Old technology offers new answers in Columbia crash probe

An old-fashioned magnetic tape recorder on board the doomed space shuttle Columbia is helping U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fill in critical gaps about what caused the spacecraft to break up on re-entry on Feb. 1.

The Orbiter Experiments Recorder (OEX), which wasn't designed to have the durability of the flight data recorders used on commercial aircraft, survived the searing heat of re-entry because it was shielded by a larger section of the shuttle's interior. The interior section landed on a hillside in Hemphill, Texas, after the ship disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts on board. The device was recovered by search teams on March 19.

For IT leaders, the discovery of the outdated yet reliable VCR-size recorder and its accompanying data is a reminder of the value of older, proven technology in a fast-paced world of change.

"It's a holdover from the old technology of the 1980s," said Allard Beautel, a spokesman at NASA headquarters in Washington. The recorder, which weighs 58 pounds and was equipped with 9,400 feet of one-inch magnetic tape, was installed by NASA on Columbia in 1981 to provide extra instrumentation for the vehicle's maiden flight. Columbia was the first shuttle to fly, and engineers viewed the craft as an experiment in progress, so they wanted to collect as much flight data as possible to ensure that it performed as expected. In fact, the OEX was itself an experiment and was installed only on Columbia, the first of the five shuttles built for NASA.

"It wasn't designed as an accident 'black box,' but to provide information after landing," Beautel said.

The device remained on the shuttle since its first launch, providing information on each flight from as many as 800 different sensors that monitored control surfaces, temperatures, pressure, vibration, acceleration and other variables. It was switched on before take-off and turned off once the shuttle was in orbit, then was turned back on before re-entry and shut down after landing.

The low-tech device may have so far yielded the best information about what occurred on board during Columbia's last mission, because key parts of the modern radio telemetry being beamed back to Earth from the shuttle ended when the ship was torn apart.

"This is a wonderful example of old stuff that's still working," said Peter Neumann, principal scientist in the computer science laboratory at SRI International, a research institute in Menlo Park, Calif. "Sometimes its the old, reliable stuff that counts. We definitely overendow new technology without having tested it properly."

Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University in Durham, N.C., who specializes in engineering failure analysis, said NASA is fortunate to have had the recorder on board Columbia.

"New technology often promises more than it can really live up to," Petroski said. There were likely people at NASA who suggested that the OEX recorder be omitted at some point during the shuttle program, or that it be made lighter or smaller, all in the name of progress, he said. Instead, the device was left intact and it provided information now being scoured by investigators to determine what happened to the ship.

On Sunday, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which was created to search for the cause of the accident, announced that "significant data" had been found on the recorder's tape from about 420 temperature and pressure sensors, and more data extraction is expected.

The tape so far has revealed that the first heating event on Columbia occurred earlier than previously reported. That information is helping crash investigators work to more precisely determine where on the craft trouble originated, whether that's the ceramic tiles protecting the shuttle's exterior or the special carbon-carbon panels that are designed to protect the leading edges of the wings from the intense heat of re-entry.

Paul Ceruzzi, curator in the division of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, said NASA has over the years made changes to the shuttle to update its technologies and systems, including a changeover from old "boiler-type" cockpit instruments to modern electronic avionics. At the same time, "they left this (recorder) in, and I'm not sure why, but luckily it was there."

"You can't bring seven people back, but you can fix it and fly another day," Ceruzzi said.

Lorraine McConaghy, a historian at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, said lessons can be learned when old technology provides insights that can't be seen in the latest hardware.

"Change for its own sake -- obsolescence at a breakneck pace -- is foolish," she said. "There should be nothing inevitable about the pace of change."

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