Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 12 July 2003: Fixing Things

By SpaceRef Editor
July 14, 2003
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Further Information

  • NASA Haughton-Mars Project

  • Mars Institute

  • SpaceRef Mars on Earth coverage

  • Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse



  • Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: Summer 2002

  • SpaceRef

  • Yesterday I wrote about interactions between Devon Island and people elsewhere. These interactions usually have to do with technical issues we need to surmount.

    Aboard the International Space Station, despite its routine, smooth operational history, there have been some unexpected things that the crew and mission control have had to deal with. When I worked for NASA back in the early 1990’s I can recall asking someone in Ops how they were going to deal with changing out computer hard drives when they failed or were damaged by radiation. The person gazed at me with general shock – and confidence – and said “everyone knows how long those systems operate”. Besides, we don’t want the crew fiddling with that sort of stuff. Besides you’d need all manner of hardware integration specs if you were to do that.” In other words, don’t bother me kid.

    Flash forward to the present. Computers have been balky. Hard drives had failed, PCMIA cards and other devices have gone down, and radiation issues may be more of a concern that previously envisioned. As such, ISS crew members have had to become adept of all manner of computer repair and upgrades – hardly something my co-worker a decade ago would have envisioned – or desired.

    Despite some concerns that the crew would not be adept at such “McGuivery” quite the opposite has happened. Indeed, the crew has turned out to be absolute wizards in many cases. Several items in particular have occupied the crew’s attention – the treadmill and the microgravity science glove box. Not an increment doesn’t go by without some fix being made to this device, or some part readied for shipment up to fix an existing problem. This takes crew time -and expertise

    Another vexing problem was the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox. It became balky early in Expedition 6 and remained so almost throughout the remainder of that Expedition. Undaunted by this well-known fixit guy Don Pettit spent a lot of time troubleshooting, contriving alternatives, and all around clever ad hoc engineering. He also cobbled together a special camera mount, powered by a portable power drill, which allows a camera to track targets on the earth’s surface below. This was not part of the manifested hear aboard for that increment – nor one envisioned.

    And the list goes on. In some case a simple voice call from mission control can provide the expertise needed to fix something. Sometimes a manual not already onboard needs consulting – and email is sent up. Sometimes software is required that is so voluminous that it can only be shipped up via CD on a shuttle, Progress, or Soyuz mission. And of course, there are spare parts that need to be shipped up on a space vehicle as well.

    We have had some other glitches this field season – as are to be expected with an operation of the complexity which underlies each field season – some minor – some not so minor – all of which had to be dealt with using tools and skills at hand. For example, last night we experienced a problem with our satellite system. After some thorough sleuthing, Chief Engineer Steve Braham narrowed the cause down to a cable connector. After utilizing a ladder built out of spare lumber he was able to reconfigure the connector such that there was a clear connection. Now comms are as good as they have ever been.

    This situation, while unheard of, was unexpected. Tools on hand plus those developed in situ to diagnose the problem. Ordering out for things is rather impractical and, if done, requires a lot of time to complete such as to be not worth the bother. It is this need to be thoroughly prepared in advance by virtue of having needed materials at hand – plus the ability to improvise – again using materials at hand (often for other than the intended purpose) which would be the case on the surface of Mars. Being forced by the undeniable reality of where you encounter problems forces solution sets to be developed that simply would not be derived if our hardware was set u pint he parking lot outside your lab. Such is the tangible benefit of doing things here on Devon Island.

    The take home lesson should be obvious by now: things break – and they don’t always do so in a fashion you expect – and car readily rectify. As such, you need a crew that is multi-skilled, flexible, and motivated. Take this situation and move it many millions of miles, months of travel, and light minutes away, and you get a human mission to Mars.

    Index of 2003 Journal Entries

    Coming soon.

    Index of 2002 Journal Entries

    Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: Summer 2002

    SpaceRef staff editor.