This artist’s concept shows an astronaut preparing to use a special tool to take samples from the captured asteroid after it has been relocated to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system. NASA’s Exploration Surface Systems Office may help develop such tools. Credit: NASA
Engineering is about making dreams a reality. At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the team in the Engineering and Technology Directorate not only puts those visions on paper, but sees the designs all the way through from development to reality.
This key organization recently aligned its structure around four new lines of business. This fresh approach is designed to bring its functions in line with the spaceport’s efforts to transition from a historically government-only launch facility to an affordable, sustainable, multi-user spaceport for both government and commercial customers. It’s also about meeting the complex challenges facing an increasingly technological world.
“It’s all about being proactive in our current environment,” said Jack Fox, technical assistant for Engineering and Technology’s Lines of Business. “We have many areas of expertise here at Kennedy. We want to engage the emerging multi-users and apply our capabilities to help them accomplish their missions.”
The four new lines of business focus are Exploration Surface Systems, Spaceport and Space Systems Development, Technical Mission Success, and Small Payload Integrated Testing Services, or SPLITS.
Tom Aranyos, Technical Integration manager in NASA’s Fluids and Propulsion Division and leader of the Spaceport and Space System Development line of business, explains that NASA Engineering and Technology is looking for ways to assist other NASA centers, as well as commercial industries.
“We need to listen to what is keeping them up at night and offer assistance and advice on how we can help make them successful,” he said. “Our strategy is to respond to others’ needs by raising our hands and offering to help.”
Fox says that being a multi-user spaceport means Kennedy is transitioning from supporting two or three large programs for long periods of time to supporting multiple customers with numerous, short-term efforts.
“In the past, the bulk of our work focused on supporting programs such as the space shuttle and International Space Station,” he said. “We now are approaching other Kennedy directorates, other NASA centers, industry and academia to establish partnerships for proposing and winning engineering and technology development work.”
In addition to oversight of the lines of business, Fox is responsible for the Exploration Surface Systems line.
“Surface Systems can be either here on Earth or on another planet,” Fox said. “It’s applied technology that, for example, could help upgrade systems on a former shuttle launch pad or be applied to robotically construct a landing site on Mars for a future human expedition.”
Today NASA experts are transforming Launch Pad 39B to support the agency’s new Space Launch System rocket that will take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. At the same time, NASA scientists and engineers are using the lessons of how technology was developed during the Apollo era and robotic missions to Mars to develop technologies for future extraterrestrial landings.
“Collecting surface samples or mining for resources on another planet fits into Kennedy’s assigned areas of responsibility,” Fox said. “That would include developing tools for astronauts retrieving rocks and other samples from an asteroid or, later, developing the equipment to mine for resources on Mars.”
The Technical Mission Success line of business is being led by George Hamilton, deputy of Kennedy’s Chief Engineer’s Office. His group is assigned the task to provide expertise that will ensure the success of projects within NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations Program, Launch Services Program, Commercial Crew Program and the International Space Station Program.
“We try to match up the right expertise with those needing solutions to any particular problem,” Hamilton said. “Our goal is to also deliver on commitments being made to both government and commercial projects.”
Fox pointed out that the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) would be primary customers for the four lines of business. The Game Changing Division in STMD is working to rapidly develop, demonstrate and introduce revolutionary, high-payoff technologies through collaborative partnerships.
“Advanced Exploration Systems is now HEOMD’s primary program for the development of technology to support human space exploration,” he said.
AES is developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human and robotic missions beyond Earth orbit such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission.
Spaceport and Space Systems Development covers all typical ground and flight processing support requiring engineering efforts, Aranyos explains. That includes designing and building new hardware, as well as providing the needed controls, software, special testing and technical reviews.
“Space Systems Development also focuses on new expanded territory that Kennedy has just recently started,” he said. “It includes development, qualification and acceptance testing of critical spaceflight hardware and subsystems in collaboration with other NASA centers and commercial aerospace industries.”
An example of such a collaborative effort is a team at Kennedy working with counterparts at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center to demonstrate groundbreaking technology to develop satellites that could service and refuel orbiting spacecraft. Engineers in Florida are developing a hypergolic propellant transfer system for a simulated servicing satellite.
Greg Clements, chief of Kennedy’s Control and Data Systems Division, explains that the SPLITS line of business is designed to support three different classes of small payloads.
“We have had previous experience with microsatellites in support of the Launch Services Program and for the International Space Station,” he said. “Recently we have been engaged in launches of small payloads called ‘CubeSats‘ to support education and external partnerships. It is an emerging market with a lot of interest, and we believe that Kennedy can provide support to a growing set of customers both inside and outside of NASA.”
SPLITS is an affordable method of research focusing on three classes of small satellites. Pico-Satellites, or Pico-Sats, are less than 1 kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) in mass. The class called Nano-Sats is between one and 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) in mass and Micro-Sats, are between 10 and 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) in weight.
A specialized class of Nano-Sats, called CubeSats, is especially popular in academia. These small spacecraft use a standardized cube-shaped form 10 centimeters (about four inches) in size and one kilogram in weight. One to six of these building block-like packages can be integrated into a CubeSat. Additionally, CubeSat standardization allows for sharing of expertise, simplicity in developing avionics and they are easily deployed. Components also can be re-used for other missions.
In June 2013, a series of CubeSats equipped with an array of sensors took a jarring ride above California’s Mojave Desert on a small rocket to aid student designers in determining if their instruments could survive the rigors of a rocket launch. Built by several different organizations, including a university, a NASA field center and a high school, the spacecraft were 4-inch cubes designed to eventually fly on their own, and focused on a specific experiment related to spaceflight.
The goals of Engineering and Technology’s new four lines of business represent the kind of challenge Aranyos likes.
“I enjoy taking concept ideas and developing implementation plans and guiding efforts to meet our customer expectations,” he said. “If we continue to meet and exceed expectations of our customers, more valuable and rewarding work will continue to flow our way here at Kennedy.”
It is also about making dreams a reality.
“We’re trying to shape the future, but we don’t do that by just creating drawings and throwing it over the fence,” Aranyos said. “We build and fabricate too. A dream doesn’t become a reality until it goes from paper to actual development.”