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NASA's Low-Tech Secrets

by Terry Dunn
A legacy of utilizing legacy technology.

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has fostered a very high-tech, cutting-edge public image. Surely astronauts commute about Houston in flying cars and stash concealed ray guns under those blue jumpsuits, right? As a kid in central Florida, watching space shuttle launches from my backyard, that Buck Rogers aura was the only side of NASA that I ever knew. You can imagine my surprise when I came to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in 1997 as a budding engineer and found a decidedly less futuristic, almost anachronistic side of the agency.

I do not intend my observation as a slight against NASA…actually quite the contrary. Spaceflight has always been a balance between managing risk and fostering innovation. Whereas unmanned, scientific missions are more apt to dabble in pioneering technologies, programs that send humans to orbit have embraced whatever proven technologies are feasible and available. Strapping yourself to a rocket ship has enough intrinsic risk, so why not hedge the odds where you can?

Here are some examples of those aging technologies that were still under the employ of NASA during my tenure there.

An Overgrown Abacus

NASA built modernized mission control rooms in the 1990s but still relied on mainframe computers, like this IBM System/360, to support space shuttle flights until 2002. (IBM photo)

While it is easy to accept the necessity of legacy technologies in our space program, there are a few examples that have surprised me with their tenacity. First, let’s look at the Mission Control Center (MCC), the site of my initial NASA duties. On my first day on the job, I was introduced to the high-tech, super-fast computing powerhouse that flight controllers relied on to manage space shuttle flights. Was it a Cray supercomputer or perhaps a Deep Blue derivative? Well, no. It was an ancient, room warming IBM mainframe running Assembly Language.

Called the Mission Operations Computer (MOC , or "Mock“ in NASAspeak), this mainframe was actually heavy-duty computing stuff when it debuted in the mid 1960’s. It handled critical tasks such as real-time trajectory calculations and processing commands sent by flight controllers to the orbiter (whether it be Gemini, Apollo or Shuttle). It was perhaps the most vital piece of hardware within the MCC. In fact, we never operated with fewer than two mainframes at once: a prime and a hot backup that could be enabled at a moment’s notice.

During my tenure in the MCC, we worked on projects to transition computing responsibilities off of the MOC and on to UNIX-based servers. It was not until the 2002 launch of shuttle mission STS-111, however, that the MOC was bumped to second fiddle. Think about that for a minute. One hundred ten of one hundred thirty-five missions flown by the space shuttle (arguably the most complex machine ever built by man) were choreographed by a humble mainframe (or two).

Since the retirement of the MOC, Mission Control has undergone steady upgrades to keep pace with the times. No matter which direction our manned space program ultimately takes, I suspect that we will never again see mission control lag so far behind computing’s state of the art.

Rusty Tin Cans

The author in a rare opportunity to wear an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), which has been NASA’s only spacesuit since the start of the space shuttle era. I’m shaking hands with spacewalk uber-veteran David Wolf (now retired from NASA). (Lee Ray photo)

I was briefly tempted to include the space shuttle orbiters in this recollection of technological hangovers. While you can’t deny that they were getting long in the tooth, the three remaining shuttles were still quite spry when pulled from service. Like a classic car that is doted on by its owner, the shuttle fleet received constant TLC and significant upgrades over the years. Between better engines, digital “glass” cockpits, and an array of other weekend projects, just about the only aspect of the shuttle that did not get modernized was its shadow.

While the space shuttle gets a bye on this list, another under-appreciated vehicle deserves mention. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), or spacesuit, is by most definitions a life-sustaining spacecraft. While the EMU has enjoyed a few upgrades during its 30+ years of service, those changes were much more subtle in nature. The core technology of the EMU remains essentially intact. It bears repeating that once NASA has confidence in a critical system, the agency tends to cling to it. When it comes to the EMU, NASA practically has “EMU” tattooed across its back.

While the crux of that commitment is to ensure astronaut safety with a well-proven system, money is also a big factor. It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to certify that a new widget will adequately perform its job in space while not causing negative impacts to the astronauts or myriad other devices that will be in close proximity. When widget 2.0 comes along, it has to represent a monumental improvement in performance to justify the expense of recertification.

In the waning days of the shuttle program, I was appointed to oversee the production of components used for sensing biomedical data within the EMU. The design of those components dates back to the 70’s...maybe further. My team quickly found that more capable units were readily available at any medical supply store. I briefly lobbied higher-ups that we should adopt a more modern system using these off-the shelf commercial parts. Their response, in no uncertain terms, was for me to dust off the drawings, put on my big boy (leisure suit) pants and make the components 70’s style…and that’s what flies on the International Space Station today.

While NASA has struggled to keep the EMU design static, the rest of the engineering world has kept moving forward.

