That’s space biz

Regarding the “Design flaw led to Genesis crash” article on page 13 of the Dec. 24, 2004 issue: I appreciate the interest shown by GAN in the cause of the Genesis crash.

It was definitely a great disappointment to a lot of people, including the general aviation people that were going to make the midair recovery. It should be pointed out the troops in the shop who did the installation of the G-switches and the QA folks that verified conformance to the drawings did their job perfectly from what I hear so this should not be written off as a simple assembly error that was not caught by inspection. These devices have been compared in size to pencil erasers (GenesisMission.JPL.NASA.com) and they are buried in typical electronic packaging in avionics boxes under a metal shield, inside the Sample Return Capsule, attached to the spacecraft bus. PowerPoint presentation design reviews stand little chance of catching this kind of design error (Genesis was reviewed with great intensity on many levels in addition to the standard requirements reviews and design reviews) — there has to be a better way. NASA Lessons Learned help to prevent repeats of failures but there are a great number of them and they must be reviewed (they were as part of the Genesis project) and used in a systematic way to prevent repeats. There was no lesson learned documenting a previous occurrence of this type of failure. The complete design was reviewed by Reliability Engineering, but typical schematic orientated analyses did not reveal the alleged error. The testing was independently reviewed for adequacy and validity for every requirement and fully accounted for in matrices with personal accountability for every check and still the testing was inadequate to reveal this basic flaw. The testing was the best means of detecting this specific design error — it did not and this should be given a lot of attention.

The flight operations of this mission were perfectly executed by JPL, Lockheed Martin and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The midair recovery teams involving Vertigo Inc., Southcoast Helicopters, Hill AFB Mission Control Center, the US Army Dugway Proving Grounds, USAF Utah Test & Training Range, JPL, USAF Cheyenne Mountain and their world wide sensors, NASA Langley, the Deep Space Network (DSN), Lockheed Martin, Caltech, NASA Johnson Space Center Contamination Control and Los Alamos practiced and worked so hard to get the end of the mission perfectly coordinated it is beyond description. I was one of the most critical of critics and I can tell you that the results of that effort were perfection.

On the morning of Sept. 8, many of us had been on console since the afternoon of the seventh. Everything was working to perfection. The DSN and USAF sensors and tracking were so far beyond the expected that it was obvious that every single person involved was totally focused on doing the best job they had ever done to assure the success of the Genesis Mission. Navigation projected the impact point in the Utah Test & Training Range (UTTR); Langley computed the atmospheric dispersions; Lockheed Martin and UTTR determined and cross checked the safety ellipse and the helicopter loiter point; Southcoast pilots input the waypoint into their GPS units in the two recovery helicopters; JPL QA verified the inputs were correct; helicopter launch times were established; the JPL and Lockheed Flight Ops teams spinup, turn and burn trajectory correction maneuvers to perfection. When it came time for the SRC release from the bus, once again it was perfect as detected by the JPL navigators in conjunction with the DSN. We were very pleasantly surprised that the USAF was able to pick up the SRC well before the drogue chute was to be deployed. We watched it on the monitors and followed the timeline waiting for the drogue chute deployment. The helicopters had launched and proceeded to the loiter point in communication with MAAF local control, Clover Control and finally Luke Topper in Hill AFB Mission Control. Luke gave the lead recovery helicopter vectors to leave the loiter point and proceed to the closest point without visual contact (a standoff range). He kept calling bearing, range and altitude to the descending SRC. At some time after the drogue chute deployment time in the time line he informed the pilots that there was not chute confirmation. All the time personnel in the MSAs at JPL and Lockheed Martin were watching the free falling SRC tumbling toward the ground. I will never forget one of the exchanges between Luke Topper and Cliff Fleming just after the SRC crashed into the ground at about 200 mph. Luke gave Cliff the bearing and range to the impact location. Cliff asked for the altitude and Luke with some of the emotion of the moment clearly in his voice said “Impact sir, ground level.”

This should not have happened and the cause and corrective action need to be established to prevent recurrence. The trouble is this mission will doubtless never be repeated. Hopefully, the scientists and the very uniquely qualified contamination control folks from JSC will be able to save some of the science from the mission — stories I hear say that they are doing some great work in this direction.

Still, you must ask, why did this happen? Can these one-of-a-kind missions be developed in a normal aerospace business for profit environment? Should they?

Thanks for paying attention and reporting your findings. It is all too easy to let it slide with the foggy non-answer “that’s space biz.”

Bob Axsom
Genesis Mission Assurance Manager (Retired)

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