Draper Connects In Space

Space shuttle’s last flight is the end of an era for USF partner Draper, but signals the start of new ventures to come.

By Vickie Chachere

USF News

 

TAMPA, Fla. (July 8, 2011) – When the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off for the final flight after three decades, it didn’t just signal an end of an era for Florida’s involvement in space flight. It’s also an end of the historic role University of South Florida partner Draper Laboratory has played in this particular era of the American space program.

There at the start of the Apollo mission and in every human venture into outer space since, Draper’s technologies have helped guide Americans in space and played a key role in the operation of the International Space Station. Draper will continue to pursue new projects involving human space exploration, from unmanned systems that could explore the galaxy to those that could look for undiscovered planets.

Draper’s role in the space program has been one for the history books. Draper engineers have signed the flight readiness statement that confirms on-board systems are ready to go on every shuttle mission and more recently technology developed in Draper’s Tampa facility at USF Connect have been tested on shuttle missions and on the International Space Station.

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Sidebar: George Diller, who has been on the public relations staff at the Kennedy Space Center since 1979 and is a University of South Florida graduate, is prepared to deliver the final countdown to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The St. Petersburg Times featured Diller in a front page story Friday, saying Diller has prepared a special send-off after the final launch countdown of three, two, one.

At lift-off Friday morning, the commentator had these words: "The final lift-off of Atlantis. On the shoulders of the space shuttle, America will continue the dream."

 

Read the Times article by clicking here.

 

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But while the last flight brings to a close another chapter in the venerable lab’s history, it doesn’t mean an end to the technologies’ useful life. In fact, the advances Draper has developed out of America’s longest running space program might be as close as your nearest light switch.

A programming language and software Draper developed to automate the testing of the shuttle’s complicated systems and in the operation of the International Space Station – called Timeliner – has found a new application in monitoring and control of electrical power plants in Florida. Timeliner automates procedural tasks that typically would be performed by human operators, making the process more efficient and less subject to errors which can cause major breakdowns and outages.

 “For the Apollo program, it was Teflon, transistors and Tang that came out of it,” Séamus Tuohy, Draper’s director of space systems, said in a recent interview from Draper’s Cambridge, Mass., headquarters. “Timeliner is one of those things that was the beauty of the space shuttle program. There is technology developed for NASA to accomplish one of its mission, but has had spin-off opportunities.”

Draper had partnered with Progress Energy in using Timeliner in conjunction with advanced sensors to create more agile monitoring systems at its plants in Florida and North Carolina. For example, the sensors can detect the otherwise undetectable vibrations in a steam turbine that would precede a breakdown, setting off alarms well before the equipment actually breaks down.

 “A power plant is very large and very complex and has a lot of subsystems that are mission critical – if one part of the system goes down, the whole power plant goes down,” said Eric Balles, Draper’s director of energy systems. “That affects everyday life in that when you and I throw the light switch, we expect the lights to go on.”

The Micro Analyzer, a trace chemical detection system developed by Draper, helped space researchers monitor air quality on space shuttle missions and is used on the International Space Station. Now, the device has promise for being used as an early detection system for diseases such as tuberculosis or pneumonia which can develop in hospital ventilators and respirators.

It also has potential to be developed into a “smart” smoke detector which not only alerts that something has caught fire, but tell firefighters what kind of material is burning.

And while the future of Draper’s development efforts in Tampa and elsewhere may concentrate on climate monitoring or other technologies to make energy systems more efficient, Draper’s history with the U.S. space program will continue to inspire its tradition of discovery. Founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Charles Stark Draper, the father of inertial navigation, Draper developed the guidance system that made the Apollo moon landings possible.

That makes the last space shuttle flight something special, Draper scientists said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a sad day, it’s a satisfaction day,” Tuohy said. “There’s a level of satisfaction with our team. We were there at the beginning. We helped form the shuttle program. We were there on day one and were there on the last day.

“It’s kind of stunning when you think about it: It’s the first time in human history where we have not just had human presence on Earth. That’s a sense of achievement that is pretty special.”

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.