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Sat, Aug 30, 2003

Band-Aid Cure For Shuttle Program?

What If NASA Came Up With A Band-Aid To Repair Hull Punctures?

Even before the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released its highly critical final report this week, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe promised to buy into its recommendations hook, line and sinker. He promised to leave no stone unturned in making the space shuttle program more safe. Stung by suggestions that, contrary to what Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore said February 2nd, the day after Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry, Columbia could have been saved, O'Keefe now has to figure out a way to repair shuttle debris damage in orbit.

The answer could be to slap a band-aid on hull breaches. Literally. A band-aid.

"That's something that NASA is really working [on] very intensely," said CAIB member Sheila Widnall, an expert on flight aerodynamics who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an interview with Discovery News. "There are very few materials that can withstand those kinds of temperatures. It's a tremendous problem."

Those temperatures can reach 3000F. This will have to be one tough band-aid. That goes not only for the patch's surface material, but for the glue that holds it to the shuttle's exterior.

Enter The Gecko. Yeah, The Lizard

So what would a shuttle patch have in common with the little green gecko? Have you ever seen one crawl up a wall? The little critters can do that because their feet are covered, not with glue, but with ultra-thin fibers called spatulea. Those fibers create a weak molecular field called the van der Waals force. But it's the geometry of the spatulea that gives the gecko his grip. It's not unlike velcro, really, but much stronger. Here's the trick: If NASA can formulate these precicely-placed fibers out of a heat-resistant material as hefty as reinforced carbon (carbon-carbon), O'Keefe might just be able to keep his promise to implement the repair-in-orbit mandate from the CAIB.

"Using very small carbon fibers you could create the capability to take a piece of carbon and push it on and have it stay on there," CAIB member Scott Hubbard told Discovery.

Already, NASA has pledged to greatly reduce or do away altogether with the foam insulation blamed for punching a hole in the leading edge of Columbia's left wing and ultimately causing a massive, fatal structural failure. Still, repairing the shuttle's thin skin in orbit could become necessary if it were hit by a meteorite or some other space debris, hail or a host of other possibly damaging substances. The space agency wants to return space shuttles to flight by March. But NASA has also promised it won't be bound by schedules so tight they create safety problems. The idea of creating a heat-resistant skin patch made out of gecko glue seems almost easy in comparison.

FMI: www.caib.gov, www.nasa.gov

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