How RocketCam Works

An example of the stunning view made possible by RocketCam
An example of the stunning view made possible by RocketCam

Space exploration has captivated Americans for decades. Perhaps Captain Kirk of "Star Trek" said it best when he called space "the final frontier." We stand on the edge of a wilderness so tantalizingly close and mysterious, we can't help but risk our lives to know more about it.

But until it's cheap enough to hitch rides to the moon, the public will have to settle for vicarious space exploration via video. In fact, movies and space exploration have been connected for a long time. One of the first popular movies, "A Trip to the Moon," made in 1902, is a fantastical tale of lunar exploration. Sixty-seven years later, televisions glowed with video feed of the first manned moon landing, fueling the public's imagination about space travel.

But video's place in space goes beyond thrills. Today's ultra connected world revolves around the idea that the more informed we are, the better the decisions we make. This particularly rings true with space exploration, where tiny problems can trigger disastrous consequences -- think the tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia.

In 2003, the shuttle and its seven astronauts burned up upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. The source of the problem with the Columbia shuttle was a piece of insulation that fell from the surface of the external fuel tank 81 seconds after liftoff and damaged the left wing. NASA engineers viewed video of this mishap, but it was filmed from a distance, and they concluded that the insulation didn't cause any serious damage. They were wrong.

Had the shuttle been equipped with a RocketCam during the launch, the Columbia's wing might have been properly diagnosed and the disaster avoided. The RocketCam is an ordinary video camera with an extraordinary purpose. It's attached to the shuttle and during takeoff provides a crucial video view -- the view from the launching vehicle down to the ground. In fact, the RocketCam caught video of insulation flying off the Discovery shuttle fuel tank in the 2005 return-to-flight launch. But that video helped engineers make the informed decision that -- this time -- the insulation didn't cause any damage.

So how does this basic video camera endure space travel? And why is its video feed so valuable? Read the next page to find out.