The Space Shuttle has often been called the most complex pieces of machinery ever built, an underhanded compliment if there ever was one. But it’s a claim not strictly limited to the final spacecraft. With a project as far ahead of the technological curve as the Shuttle was in the 1970s, nearly every component and system of the legendary spaceplane required extensive research and development to realize.
A couple of weeks ago, we noted with interest that the space shuttle Endeavour (OV85) would be set up as a full-stack launch configuration display, complete with external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters. We predicted that this would result in some interesting engineering, not least of which will be making the entire 20-story stack safe from seismic activity. Looks like we were right on all counts, with this story about the foundation upon which the display will stand, which has been under construction for quite a while now. The base has six seismic isolators that support the 2.4-m thick slab of reinforced concrete that will serve as a perch for the full stack. The 1,800-ton slab will be able to move a meter or so from its resting position during earthquakes. Or perhaps more accurately, the foundation will allow Los Angeles to move as much as it wants while Endeavour rides it out.
If like us you’re worried that seismic loads are vastly different than the loads the spacecraft was actually designed for, relax — it turns out that the flight loads are far in excess of predicted loads from seismic stress. The plan is to build the booster stacks first — the aft skirts, which will support the entire stack, were just bolted in place — then lift the external tank in place between the boosters, and finally hoist the actual orbiter into place. After the stack is complete, the rest of the building will be built around it. We’re really looking forward to seeing some video on this project.
Last week, we noted an attempt to fix a hardware problem with software, which backfired pretty dramatically for Ford when they tried to counter the tendency for driveshafts to fall out of certain of their cars by automatically applying the electric parking brake.
This week, the story is a little different, but still illustrates how software and hardware can interact unpredictably, especially in the automotive space. The story centers on a 2015 Optima recall for a software update for the knock sensor detection system. We can’t find the specifics, but if this recall on a similar Kia model in the same model year range and a class-action lawsuit are any indication, the update looks like it would have made the KSDS more sensitive to worn connecting rod damage, and forced the car into “limp home mode” to limit damage to the engine if knocking is detected.
A clever solution to a mechanical problem? Perhaps, but because the Kia owner in the story claims not to have received the snail-mail recall notice, she got no warning when her bearings started wearing out. Result: a $6,000 bill for a new engine, which she was forced to cover out of pocket. Granted, this software fix isn’t quite as egregious as Ford’s workaround for weak driveshaft mounting bolts, and there may very well have been a lack of maintenance by the car’s owner. But if you’re a Kia mechanical engineer, wouldn’t your first instinct have been to fix the problem causing the rod bearings to wear out, rather than papering over the problem with software?
[T-Zero Systems] has been working on his model Falcon 9 rocket for a while now. It’s an impressive model, complete with thrust vectoring, a microcontroller which follows a predetermined flight plan, a working launch pad, and even legs to attempt vertical landings. During his first tests of his model, though, there were some issues with the control system software that he wrote so he’s back with a new system that borrows software from the Space Shuttle.
The first problem to solve is gimbal lock, a problem that arises when two axes of rotation line up during flight, causing erratic motion. This is especially difficult because this model has no ability to control roll. Solving this using quaternion instead of Euler angles involves a lot of math, provided by libraries developed for use on the Space Shuttle, but with the extra efficiency improvements the new software runs at a much faster rate than it did previously. Unfortunately, the new software had a bug which prevented the parachute from opening, which wasn’t discovered until after launch.
There’s a lot going on in this build behind-the-scenes, too, like the test rocket motor used for testing the control system, which is actually two counter-rotating propellers that can be used to model the thrust of a motor without actually lighting anything on fire. There’s also a separate video describing a test method which validates new hardware with data from prior launches. And, if you want to take your model rocketry further in a different direction, it’s always possible to make your own fuel as well.
Since the Apollo program, astronauts making the nine mile trip from the Operations and Checkout Building to the launch pad have rode in a specialized van that’s become lovingly referred to as the Astrovan. The original van, technically a modified motorhome, was used from 1967 all the way to the first Shuttle missions in 1983. From then on, a silver Airstream Excella emblazoned with the NASA “meatball” carried crews up until the final Shuttle rolled to a stop in 2011.
With crewed flights for the Artemis lunar program on the horizon, NASA has put out a call to companies that want to build a new Crew Transportation Vehicle (CTV). As you might expect from rocket scientists, the space agency has provided an exacting list of specifications for the new CTV, down to the dimensions of the doors and how many amps each of its 12 VDC power jacks must be able to handle. Perhaps most notably, NASA requires that the new 8-seat Astrovan be a zero-emission vehicle; which given the relatively short distance it has to drive, shouldn’t actually be too difficult.
In the document, NASA explains that the new CTV could either be a completely new one-of-a-kind vehicle, or a commercially available vehicle that has been suitably modified, as was the case with the previous vans. But interestingly, it also says they’re open to proposals for refurbishing the Shuttle-era 1983 Airstream and putting it back into service.
This is particularly surprising, as the vehicle is currently part of the Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center. Presumably the space agency thinks there would be some bankable nostalgia should Artemis crews ride to the pad in the same van that once carried the Shuttle astronauts, but given the vehicle’s history and the fact that it’s literally a museum piece, it seems somewhat inappropriate. This is after all the very same van that once carried the Challenger and Columbia crews to their ill-fated spacecraft. Luckily, the chances of anyone willing to turn a 1983 Airstream into a zero-emission vehicle seem pretty slim.
Since the very beginning, the prevailing wisdom regarding consumer desktop 3D printers was that they were excellent tools for producing prototypes or one-off creations, but anything more than that was simply asking too much. After all, they were too slow, expensive, and finicky to be useful in a production setting. Once you needed more than a few copies of a plastic part, you were better off biting the bullet and moving over to injection molding.
But of course, things have changed a lot since then. Who could have imagined that one day you’d be able to buy five 3D printers for the cost of the crappiest Harbor Freight mini lathe? Modern 3D printers aren’t just cheaper either, they’re also more reliable and produce higher quality parts. Plus with software like OctoPrint, managing them is a breeze. Today, setting up a small print farm and affordably producing parts in mass quantities is well within the means of the average hobbyist.
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I started seeing listings for these 3D printed rocket lamps popping up on eBay. Available from various sellers at a wide array of price points depending on how long you’re willing to wait for shipping, the lamps come in several shapes and sizes, and usually feature either the Space Shuttle or mighty Saturn V perched atop a “exhaust plume” of white PLA plastic. With a few orange LEDs blinking away on the inside, the lamp promises to produce an impressive flame effect that will delight space enthusiasts both young and old.
As a space enthusiast that fits somewhere in between those extremes, I decided it was worth risking $30 USD to see what one of these things looked like in real life. After waiting a month, a crushed up box arrived at my door which I was positive would contain a tiny mangled version of the majestic lamp I was promised — like the sad excuse for a hamburger that McBurgerLand actually gives you compared to what they advertise on TV.
But in person, it really does look fantastic. Using internally lit 3D printed structures to simulate smoke and flame is something we’ve seen done in the DIY scene, but pulling it off in a comparatively cheap production piece is impressive enough that I thought it deserved a closer look.
Now it’s always been my opinion that the best way to see how something was built is to take it apart, so I’ll admit that the following deviates a bit from the rest of the teardowns in this series. There’s no great mystery around flickering a couple LEDs among Hackaday readers, so we already know the electronics will be simplistic in the extreme. This time around the interesting part isn’t what’s on the inside, but how the object itself was produced in the first place.
Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.
Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.
Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted. After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.
I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.