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The 21st Century Space Shuttle

Future Upgrades

IMAGE: Shuttle on the mobile crawler transporterTomorrow’s Shuttle: Cutting Risks in Half by 2005

Enhancements now under development could double the shuttle's safety by 2005: New sensors and computer power in the main engines will "see" trouble coming a split second before it can do harm, allowing a safe engine shut down. A new engine nozzle will eliminate the need for hundreds of welds and potential leaks. Electric generators for the shuttle's hydraulics will replace the highly volatile rocket fuel that now powers the system. And a next-generation "smart cockpit" will reduce the pilot's workload in an emergency, allowing the crew to better focus on critical tasks. Other improvements will make steering systems for the solid rockets more reliable, make the manufacturing of solid propellant safer and increase the strength of external fuel tank welds.

IMAGE: Infrared illustration of shuttle during ascent; Inside the external tankSolid Rockets and External Tank Upgrades

Future improvements for the solid rocket boosters include a redesign of several valves, filters and seals in the steering system to enhance their reliability as well as studies of the potential for an electrical system to power the booster hydraulics. Also, changes to the solid rocket propellant manufacturing process will make the workplace safer for shuttle technicians. For the external tank, a new friction-stir welding technique will produce stronger and more durable welds throughout the tank.

IMAGE: Cutaway diagram of shuttleBetter Main Engines

The space shuttle's main engines operate at greater extremes of temperature and pressure than any other machine. Since 1981, three overhauls to the original design have more than tripled estimates of their safety. Now, a fourth major overhaul is planned that will make them even safer by 2005. The planned improvements include a high-tech optical and vibration sensor system and computing power in the engines that will "see" trouble coming a fraction of a second before it can do harm. Called the Advanced Health Monitoring System, the sensors will detect and track an almost microscopic flaw in an engine's performance in a split second, allowing the engine to be safely shut down before the situation can grow out of control. Also, the engine's main combustion chamber will be enlarged to reduce the pressures on internal components without reducing the thrust, and a new, simplified engine nozzle design will eliminate the need for hundreds of welds — over 152.4 meters (500 feet) of them — and potential leaks.

IMAGE: Inside the shuttle cockpit"Smart Cockpit"

The new "glass cockpit" that will be initiated when Atlantis launches on STS-101 sets the stage for the next cockpit improvement, planned to fly by 2005: a “smart cockpit” that reduces the pilots’ workload during critical periods. The enhanced displays won't fly the shuttle, but they will do much of the deductive reasoning required for a pilot to respond to a problem. By simplifying the pilots' job, this “smart cockpit” will allow astronauts to better focus on critical tasks in an emergency.

Upgrades Video

Astronauts Steve Lindsey and Scott Kelly test the new "glass cockpit". (no audio)

Safer Hydraulic Power

Aside from the main engines and solid rockets, the single highest-risk equipment on the space shuttle are the auxiliary power units, generators that power the shuttle's hydraulics. Today, those generators use a highly volatile and toxic rocket fuel. But recent advances in battery and electrical power technology — much of it developed by the automotive industry — will replace that system by 2005, eliminating many hazards not only in flight but also on the ground. Electric motors, powered by a bank of lightweight batteries, will be developed to power the shuttle's hydraulic system, providing greater reliability for astronauts in flight and providing a safer workplace for ground crews.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: Amiko Kauderer | Updated: 04/06/2009
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