Tuesday, July 05, 2011

How Southern California Built the Space Shuttle

As the Space Shuttle prepares to lift off one last time this Friday, the L.A. Times describes how Southern California played a crucial role in its birth and continued operation:

Constructing the shuttle fleet was testament to how advanced Southern California's aerospace engineering and labor workforce had become by the 1970s — and assured that the vast assemblage of brainpower and engineering know-how would not be lost in the Southland...

The shuttle — large and aerodynamically unstable — needed sophisticated computer controls to guide the flight. The system, known as "fly by wire," is common on today's aircraft, but it was a rarity in flying machines in the 1970s. Engineers in Downey developed the computer-aided autopilot flight controls similar to today's systems that allow mammoth Boeing 747 jumbo jets to almost fly themselves.

Another challenge was building rocket engines sturdy enough to work flight after flight for 55 missions. Before the shuttle, rocket engines were mostly one-of-a-kind chemistry sets — good for one flight only. The main engines, made by Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, helped propel the 2,250-ton shuttle assembly as high as 384 miles above Earth.

"We were wrestling with the technology at the time," said Robert Biggs, project engineer at Rocketdyne. "We had about 20 major accidents, but we finally got it right."

To keep the shuttle from burning up in the furnace-like heat upon reentry, new protection was developed. More than 30,000 silica ceramic tiles were individually contoured to the spaceship's body — like a jigsaw puzzle — dissipating heat around 2,300 degrees. The tiles, made by Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif., were key to the reusability of the shuttle.
Read more here.

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