The famous “go/no go” command for Space Shuttle launches comes from a place called the Firing Room. Located at Kennedy Space Center in the Launch Control Center (LCC), there are actually four Firing Rooms that take up most of the third floor of the LCC. These rooms comprise the nerve center for Space Shuttle launch and processing.
Test engineers in the Firing Rooms operate the Launch Processing System (LPS), which is a highly automated, computer-controlled system for assembly, checkout, and launch of the Space Shuttle. LPS monitors thousands of measurements on the Space Shuttle and its ground support equipment, compares them to predefined tolerance levels, and then displays values that are out of tolerance. Firing Room operators view the data and send commands about everything from propellant levels inside the external tank to temperatures inside the crew compartment. In many cases, LPS will automatically react to abnormal conditions and perform related functions without test engineer intervention; however, firing room engineers continue to look at each and every happening to ensure a safe launch.
Some of the systems monitored during launch operations include electrical, cooling, communications, and computers. One of the thousands of measurements derived from these systems is the amount of hydrogen and oxygen inside the shuttle during launch.
In 1999, to enhance the technology that continuously monitored these gas levels inside the orbiter while on the launch pad, Kennedy awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to Houston-based Ionwerks Inc. to fabricate a small, fast, time-of-flight mass spectrometer (TOFMS).
A TOFMS is one of many different types of mass spectrometers for measuring the exact weight of molecular ions (created by electron impact ionization of molecules). These molecular ions can be present in parts per million (ppm) levels in solids, liquids, gasses, and plasma. For leak detection of hydrogen and oxygen within the orbiter at Kennedy, ions were created from atmospheric gas samples. The TOF analytical technique separated the different ionized molecules according to their weight by measuring the time it takes for them to travel across a fixed distance.
Ionwerks’ previous collaborations with organizations such as Argonne National Laboratory, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Texas A&M University, Rice University, and several companies helped Ionwerks evolve dual-use electronics in TOF mass spectrometry, based on timing chips originally developed for high energy physics. Since Ionwerks had already commercialized the crucial components, an advanced compact TOF instrument was rapidly prototyped through the SBIR partnership to provide a rugged, low-power option for quick remote monitoring of the gas composition inside the Space Shuttle.
According to Al Schultz, the founder of Ionwerks, “The application at Kennedy was unique, and we demonstrated that the instrument could be fast and accurate for determining parts-per-million changes in hydrogen and oxygen on top of large signals already present in the orbiter atmosphere. After the SBIR, we used the experience and the electronics as a springboard to do other work, especially in the area of detecting large molecules on surfaces—especially bio-surfaces.”
Over the last decade, as a result of its SBIR work with NASA and NIH, Ionwerks’ technology has taken two commercial paths: one in Europe and one in the United States.
Two researchers who were employed at Ionwerks during the NASA SBIR, Katrin Fuhrer and Marc Gonin, adapted the approach to improve a commercial gas analyzer for environmental monitoring of airborne contaminants. “By replacing a quadrupole mass spectrometer with the TOF, all masses are measured at once,” says Schultz. “More sensitivity is achieved, even at a specific mass, than with the quadrupole.” The technique quickly and precisely determines the composition of a sample. To provide the NASA-inspired technology for industrial, government, and academic research labs, Fuhrer and Gonin founded a company in Thun, Switzerland, called Tofwerk.