Lean Mean Machine

In fact, by the time Columbia finally returned to KSC in early March 2001, she had become, in the words of Ron Dittemore, ''a leaner, meaner machine [that] is fit to fly for many more years". More than 500 kg of weight had been removed and she was also wired-up to accept an International Space Station-specification airlock and docking adaptor in her payload bay. Overall, she underwent 133 structural inspections, wiring repairs and upgrades, including - most notably - a state-of-the-art 'glass cockpit' that was more advanced, lighter and used less electricity than the previous design.

For Duane 'Digger' Carey, who would fly as Pilot of Columbia's Hubble servicing mission, the new cockpit was by far the most striking and important difference for him and STS-109 Commander Scott Altman. ''There's a tremendous amount of work that's been done that you can't see in Columbia,'' he told a NASA interviewer shortly before blasting into space, ''but the big one for Scott and me is the cockpit.'' To give it its official name, the Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem (MEDS), the cockpit boasted 11 flat-panel, full-colour displays to replace 32 old-style mechanical gauges.

''We now have an up-to-date instrument display suite in the orbiter,'' continued Carey. ''Columbia's the second orbiter [after Atlantis] to get this particular upgrade. The nice thing about [it] is that, as we get smarter about what types of displays we

During Columbia's debut with the new Multifunction Electronic Display Subsystem (MEDS), Digger Carey (left) and Nancy Currie occupy the forward flight deck during rendezvous operations with the Hubble Space Telescope.

want to see - to help us to have 'situational awareness' in the orbiter - we can actually quite easily upgrade our displays. Right now, the displays just kind of emulate whatever our old displays had in the orbiter, but in future we have a lot of flexibility in what we can do with those displays.''

Ultimately, it was hoped that MEDS would lead to the development of a 'smart cockpit' that would provide Commanders and Pilots with more flexibility to conduct mission operations. However, the new cockpit was only the most visible of the upgrades. Most of the modification period was overshadowed by the need to thoroughly inspect and protect her wiring from the kind of damage that had caused the short-circuit on STS-93. Additionally, thermal blankets replaced heat-resistant tiles in some areas, further reducing the ship's weight, radiator valves were added to better isolate leaks and the middeck floor was beefed-up to withstand loads of up to 20g.

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