WASHINGTON – The July 26 launch of Discovery ushered in a new and critical safety role in the space shuttle program for a company whose rocket-mounted cameras previously were as much about public relations as they were about engineering.

Ecliptic Enterprises supplied the camera that captured footage of a large chunk of external tank foam falling away from Discovery some two minutes after it lifted off to begin the first shuttle mission in two and a half years. The dramatic shot was broadcast around the world, providing valuable publicity for the company while alerting NASA officials to the fact that its space shuttle fleet still has a foam-shedding problem.

The root cause of the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was external-tank insulating foam that shook loose during liftoff and punched a hole in the orbiter’s left wing. The breach allowed superhot gases to penetrate the wing’s internal structure during re-entry, causing the shuttle to disintegrate.

Among the key recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was that all future shuttle missions be monitored closely by ground-based and onboard cameras during launch for just such incidents. That recommendation made Ecliptic of Pasadena, Calif., a full- rather than part-time player in the shuttle program.

Ecliptic’s main product is the RocketCam, a video system based on off-the-shelf equipment that was developed by a company called Crosslink. Ecliptic purchased Crosslink in 2001, and in doing so inherited a contract to provide seven RocketCams to NASA.

Two of those cameras were used for testing, and a third flew on Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-112 in October 2002. Although the camera provided some engineering benefit, NASA put the real emphasis on its “gee whiz” entertainment aspects, said Rex Ridenoure, chief executive officer of Ecliptic. “It was just going to be a cool shot. “

NASA plans for the remaining SpaceCams were unclear after the Atlantis flight, and the shuttle mission for Columbia did not have one aboard. That all changed with the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and now all the remaining SpaceCams are earmarked for future shuttle missions.

The change in the RocketCam’s emphasis on shuttle missions from public relations to safety required finding a better spot to mount it on the orbiter, said Doug Caldwell, Ecliptic vice president of engineering. On the Atlantis mission, the camera was mounted in such a way that it was pointed at a hole in a solid-rocket booster separation thruster, spraying its lens and clouding it upon liftoff, he said.

For the Discovery mission, the camera was mounted on a recessed area of the line that feeds liquid oxygen from the orbiter’s external tank to its main engines, said Angelo Greconia, design manager for propulsion and electrical design at Lockheed Martin Michoud Operations in New Orleans. Lockheed Martin is prime contractor for the external tank and also is responsible for integrating the RocketCam aboard the space shuttle.

Additional engineering work had to be performed on the camera as well, Greconia said. The camera was encased in aluminum and bent at an angle before being remounted, he said.

Ecliptic was awarded a $400,000 NASA contract earlier this year to provide three additional RocketCams, one for testing and two for future shuttle missions, according to Ridenoure. The company had to scramble to fulfill that order because the basic video camera used in the system, the Sony XC-999, has been discontinued. “We basically bought the last available models of that camera on the planet,” Ridenoure said.

Caldwell said Ecliptic would use a newer-model Sony camera for future orders and is hoping NASA will officially request an upgrade so the company can certify the hardware for spaceflight.

Other options under consideration by NASA include moving to an all-digital camera format, Greconia said. The existing cameras are analog models that are limited both in resolution and in frame rates, he said.

Ridenoure said Ecliptic already has submitted proposals to NASA for additional upgrades, and is awaiting their approval .

Options included in the proposal include adding three high-definition cameras along the length of the oxygen feed-line, which could support a future Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, as well as high-speed even laser-based models, Ridenoure said.