12 August 2008

The Stardrive: A Photo-Essay

Here's what a stardrive field "generator" (so-called in the popular press) looks like when it is (almost) ready to get to work. Coolant hoses have not yet been connected, retention rail and outer door are still off:

Pretty kewl, hey? The primary cavity, wrapped around the phantasmatron, is under the big cylinder and just above the fat electromagnet.

The thing we found in it after a recent ugly failure is shown at left, not so far off actual size.

And in the next photo, the damage it caused. Gee, doesn't look like much, does it? It doesn't take much to gum up the whole works and there you are, a bajillion miles from nowhere, with a silly look on your face hoping the Captain is in a really happy mood and the Enviro gang hasn't messed up the greenhouse again.

The inside of a stardrive assembly is nasty -- oxidation and fine, fine, fine dust from the high-pressure filtered air, droplets of coolant and so on; so you wear nitrile gloves. Blue nitrile gloves, with heavier gloves over them so they don't get torn up quite as quickly. And you work in pairs. Just sayin'. (I swear I never chased no research subject or like that. It's a coincidence. Honest).
I'm reaching in through the hole left in the secondary cavity (after removing the tuning dome) with a hex driver to unbolt it from the primary. Note the ample, comfortable work space: that and the easy, short hours are a couple reasons why folks are not just linin' up to work in the Somewhat-Faster-Than-Light Engine Room crew on this nation's starships -- or those of any other nation, most of which are, when compared to ours, frankly, goshawful.

09 August 2008

Bad Things In Space

This would've been bad anywhere but where I work? Worse.

Better, too -- 58 years after first launch and over fifty since the first stardrive equipped spacecraft, designers and engineers have something of a clue about designing for safety.

It started innocently enough. Most of the day watch in Engineering had spent the morning installing a new control/comms/telemetry link for the remotely-operated work drones, this part of it being pulling in new cables for RF and positioning control.

Nice clean hard work, no? --No. The finest, filthiest dust builds up even in well-sealed conduit and, if you're not lucky, condensation does, too. We were not lucky this time and to add to the fun, the combination was enlivened by the remains of decade-old wire-pulling lube. Everything people do creates dust, which settles in out of the way corners, even on a starship. Especially on a starship, no matter how good the air system filtering is. And you can't just open a conduit up to the vacuum, people notice. So, every bit of old cable we pulled out was coated in nasty slime, charcoal-gray muck that smelled worse than it looked, looked absolutely awful, and made getting a firm grip on the wires nearly impossible.

The impossible, we finish shortly after lunch. In this case, we'd put off lunch until we were done and had cleaned up, eaten and were hangin' around the shop discussing the next step when the ship gave a distinctly bad-feeling lurch, everything rattled and the intercom came to life:

"Bobbi? Dave? Jay? Steve in Control. We just lost main power to the 'Drive. Backup came up okay but I dunno what happened."

I reached over and flipped the toggle. "On it. I'll call up Power." Proceeded to do so, to be told by a bored watchstander that A) Nothing was showing tripped B) Nothing was logged as having glitched recently C) They had no crews working on that circuit (Midships Primary, TR-17; not that I would have it memorized or anything) D) Why was I wasting their time, anyway? Meantime, Jay called up the camera in the drive room. Nothing -- blank screen.

Walked back to the Chief's cramped office-ette to tell him. He looked over his monitor and frowned. "I've overheard enough already -- get to the Drive compartment." We idle the Drive most of the time; at low level, it reduces the effective realspace mass of the ship and makes the whole constant-acceleration "artificial gravity" trick a lot simpler and more efficient. Plus it's finicky to restart from stone cold. So any odd problem is A Problem, not to be shrugged off.

