As Space Shuttle Endeavour blazed through Earth's atmosphere during reentry on Feb. 21, commander George Zamka placed the orbiter in what NASA calls a "cold soak" attitude relative to the atmosphere. The maneuver has proved effective over the nearly 30 years of shuttle flights in keeping the temperature of spacecraft avionics in check during the fiery, supersonic glide through the atmosphere and onto the runway at the Kennedy Space Center.
It also illustrates the beating that the shuttle's electronic components take during launch and reentry.
Component suppliers for NASA programs must meet stringent military and aerospace standards, along with radiation-hardening specs. Those requirements will only get tougher to meet as NASA once again looks to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the solar system.
For now, industry experts say current and planned manned space programs, along with military and commercial satellite programs, won't change the way component suppliers operate.
But suppliers note that faster turnaround times for satellite and other launches are narrowing the delivery window for aerospace electronics, putting added pressure on suppliers.
Bob Barfield, business development manager with Analog Devices Inc.'s Space Products Segment (Greensboro, N.C.), said it is common for OEMs to demand delivery of space components in as little as two weeks. The parts are then quickly integrated at the next design level.
"We basically have to have [space] products sitting on the shelf," Barfield said. Component suppliers trying to build satellite and spacecraft parts from scratch often find themselves in a bind when confronted with OEMs' rush orders, he added.
In the heyday of manned spaceflight, NASA frequently drove component and IC performance. For the handful of suppliers, including ADI, that have accumulated 25 to 30 years of experience manufacturing space electronics, "there has been a shift in that paradigm," Barfield said.
With greater requirements for testing space electronics, ranging from thermal performance to radiation dose and production tests, the pendulum may be swinging away from using commercial parts in space.
Barfield said ADI is seeing a growing number of requests for space electronics destined for use in deep-space probes or in instrumentation to be used on scientific payloads, such as Earth-imaging and weather satellites.
Once NASA gets its act together on the future of manned spaceflight, safety concerns will likely force the space agency and its primary contractors to lean heavily on experienced parts suppliers. Commercial launch-vehicle manufacturers will need to tap into the experience of NASA's longtime parts suppliers as they take over for the space agency on low-Earth-orbit programs, observers said.
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