Civil engineer and student team up to increase safety of space-shuttle launches
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - A Texas A&M University civil engineer and student civil engineer spent their summer at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where they researched ways to decrease launch-pad debris that can collide with space shuttles during launches. Associate Professor David Trejo received the 2005 NASA Summer Research Fellowship to fund his research on launch pads. He took senior Justin Rutkowski with him to help with his research. Rutkowski also received a fellowship from NASA. Trejo said Kennedy Space Center has problems with its launch pads. One launch-pad problem is refractory material that fails when space shuttles launch. During launch, space shuttles' rockets shoot exhaust and flames toward their launch pads. The flames are directed into flame deflectors, which are channels coated in calcium aluminate cement concrete. Calcium aluminate cement concrete is a refractory material like the polyurethane bedliners sprayed into truck beds. "That is a good analogy," Trejo said. "But the purpose is different. The purpose of the refractory material is to protect the steel structure from the heat." That is, the refractory material is supposed to protect the steel from the heat. Hotter than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat can cause the refractory material to fail and fragment from the flame deflectors. The fragments become flying-object debris that can collide with launch-pad structures and space shuttles. "Under these conditions," Trejo said, "these structures need constant maintenance." He said he and Rutkowski want to learn how and when to repair the refractory material. Rutkowski said they want to replace the refractory material, too. "The research will answer the question, 'Is there a better refractory material that can be used at the launch pads?'" he said. "This is important to the safety of the launch of the shuttle, and over time, (it) should also decrease the amount of money spent on repairing the launch pads after every launch." Rutkowski helped Trejo research the refractory material and steel under the refractory material before and after Discovery launched on July 26. Trejo said many fragments failed when the space shuttle launched. The fragments did not collide with Discovery. Fuel-tank foam did fail and fragment from an external fuel tank. The fuel-tank foam failure caused NASA to change Atlantis' launch from September 2005 to March 2006. Trejo and Rutkowski had wanted to set sensors on a launch pad when the space shuttle was scheduled to launch in September. "Unless NASA cancels all hope for future launches, our research will continue," Trejo said. "Everyone here is disappointed. However, we can look at it as an opportunity to implement our program and make launches safer." His and Rutkowski's research was administered by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, the engineering research agency of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System.