Off I went. Twenty minutes later I'm at the aft end of the Lupine, looking at...normal operation. Except status panel for the big transfer switch matrix is lit up red, on Portside CT-2 and the normal branch is flagged off, all three phases. Looks like no power to me, you'd thunk the Power Room would notice? Electrical is a maze of sealed compartments opening off corridors to port and starboard of the main Drive room, with the main and third backup feeds to starboard; opened that hatch to find a nice red light over the transformer access for our normal power source...and a faint hint of smoke in the air. Uh-oh.

Trotted down to the panel and it was way too hot. And bulging. Crap. It could get very dead in here--

Fire suppression, as I have mentioned before, is just about free where I work -- as free as the vacuum we have in plentiful supply. I flipped up the safety cover and slapped the big DUMP button, to be rewarded by the clack of valves opening, a short hiss as the seals reseated and a disturbing series of thumps from behind the no longer bulging panel.

Dump air, get noticed; the hardwire phone panel a few feet away lit up, beeped and our emergency center (yet another branch of E&PP) came on with, "Extinguisher activated, what's your emergency?"

A quick chat with what amounts to our version of a 911 operator later, I'd been conferenced with the Power watchstander's boss and electricians and firemen were on their way! E &PP's fire/spill/leak crew was first, looked at the situation and said SOP was (as I knew) to watch it and wait for the electricians.

Fifteen minutes later, they were on the scene; with the FSL techs, they repressurized the transformer and popped the access: a black-on-black sculpture, nothin' but soot; and that's just the low-voltage side (480 VAC, three phases, "low voltage," I laugh). Next panel in, primary side, 13700 Volts, and one of the four connections is, oh how does one put it nicely? Melted in two. There are signs of a flaming arc: pitted tracks on the metal, melted plastic bits, an annoying whistling leaking kind of sound....

It was at that point that FSL started opening their kits, chased me out and dogged the corridor hatch; one of the electricians followed and headed on out to get to the next disconnection point upstream. By the time he got back, the leak was cleared (debris in two sections of the three-section safety-first air-dump valve-- and section three, um, not actually sealing) and the other electrician was pronouncing the transformer a total loss. I called up the Chief, who said he was on his way (this is like getting Nero Wolfe out of his apartment: it happens, but darned rarely) and fielded a call from Dr. Schmid right after; once he had the story, he said he was headed aft, too. This serious and mysterious a failure gets plenty of attention! Despite which, there wasn't much for me to do but watch, so I checked out the camera that should have given us a view from the shop: dead. Power-cycled it and it came up okay. Low bidder, count on it.

More electricians had arrived already and were rearranging vehicles to clear their cargo crawler, already en route with a new transformer. That took no little time and kept me busy, too. New transformer and the Chief showed up one right after the other. While he was quizzing me on the present state of affairs, the electricians rolled out the old transformer, bagged and on a heavy-duty dolly I didn't remember seeing anyone unload (turns out it's part of the device). Their lead guy came over to us, shaking his head. "HV wiring's shot. We're going to have to pull in new from the disconnects, about two hundred meters. I've got 'em readying replacements now, should be on the way in a couple of hours."

...Two hours later, no wires. Dr. Schmid had come and gone. It was an hour past my usual end of shift. The Chief and I were sitting at the workbench, the electricians were sitting waiting on their supplies and FSL had departed, convinced no further excitement was in store for them. The Chief looked over at me. "I'm going to call in Andy from the Second Watch; he can keep an eye on this while you get some sleep and head back in on sked tomorrow."

I was disinclined to argue. I got.

Next morning, I called down to DQ when I awoke. Still on backup power! The op told me, "Andy says they're almost done. Maybe another couple of hours yet."

...Sixteen hours (and one retransfer lurch) after the initial loss of power, we were back on the normal power feed and the Power gang had departed, leaving only a series of sooty smears on the deck and a few stray handprints on the bulkheads. See? This is how we end up with nasty grime in the conduits!

Never a dull moment. E&PP has the dump valve scheduled for replacement, too. Rust never sleeps and out here, it's got a lot of little helpers.