While NASA has struggled to keep the EMU design static, the rest of the engineering world has kept moving forward. The result is that many materials and chemicals used to build and process the EMU are becoming increasingly hard to obtain because no one else uses them anymore. In most cases, the material quantities that NASA needs are minuscule by industrial standards. If suppliers are still in business (and if they are willing to help) short, special-order productions runs are often cost prohibitive. When all else fails, NASA grudgingly chooses new materials and certifies them for use.

Another factor that may force design changes to the EMU is our present payload capacity for ISS-bound ships. The space shuttle was a veritable freight train with ample volume and a 25 ton payload capacity. It carried EMUs up and back with a regularity that ensured any given suit on the ISS had been recently blessed by technicians in Houston. Current supply ships such as the Russian Progress or Space-X Dragon have a fraction of the shuttle’s load hauling capability. Every pound and cubic inch of payload capability is bitterly contested across the multi-national ISS program. It is simply no longer feasible to rotate EMU stock like the good ol' shuttle days.

EMU life support systems now stay on orbit for extended periods which may stretch the boundaries of their designed usage and maintenance profiles. It is in this new atmosphere that we have just experienced a rather tense moment due to a problem with an EMU. On July 16th, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano experienced water spouting into his helmet roughly one hour into a spacewalk with American astronaut Chris Cassidy. Thankfully, Luca is okay, but the remainder of the spacewalk was cancelled. In fact, all EMU-based spacewalks are cancelled until the problem can be sorted out. It will be a long wait to get the suspect hardware back to Houston. Since some ISS supply ships intentionally burn up after departing the station (taking smelly garbage with them), cargo space on vehicles that actually return to Earth is even more coveted than that on outbound rides.

While replacement suit designs are in various stages of development, none are nearly ready for flight. In the mean time, it will be interesting to see how the EMU’s current logistical limitations may drive design changes to NASA’s legacy spacewalk attire.

Wrinkled Wings

The needle-like T-38 may have the aura of a modern design, but it has been serving NASA and the US Air Force (among others) since the early 1960s. Don’t expect it to fade away anytime soon. (NASA photo)

Although not directly related to spaceflight, NASA has a fleet of airplanes that it keeps at Ellington Field near JSC. At a time when the age of the average airliner in the US is somewhere well south of 20 years, NASA’s Ellington hangars might seem like an aircraft rest home. Just like control centers and spacesuits, airplanes aren’t cheap. So, NASA continues to utilize what works in spite of its age.

The T-38 is a supersonic jet used for proficiency training, personal transport, and various other things. As the Dick Clark of the Ellington fleet, the T-38’s sleek appearance belies the fact that it is a 50 year old design. Since the US military also continues to maintain a respectable T-38 presence, I would expect to see NASA’s birds rockin’ many more new years.

Other, more specialized designs can’t help but show their age. The ungainly Super Guppy transport looks like a prehistoric land creature…certainly not something capable of flight. But fly it does. The Guppy hauls big heavy parts wherever they are needed and hosts high-altitude tennis matches in its bulbous cargo hold (just kidding…it’s racquetball).

The long droopy wings of the WB-57 high-altitude plane make it look as if it just wants a place to lie down for a while. It’s only an illusion. The WB-57 may be old, but it isn’t tired. Thanks to that huge wing and modernized engines, it leaps off of the runway and scampers up to the clouds. Despite their varied appearance, the razor-sharp T-38, swollen Super Guppy, and droopy WB-57 can all trace their origins back to the early 1960’s.

Astronauts returning from a stint on ISS hitch a ride from Russia back to Houston on NASA’s Gulfstream III. This large biz-jet also participates in scientific research by schlepping various instrumentation packages aloft. At only 32 years old, the GIII is practically a hatchling and seriously blows the age curve!

What’s Next?

NASA has always known that touting its fascinating new developments is what brings the sizzle (public support) and generates excitement (congressional funding) for the space program. Indeed, public outreach is one of its key charters. Even though the agency has frequent need to stay technologically status quo or even go retro, it typically does so quietly. That well-honed balance of “shiny” versus “trusted” may be evolving over the next few years as NASA shows more of its hand. The current space shuttle follow-on, Space Launch System (SLS), simply can’t hide its roots. There is certainly exciting new technology involved in pulling SLS together. Yet, NASA’s PR guys may have a hard time making that point when describing a ship that looks just like the Saturn V rockets of moon shot fame and borrows engine and booster technology from the shuttle. As SLS moves forward, it will be interesting to observe whether the bigger challenges are faced by the folks building the new rocket, or the guys who must convince a finicky public to embrace it.

Terry Dunn worked for 15 years as a NASA contractor at NASA Johnson Space Center, and now lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he works as an engineer in the plastics industry.

Photos courtesy Terry Dunn and IBM