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Facelift for the 21st Century
Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis becomes first in fleet to receive new avionics
by Michelle Evans
Since the Space Shuttle Enterprise first took to the air over 20 years ago (August 12, 1977), the shuttle program has both been revered as the future of space transportation and served as a target for those who believe it is a waste of government funds. No matter which side of this fence a space advocate sits on, it would have been hard to find someone in the audience on September 20 at the Boeing facility in Palmdale, California, who did not have an elevated heartbeat and a lump in their throat.
This day marked the debut of the first space shuttle of the 21st Century: Atlantis.
When Atlantis first rolled out of the factory on April 6, 1985 it was considered state-of-the-art, even though the computers and avionics that ran the orbiter dated from a decade earlier. This has always been a drawback to the shuttle program and to many government-sponsored space endeavors. The time it takes from inception to construction and finally to operation of a system, can take so long that it can be hopelessly outdated before its first flight.
Even a fast-paced program like the Mars Pathfinder that wowed us all in the summer of 1997 suffered from this problem. The modem used to transmit data from Sojourner to Pathfinder was slower than that used by 90 percent of computer users who log onto the Internet everyday! Technology moves so fast it is hard to keep up.
Now the shuttle fleet has taken a giant step forward by undergoing the first major modification since it first took to orbit in 1981. Orbiter 104 (Atlantis) was returned to the facility where it first took form: the Boeing Palmdale Assembly, Integration, and Test Center at Air Force Plant 42 in the Mojave Desert.
Atlantis arrived in November 1997 and was placed into a jungle of catwalks and girders where only those of high imagination could still make out the shape of this space vehicle. Over the next 10 months, inside the familiar flight deck of the orbiter, just about every piece of metal and wiring was gutted out and replaced. Old style dials, gages, and switches, along with the three cathode ray tubes connected to antiquated computers, disappeared into history.
The orbiter cockpit now sports nine color flat-screen displays for the commander and pilot, and two aft facing screens for the mission specialists running cargo bay operations. This new system carries the acronym MEDS, which stands for Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem.
Atlantis is the first orbiter to be given this facelift (Columbia is next in line just after the first of the year). Once the shuttle fleet has completed modifications, not only will the shuttle avionics truly be state-of-the-art for the first time, it will also be a major improvement to flight safety and will even save quite a bit of money in maintenance and replacement costs. The MEDS hardware is standardized with that of many major commercial and military aircraft. These are not “one off” units that will need tender loving care and an army of specialists to keep in working order.
In addition to MEDS, Atlantis was gone through from stem to stern to bring it in line for work on the International Space Station. The old internal airlock was removed (freeing up a lot of space on the shuttle’s mid-deck) and was replaced by an external airlock mounted in the cargo bay for docking directly to ISS. Some new thermal protection blankets were installed on Atlantis’ exterior and the entire structure was checked for signs of aging (no problems were found).
The Atlantis rollout ceremony was staged because of the extensive modifications done on the vehicle and Boeing wanted to take the opportunity to show her off to their employees and families who worked so hard to make this happen. It was an exciting event to see since the shuttle rarely makes a public appearance on the west coast anymore. But this won’t be the last time either, with Columbia due in shortly.
The space shuttle fleet will be flying well into the next century. New orbital vehicles will eventually take flight and will someday supersede the shuttle orbiters. But there is still nothing quite like seeing the first generation up close.