Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 2)

Welcome to 'Part 2' of my experience at the Media Event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) - click here for 'Part 1'.

Sam Ortega discusses 'Centennial Challenges'
After leaving the ISS Payload Operation Center, the group headed to "working lunch", with several NASA engineers and scientists on-hand to discuss their areas of expertise and to answer any questions. My table had an engineer that was responsible for NASA's Technology Transfer Office and another that worked with NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

I was interested to discover that NASA has been turning to private industry, and "citizen engineers", more frequently lately...both as a response to budgetary constraints and as a way to "think outside the box". For example, did you know that spacewalks (EVAs) can be torturous on an astronaut's fingertips? Since the suit is pressurized, the astronaut is constantly fighting against the glove's tendency to spring back to a fully-spread configuration (think back to those elementary school turkeys make from the outline of a hand and you'll get the idea). This tends to, at the very least, give the astronaut blisters on their fingers...but there have been cases of raw & bloody fingertips...and even loss of fingernails. Spacewalking doesn't sound quite so glamorous now, does it?

Astronaut Anderson even had issues in a properly-fitting glove
To help solve the issue, NASA reached out to private entities and offered a cash award to anyone that could come up with a workable solution to this problem. NASA ended up awarding two companies a share of $1 million to further develop of each of their solutions. In the past, NASA would've contracted a company - and paid a LOT more - to do something similar. This is part of NASA's modernization efforts, and I think it'll pay dividends in short order.

Another example of "citizen engineers" helping NASA solve a problem is related to testing fabric stress limits. NASA had developed a material that was extremely strong, yet the weave bias was such that the strain gauge couldn't get adequate purchase on the cloth and would tear it apart without being able to measure the strength. The engineers worked on a solution FOR A YEAR without positive progress. Someone suggested asking the private community for a solution - fully expecting to have already tried anything that might be suggested - and wouldn't you know it, NASA received not one, but TWO workable solutions to this problem...IN 24 HOURS! Do I think this means NASA is no longer home to the best and brightest? Absolutely not...but even the best of us can develop a blind spot and a fresh point-of-view can yield unexpected results. I'll be sure to think back on this when I'm presented with a seemingly insurmountable problem.

Real-life Kerbal Space Program
After this stimulating lunch, we headed off into the bowels of the building to take a look at the crew working on SLS's avionics (the hardware and software "brains" of the rocket). Being a network engineer, THIS is the stuff that I can correlate with a "real-world" analog in my daily life. There is a mock control room where the engineers can fully simulate a launch using the avionics hardware in the adjoining room. This hardware is mounted in a life-size (diameter) rig that mimics the curvature of the rocket's body so physical fittings can be tested and adjusted.

The team has simulated hundreds - if not thousands - of SLS launches...but only on the core stage at this point. Soon, ATK will supply a testing analog of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) - complete with sensors and flight hardware - that will be coupled with the core stage hardware so some full-up testing can be accomplished (currently, the SRB sensors and computers are virtualized in software).

SLS Avionics
SLS is going to be a big rocket - Block I will be 321 feet tall - but even at the speed of light, the time for a signal from an engine sensor to reach the flight computer and then make the return trip isn't zero. This delay is called 'latency' and you've likely experienced it on a phone call...especially if it's long-distance. While it might be annoying when chatting with Aunt Edna across the country, it can be downright catastrophic on a rocket if the delay isn't accounted for. While the engineers can't build a full-height mockup of SLS in their shed, they *can* mimic the latency by either using cables as long as would be needed in the flight vehicle, or inducing latency in software to mimic the expected delay. This is but one of the many issues the hardware and software engineers must overcome, and test, to make sure SLS is the safest human-rated vehicle flown to-date.

I thought I could finish this in 'Part 2', but I was wrong. Stay tuned for 'Part 3', and I promise to not take quite so long on the next installment. Until then, thank you for reading.