavour was approved for launch and blasted into orbit on Nov. 23, 2002.
Photo shows Jim Tucker, left, and David Stewart inspecting cargo in the shuttle bay of Endeavour using the UltraSpec technology
Columbia was destroyed during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, following a 16-day scientific mission. An investigation showed that hot gases entered a hole in the leading edge on one of Columbia’s wings, destroying critical support structures and causing the spacecraft to break apart.
NASA again called in a Southern Research team led by John Koenig to determine the cause of the mission failure and model the event that caused the initial damage to the wing. The team also evaluated if the age of the carbon composite material enhanced the probability of failure and to develop approaches to repair the shuttle wing in space if similar damage occurred in the future.
Koening was honored by NASA and its space partners at a 2016 ceremony marking his retirement from Southern Research after nearly 40 years.
The Airborne Imaging and Recording System (AIRS) captured video of Discovery’s July 26, 2005, launch from ranges of up to 20 nautical miles. The AIRS units, mounted in the nose of WB-57 aircraft, provided full-motion video of Discovery from lift-off to well beyond booster separation at 146,000 feet.
The system, developed with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, fulfilled a recommendation from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that high-resolution video be taken of shuttle launches so that possible damage could be identified.
The AIRS turrets continue to be used to capture video of rocket launches and by a variety of Southern Research government clients.