| In preparation for the
February 1996 re-flight of the Tethered Satellite System
(TSS) payload, the Marshall integration and test team
traveled to Kennedy Space Center to support the Interface
Verification Test (IVT) between the satellite and tether
connector. The test, which was run in the summer of 1995,
proved to be hotter than the Florida sun and caused the
team to sweat just as much.
We were feeling the heat because TSS hardware was
failing to pass the IVT. A great deal of our frustration
was caused by the fact that this system had flown before
and had successfully passed the same test. The Marshall
and Kennedy test team, many of whom had been involved
during the first mission, pulled together to try and
understand the cause of this failure.
On the surface there was no reason for this simple but
critical test to be failing. Every precaution had been
taken between missions to safely stow the hardware. Inspections
were made prior to connecting the two halves. The same
procedure successfully used during the first mission had
been followed, and we had made no modifications to the
including Headquarters, were focused on us identifying
and correcting the problem.
As the integration and test team lead, I had to make
the call back to Marshall and alert the Program Manager
as to our status. We were eight months away from launch
and a solution was needed quickly to keep us on schedule.
All eyes, including Headquarters, were focused on us
identifying and correcting the problem.
Start with the Obvious
to remember that success occurs due to the "people"
on the team and their commitment to solving "the
We were fortunate to have good people from Marshall, Kennedy,
and the contractor community as members of the team. We
also pulled in expert help from outside as needed. You've
got to remember that success occurs due to the "people"
on the team and their commitment to solving "the team's"
problem. Everyone on the team understood the urgency of
It's hard to describe exactly the energy that comes
from working on a crack team in a pressure situation
like this. Say nothing of the fact that all the while
everyone knew our actions were being watched throughout
the agency. We all were doing the best job we could
anyway, but with this "little" bit of added pressure,
it was an awesome motivating force. Situations like
this are when the true character of the individuals
and their contributions to the team surface. When you
actually experience something like this at a crux moment
in a project, it's almost like you are operating in
a totally new space, and you yourself are transformed,
knowing that the energy you are getting from your teammates
is bringing out the absolute best in you.
Hours were spent reviewing procedures and drawings. We
considered all the contingencies that might be contributing
to the problem. Additional testing and analysis was conducted
and evaluated. We spent hours gathered around the conference
table, throwing ideas out and putting them up on a white
board. The pros and cons of each one were explored, and
the proponents of their theories argued vigorously why
one was superior to another.
Shuttle Atlantis a crewmember used a 70-mm handheld
camera to capture this medium close-up view of early
operations with the Tethered Satellite System (TSS).
Finally, we selected an option to implement -- what
came to be known as the "360-Degrees Test" -- and were
hopeful it would support our assumptions, verify the
problem and, if successful, lead us to correcting the
problem, re-running the IVT, and verifying our fix.
You look for the obvious and try to work your way
back. We believed the connector on the tether side was
manufactured improperly and was actually cocked off
its normal perpendicular path and recessed by several
thousandths of an inch back into the connector body.
The 360-Degrees Test allowed the team to connect, disconnect,
rotate, and reconnect the bottom half in 15-degree increments.
This test was designed to find the region around the
connector that got connectivity.
It was obvious to us when we got the data back that
there was a manufacturing problem within the Tether
Connector. The vendor acknowledged that it was a manufacturer's
defect. There was a great sigh of relief all around
because we knew the problem could be fixed quite easily.
X-rays and other data helped to verify this. Once we
were satisfied with all the test results, we set off
to replace the connector and ultimately passed the IVT.
You May Never Know How Close You Come
The moral of this story is, "The trouble with success
is you may never know how close to failure you came."
As I said at the start, this mission was a re-flight.
There was actually no change between the first time
we did the integration and the second. The procedures
we used were exactly the same. Probably the first test
team got lucky and nailed the connection just right.
We have known risks in every program, and we have
unknown risks because it's the nature of the beast.
The problem is our past successes drive the schedule
that we create for re-flight missions. We try to plan
for the best we can, but until the vehicle is up in
the air in an environment it was built for, doing what
it is supposed to do, you have a lot of restless nights.
Plan and hope for success, pray for luck, but be ready
to address failure.
- If results do not meet expectations, for better
or worse, we have little choice but to see this as
an opportunity for learning.
- Teamwork is of the utmost importance during crisis
To what extent does luck play a role in project success?
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Brunson is currently assigned to the Systems
Management Office with the Marshall Space Flight
Center. His career in the space industry began in
1980 as a technician working on the first Space
Shuttle. Mr. Brunson is also a distinguished member
of the ASK Review Board.