Cost To Reward Inventor, Contractors: Priceless
ANN APRIL 1st "SPECIAL" EDITION: While it sadly didn't
happen until a year before the retirement of the fleet, one of the
most daunting problems in NASA's Space Shuttle program has finally
been solved -- with technology nearly two centuries old.
Persistent problems with fuel level sensors in the shuttle's
external fuel tanks have scrubbed several launches over the past 20
years, and the government's prime contractors have failed to solve
the problems, despite the imposing engineering credentials of their
Those sensors allow an automatic engine shut-down in the event
the shuttle's hydrogen fuel supply runs low. It's critical that the
engines not be run into starvation while throttled up, or an
explosion could occur. If the sensors provide a false alarm, and
shut down the engines after liftoff, the mission would have to be
aborted, at considerable risk and expense.
NASA is now sheepishly admitting that the problem has been
solved by plumbing contractor John Fuller of Linden, AL. Of his
innovation, he says, "Sometimes, what's really needed is just a few
steps back, a stroke of the chin, and some good old common sense,
not a supercomputer."
Fuller's innovation involves adapting a standard toilet bowl
float to the external fuel tanks, and using it to trigger a small,
hermetically-sealed switch, originally used in the low-fuel sensor
circuit on a 1983 Datsun. The only part for the adaptation not
available from Home Depot or NAPA is a 13' length of 1/4" threaded
rod, needed to locate the float near the middle of the huge tank.
The total cost for parts, including the extra-long float rod, is
approximately $27 per launch vehicle.
Budget-conscious NASA managers became excited at the possible
cost savings the moment Fuller walked in the door of the Marshall
Space Flight Center and showed his drawing to the receptionist. To
evaluate it fully, a special super-cooled centrifuge was built
adjacent to Marshall, at a cost of six billion dollars. Test
results were so encouraging that Fuller was able to obtain
liability insurance for his device for less than $40 million
Despite his achievement, Fuller remains humble. "This is all
very exciting," he says. "One day you're up to your elbows in
somebody else's dookie, and the next day you're a semi-retired
aerospace contractor. It's all happened so fast."
Fuller made his comments on the deck of the Queen Mary II in
waters off Nassau, Bahamas, during a seven-day, $600,000 luxury
cruise arranged by NASA to honor contractors who contributed to
program cost reductions.