Powering the Future: NASA Glenn's Contribution to the International Space Station

Karen Schaefer- Few spoke in the hush of the conference room where NASA Glenn engineers gathered last week to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. There was a lot riding on this mission. Many members of the Glenn team have been working on the Space Station's power system for most of their careers.

But the tension broke when the Endeavor lifted from the launch pad. Jeff Hojnicki is Glenn's chief troubleshooter for the space station's power system. He's worked on the project for twelve of his thirteen years at NASA.

Jeff Hojnicki- The solar arrays we're launching on the space station area really unique in their size. At 115 feet by about 38 feet wide, each array can generate about 30 Kilowatts of power and that's by far the largest solar array that's ever been deployed in space.

KS- Space Shuttle astronauts planned three space walks in which to install the array. They also connected leads to the power system that will distribute electricity throughout the station. The system includes banks of nickel-hydrogen batteries to store solar energy as the station passes from sunlight to darkness sixteen times a day. Project Manager John Dunning has been overseeing the development of the power system since its inception in 1983.

John Dunning- We tried to pick a number that would be so large for the amount of power that no one could possibly consume it all. And we picked 76 Kilowatts, which is what we're going to deploy eventually. And that's enough to power about a hundred houses. And now every watt is being discussed and allocated and sometimes fought over.

KS- The demand for power isn't the only change project leaders have seen in the last seventeen years. In 1993, the Russians joined the design team. They offered the use of a fully-functioning command module that could let astronauts live in the station from the outset. Dunning says accepting that offer nearly changed everything.

JD- On that one, I was out of town for about three-quarters of the year. It was a fairly stressful time. I think there was a feeling that you wouldn't want to throw away the investment that we had already had from the American people that we had done to that point. So in spite of the upheaval of the program in '93, when it was re-designed, the building blocks and the technology and all the work we'd done up to that point was preserved.

KS- But Dunning and others found it hard to preserve a scientific objectivity as they watched Endeavor astronauts unfurl the first solar panel on Sunday. When a mechanical glitch left the panel improperly secured, it was decided to delay opening the second panel until they could solve the problem. That's when things really started heating up in the Glenn Engineering Support Room.

Here in this mini-mission control at NASA Glenn, 15 team members are taking turns working round-the-clock to provide technical support to the shuttle-space station mission. Jeff Hojnicki was called in early this morning after a day that ended at midnight.

JH- There has been a lot of work in the last week about work-arounds we can do to resolve the problem and we've been supporting all those meetings. There's a lot of people on the ground supporting this mission. When the astronauts are up there, you know, their lives are in our hands.

KS- John Dunning says NASA Glenn engineers will be in contact with astronauts this afternoon as they take their final space walk of the mission.

JD- The astronauts from the plan area going to go up to the power module and by several different techniques, attempt to wrap the wire back onto the spool that it jumped off of when the array was deploying. And if they can accomplish that -- and there's every confidence they will, it's been planned by astronauts with gloves at Lockheed and by astronauts in the tank at Houston -- then everything will be fine at the end of the flight and not only will it be electrically performing well, but mechanically as well.

KS- Lessons learned on this mission will help engineers decide how best to deploy two more of the space station's massive solar arrays. And the NASA Glenn team will continue to play a major role in the space station as it's constructed over the next five years. At least 20 more shuttle missions are planned, most carrying more components of the power system. Glenn Lab scientists and engineers will also guide experiments in micro-gravity. And they'll develop a flywheel technology to replace more cumbersome batteries. Here on Earth, we can view the results most evenings at dusk and most mornings before dawn. NASA Glenn engineers say the International Space Station will now become the third brightest object in our night sky. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

And you can see the International Space Station for the first time in the Cleveland area on December 14 at around 6 o'clock in the evening, weather conditions permitting.


Support Provided By