How can eight feet of data cable potentially save the U.S. government about $2 billion? Well, when that data cable actually allows NASA to remotely pilot a damaged space shuttle down from orbit — rather than just letting it burn up on reentry — you wonder how the space agency went 25 years without including this particular piece of equipment on all space shuttle flights.

From the first Space Transportation System mission (STS-1) launch on April 12, 1981 to STS-114’s launch on July 26, 2005, this contingency system wasn’t in place. The cable connects the manual flight controls to a mid-deck system that lets ground controllers pilot the shuttle remotely. This jerry-rig is necessary because the space shuttle’s design has never allowed for unmanned recovery from orbit.

To be fair, space shuttle Discovery‘s STS-114 flight was the first shuttle mission following the Feb. 1, 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia. In addition, it was the only one since the Columbia disaster not to include the remote control cable.

It was the loss of Columbia that compelled NASA to rethink its orbital emergency procedures. While the space agency has always had a number of so-called abort modes for dealing with problems during shuttle launch and landing, problems during the actual orbital portion of the mission — such as damage to the shuttle that would preclude safe reentry — have become a greater focus since heat shield failure claimed the lives of Columbia‘s final crew.

That’s where the STS-300 series comes in. The Space Transportation System mission 300 series is the group of missions that happen if and when a space shuttle becomes disabled in orbit and can’t risk manned reentry.

In those cases, the crew goes from the damaged orbiter to the International Space Station, and an emergency launch of another shuttle occurs in about 40 days. (The ISS has enough oxygen and supplies to handle its crew plus shuttle refugees for about 80 days.)

Every mission following the Columbia loss has had an STS-300 parallel mission planned and prepared in tandem, though all of them have the same basic “wait it out on the ISS” profile. One of the space shuttle program’s final missions, however, is not STS-300-compatible, calling for the creation of the unique STS-400 mission, which harkens back to the seat-of-your-pants rescue plans in place before the ISS was in orbit.


Get the answer.

Which of the few remaining space shuttle missions has a profile so unusual that it has forced NASA to go back to the future and create a pre-International Space Station era rescue plan — STS-400 — in the event that the orbiter becomes damaged while in space?

The mission in question is STS-125, the recently approved flight that will serve as the fourth and final servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble sits in an incompatible orbit as it relates to the International Space Station, so it’s probable that a damaged shuttle could never reach ISS, requiring a very different rescue profile than the STS-300 series.

Instead of docking with and offloading crew to the ISS, an STS-400 rescue would see crews ferried directly between two docked shuttles in Earth orbit. This is essentially the same plan NASA had on the drawing board before the ISS existed — when the agency pursued a much more aggressive flight schedule for the space shuttle.

The basics of STS-400 are these: Two weeks before ferrying Atlantis to Launch Pad 39A for STS-125, NASA will position Endeavour on Pad 39B (the last time a shuttle flight will use this historic launch pad). Should STS-400 be necessary, Endeavour must be ready to launch within 10 days, rather than the 40-day turnaround allowed in the STS-300 series. That’s because without the space station supplies of food, water, and air, Atlantis will only be able to support its crew for a mere 23 days.

Once in orbit, Endeavour would essentially “hold hands” with Atlantis by interlocking their robotic arms, and astronauts would have to travel through open space to transfer between orbiters. Endeavour‘s rescue crew would include two mission specialists trained to use Extravehicular Mobility Units to move the Atlantis‘s crew between shuttles.

The rescued astronauts, meanwhile, would travel in Personal Rescue Enclosures — three-foot-diameter fabric “rescue balls” with internal oxygen masks and carbon dioxide scrubbers. Not exactly Threepio and Artoo’s escape pod from Star Wars, is it?

STS-125 will be Atlantis‘ last spaceflight, as the orbiter has been in operation more than twice as long as its intended 10-year lifespan. With any luck, that won’t make STS-400 a necessity, as that’s a high price to pay for even the most high-tech, high-flying Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble is the longest we’ve ever printed, and it comes in response to the October 17 edition of Geek Trivia, “A sound argument.” TechRepublic member virgil laid down a host of back-room details that elaborated on and/or contradicted almost everything I thought I knew about the creation of the compact disc.

“I’m in the CD and DVD business and have been since 1994. I have run a significant optical media replication facility and have been privy to quite a bit of the behind-the-scenes stuff. So, I’m quibbling!

“[1] Duration: The Red Book specification (Sony, Philips, et al), calls for ‘approximately 60 minutes’ in the August 1995 edition of the ‘Compact Disc Digital Audio System Description,’ AKA the Red Book, page 1, first item under ‘Main Parameters’ (sitting here on my desk).

“CD-R at that time came in 600 Mb and, a little later, 74-minute versions. Now, 80 is the de facto standard for CD-R.

“80-minute replicated media was a later product, which was the result of various audio artists needing more space for their enormous works, such as DJ performances, etc. In the beginning, the reliable playback of long media like this was quite unpredictable.

“At the earliest stages of the CD, the reason for the shorter duration discs was threefold:

  1. “The reliability of pit replication from the stamper at the outer edge of the disc was less controllable, and therefore playback was potentially risky.
  2. “The edge of the disc during metalization (sputtering) could, in some cases, be insufficiently metalized, or damage could occur from a too-hot outer mask, which frequently occurred in some earlier sputter stations (Balzers and others). This too was later controlled. If you look on some early discs, there is a ‘burn’ at the edge of the disc where this too-hot mask condition or poorly controlled sputter station condition is visible.
  3. “The specification for the servo mechanism for the playback devices called for 74 minutes. Not all players were created equal. Some could not accurately control the read laser’s position to reproduce the program material after about 65 minutes. We made an audio CD for a client in about 1997, which exceeded that stable 74-minute threshold by only a couple of minutes. The result was that more than 30 percent of retail buyers couldn’t play those last few minutes, and the product was recalled, the content remastered and repressed, etc.

“[2] Size: Sony’s original intent was to use the smaller physical track size (track pitch, pit geometry, etc) on the LaserDisc format, allowing a large amount of music to be placed on the disc. However, the amount of program material on the disc would have made the disc prohibitively expensive at retail.

“Philips reverted to Sony and showed them the smaller physical format… which was more convenient and better yet created a better economic model and greater chance for success… Sony was gobsmacked and thus the partnership was firmed up, essential patents owned by both organizations but administered by Philips, levying a USD $0.0x royalty per unit, as well as initial licensing fee of USD $25,000 for the Red Book and all other relevant books for the license.”

Let the record show that virgil‘s quibble is close to 500 words long, and the original article was less than 800 words. Keep that up, and you’ll end up replacing me. There are worse fates, so keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

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