Moving Science, Engineering

Southern Research at 75: Engineers assist ‘Return to Flight’ Shuttle missions

October 20, 2016

Just three months after Charles J. Camarda flew on NASA’s pivotal STS-114 Space Shuttle mission in 2005, the astronaut paid a visit to Southern Research — and he brought souvenirs.

Shuttle astronaut Charles Camarda visited Southern Research in 2005. (Image: NASA)
Shuttle astronaut Charles Camarda visited Southern Research in 2005. (Image: NASA)

STS-114 was one of the most important Shuttle missions for a simple reason: It represented the “Return to Flight” for the space agency after the tragic loss of Columbia two years earlier.

Camarda served as a mission specialist on Discovery, which covered 5,796,419 miles and circled the Earth 219 times at speeds reaching nearly 17,700 miles per hour. During the mission, the Shuttle docked with the International Space Station, and the crew tested new flight-safety procedures and damage inspection and repair techniques.

Camarda visited Birmingham on Nov. 10, 2005, to talk with Southern Research engineering teams that had helped NASA understand how the Columbia accident unfolded and worked to devise new safeguards to prevent a repeat.

To show the Discovery crew’s gratitude, Camarda presented the engineers with a Southern Research banner that had been aboard the Shuttle during the 14-day mission. He also gave them a composite containing a U.S. flag that also had flown on STS-114.

SR 75th_Logo_Horz_RGBThe visit of Camarda, an aerospace engineer who had supervised NASA test facilities, represented a special moment for the Southern Research team.

“We’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Charlie on a series of efforts prior to his selection to fly on STS-114,” John Koenig, director of materials research, said at the time. “We share a heritage in materials engineering with Charlie, making this flight even more special in that ‘one of us’ was on board.”


Southern Research's John Koenig inspects a fuel nozzle damaged on an early Shuttle mission.
A Southern Research engineering team led by John Koenig identified a serious Space Shuttle fuel nozzle problem.

Soon after the Columbia accident on Feb. 1, 2003, Koenig and the Southern Research team became heavily involved in a wide-ranging quest for answers to what had happened to the Shuttle.

NASA engaged Southern Research in multiple roles in the inquiry. The team looked into aspects of the obiter wing failure, triggered when super-heated gases entered through damaged tiles on the leading edge.

Engineers modeled the impact of the foam debris that struck the left wing’s leading edge 82 seconds after Columbia’s lift-off, causing the damage.

Impact tests were conducted on materials that could come off the launch system during lift-off: ice, insulating foam, composite materials, graphite from the booster separation system.

Southern Research engineers prepared specimens, conducted pre- and post-nondestructive evaluation, and studied damage modes. They also developed new testing techniques that avoided the release of debris from the booster separation motors.

In addition, the team evaluated whether the age of the carbon-carbon composites on the leading edge enhanced the probability of failure after repeated exposures to temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees.

The engineers also worked with teams that studied potential in-flight repairs to the Shuttle’s leading edge, such as patches, plugs, overwrap, and fillers. Astronaut Scott Parazynski acted as an adviser to the Southern Research team on this program.


After Discovery returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California to end STS-114 on Aug. 9, 2005, NASA didn’t mount another mission for almost another year. STS-121, launched on July 4, 2006, was considered the second “Return to Flight” mission for the Shuttle program.

On both of these missions, NASA had what it called “eyes in the sky” to record the lift-off and its climb toward orbit. High-flying WB-57 aircraft carried an innovative nose-mounted video system that allowed NASA to monitor the flight for debris impacts.

Southern Research’s Airborne Imaging and Recording System is still in use.

On STS-121, Discovery again returned to the International Space Station, and the crew continued to test new equipment for the in-flight inspection and repair of the Shuttle’s thermal protection system.

After the mission, NASA decided that the Shuttle was prepared to resume its scheduled flights.

That year, Koenig received a Silver Snoopy Award, an honor given by NASA astronauts for contributions that improve the success and safety of space flight.


This is Part Seven of a series looking at the history of Southern Research.



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