Engineer Finds Solution That Could Provide Insight into Soyuz
Capsule Re-entry Issues
Friday, November 7, 2008
blind engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in
Greenbelt, Md., had the vision for a solution to a problem that
ultimately required him to fly to Europe to obtain potentially
important data on the flight of a Soyuz capsule returning two
International Space Station crew members and spaceflight
participant Richard Garriott to Earth.
Marco Midon is an
electronics engineer in the Microwave and Communications Branch
at NASA Goddard and has been with NASA for almost 11 years. He
recently provided critical engineering support for the
implementation of 18 meter Ka-Band antennas at White Sands Test
Facility in New Mexico and also served as NASA systems engineer
on a project to upgrade a NASA ground station at McMurdo Station,
Earlier this month, Midon read a memo from the
head of space operations at NASA Headquarters asking for ideas on
how the agency could respond to a request from the Russian
Federal Space Agency to provide telemetry data on the Soyuz
capsule during de-orbit and re-entry.
"I saw the
e-mail asking for ideas about how data from the Soyuz could be
received and recorded and right away I knew how it could be done"
said Midon. "The real question was whether it could be done
in the time that was available."
request from the head of all human spaceflight efforts came after
it was determined that there were no commercial, or space station
partner facilities that could provide the service needed because
the downlink frequency (VHF) is not usually used for space
telemetry. NASA and Russian partners agreed that providing data
beyond that which is recorded just prior to separation of the
Soyuz modules might be valuable in shedding light on the
spacecraft’s past entry performance.
spirit of the old NASA, the Goddard team responded to my request
with an amazing 'can-do' attitude. The team was focused on the
problem to be solved and let no hurdles stand in the way,”
said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Space
Operations. "Good Soyuz performance is important for
International Space Station operations, and any help NASA could
provide helps all of the partnership.”
proposal involved a low-cost mobile system that could be
transported and deployed along the track of the separation and
re-entry plan of the Soyuz vehicle.
the go-ahead to pursue my idea, my first course of action was to
verify that we could obtain the necessary equipment" said
Midon. "I called one vendor about the antenna needed and
then another about the pre-amp that would be required to amplify
signals tuned to this particular oddball frequency and how both
items were needed immediately. The answer from everyone was
'yes,' so rush orders were placed."
With less than
four days before Soyuz landing, the next step involved Midon
contacting individuals at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in
Virginia to confirm that the center could support a test of the
system being proposed. After getting confirmation, he traveled to
Wallops and supported activities that simulated what the Russian
signal would look like and verified it could indeed be received
A day later, all the equipment ordered was
in place, and the stage was set for the final test to prove that
Midon's idea could indeed work.
"We took the
equipment down to Wallops and set up everything," said
Midon. "While we were busy doing that, other folks talked to
the Russians who agreed to turn on the Soyuz that was docked to
the space station for two communication passes. Basically we were
72 hours out from landing and knew we would only have these two
short communication passes to prove the whole thing worked.”
it turned out, the first pass wasn't all that successful with
little or no signal received. But Midon came up with some tweaks
to the system to make it a little more sensitive and during the
second pass, good data was received.
While Midon and his
group continued with their efforts, other NASA engineers were
busy in determining the best location to place the portable
system. Three potential locations were initially identified --
Turkey, North Africa and Greece. After reviewing flight path
trajectories, it was decided that Athens would provide the best
view to capture telemetry data.
So on Wednesday, October
22, with less than 48 hours before Soyuz landing, the site for
the temporary station was set. Midon and Jim Evans, a Honeywell
Technical Solutions employee at Wallops, traveled to
Baltimore-Washington International airport with all the
A new challenge arose when one package was
determined to be 12 pounds over the airline’s allowed
limit. Midon and Evans decided to take most of the equipment on
their flight to Greece, while others worked options for getting
the remaining equipment delivered.
Because no commercial
delivery service could guarantee the equipment would arrive in
time, Harry Schenk, a Honeywell employee at Goddard who had
helped with earlier efforts, volunteered to fly to Greece with
the remaining items.
By the time Midon and Evans arrived
in Athens, less than 24 hours remained before the Soyuz flyover
would take place. The two went immediately to the American
Embassy in Athens which was the chosen location for setting up
Throughout the afternoon and into the
evening, Midon and Evans worked to set things up while waiting
for Schenk to arrive with the final pieces of equipment. By
around 10 p.m. and less than eight hours before the event, all
the equipment was powered up and verified ready to support.
After finally checking into the hotel and getting at
least a few hours sleep, the three men were back at the embassy
around 4 a.m., local time, for the Soyuz flyover which was
planned for just after 6 a.m.
But there was still one more
issue to work.
"When we got back to embassy for the
event, we realized a recorder wasn't working," said Midon.
"We realized that the likely cause was a heating problem
because the room wasn't air conditioned. We found a marine who is
one of the few people around at that time of day who found us a
fan so we could circulate more air around the unit and that
seemed to fix the problem."
Based on information
provided by flight dynamics engineers, the antenna on the roof
was positioned and just after 6 a.m., the system began receiving
data from the Soyuz capsule as it traveled through the
"The pass was very low, only 8 1/2
degrees and we were in a valley so I wasn't sure we were going to
get anything" said Midon. "At first, the signal was
very weak. But then after two-to-three minutes the signal got
much stronger, and it was clear we were getting good data. The
strong signal lasted about a minute and with processing back in
the lab, we're hoping there is at least 90 seconds of good data
that can be utilized."
Later, Midon had a phone
conversation with Gerstenmaier who thanked him and his group and
said how much both the American and Russian flight control teams
appreciated their incredible effort.
Midon remarked "I
think the real story here is that we only had two or three days
to come up with a solution to something and were then able to
implement it in Europe. I may have been the technical guy who
figured out how to do it but there were a lot of other folks
whose willingness to pitch in provided us with an opportunity to
Image Caption: Harry Schenk
(right), a Honeywell employee at Goddard, made a last-minute trip
to Greece, to ensure final pieces of equipment were in place in
time to collect data during the Soyuz re-entry.
Image Credit: NASA
Source: NASA / Goddard Space
Flight Center / Ed Campion
Time Stamp: 11/7/2008 at
6:23:44 PM UTC
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