Engineering

My First Project as a NASA Engineer: DReAM

Ever thought that engineers just sit at a desk and crunch numbers all day? Think again! I’m here to share the deets on my first project I managed as a full-time engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. First, I have to mention that any good project has to start with a really cool acronym, thus the birth of the DReAM Team. DReAM is an acronym I made up and stands for Domestic REturn Aircraft Modification.

One of two primary missions that NASA Johnson Space Center’s Gulfstream aircraft fly is the direct return of astronauts back to Houston when they land from the International Space Station. Once the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA began flying its astronauts to the ISS exclusively on the Russian Soyuz. The Soyuz returns to Earth over the steppes of Kazakhstan and as you can imagine, a commercial flight back home isn’t exactly the most practical, especially after having become accustomed to a lack of gravity while in space. Additionally, the sooner that medical testing can be accomplished on astronauts after their return, the more scientific data that can be collected about the implications of human spaceflight on the human body. Because the Soyuz only carries three astronauts and at least one is always a Russian, the maximum number of astronauts that ever need a lift back to Houston from Kazakhstan is two.

As the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) spools up, NASA’s commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing will initially be launching four astronauts at a time in their Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft. Although these spacecraft will drop astronauts much closer to home, the Gulfstream aircraft will still be tasked to pick them up.

My first project upon beginning my full-time job at NASA back in 2018 was to outfit these aircraft with the capability to support the return of up to four astronauts back to Houston for the Commercial Crew Program. This included reconfiguring the cabin of the aircraft to optimize space for both the astronauts and essential personnel like their flight doctors. I used existing passenger seating to create the base for mattresses that are installed so they have a place to lay down, mounted medical oxygen bottles under each bed, ensured access to medical-grade outlets for special equipment, selected the color of new carpeting to be installed, and installed curtains for privacy around each bed. Yes, I somewhat jokingly, yet also seriously now consider myself an amateur aircraft interior designer. If you can believe it, I found space for four beds and six additional passengers plus two pilots, a Flight Science Officer and a maintainer on our GV. Whew, that was tricky! This configuration flew for the first time to return the Crew-1 astronauts to Houston after splashdown off the coast of Florida early May 2nd.

The project was incredibly rewarding for several reasons. Not only was this project incredibly hands-on (which I LOVE) but I also had the chance to work with many different offices at Johnson Space Center to ensure that I was meeting everyone’s requirements; the CCP, the flight docs, the astronaut office, etc. Furthermore, although I definitely didn’t complete the project solo, it was a unique project in that I didn’t have a dedicated team working on it like we often do for payload integration projects where often all hands are on deck. In this case I was able to fully participate in the entire project lifecycle which I think is so important for the professional development of an engineer. I was in charge of requirements definition, design, integration and project management along the way and finally I’ll get to see it installed and more than likely even come along as a Flight Science Officer as we fly the design on a future direct return mission!

Education, STEM Resources

HiFive Inventor Coding Kit (Ages 7+)

I was only about 7 years old when I first realized I wanted to work in the space industry one day. I used to look up at the stars and dream of exploring our universe. However, growing up I had relatively low exposure to the types of hands on activities capable of sparking an interest in STEM. Tynker Coding for Kids and BBC Learning have partnered to make coding accessible and fun, not only providing kids with the inspiration to pursue STEM careers but also to grow their self confidence in the skills required to thrive in these fields.

When it came time to apply to college, I knew that I would need an engineering degree to accomplish my goals but I didn’t even know what engineers did. It wasn’t until college that I learned how to code but practicing these skills helped grow my confidence in my engineering capabilities tremendously.

With the HiFive Inventor Coding Kit, kids of all ages have the opportunity to experiment with coding in a fun and non-intimidating way whether through block coding for beginners or MicroPython for Advanced Coders. Learners can make their way through structured activities and challenges or venture out on their own to create their very own project. There is even an “Introduction to Python” section with fifteen lessons which takes learners through the basics of coding in Python. Python has quickly become a favorite language due to its versatility and straightforward syntax. Because Python is open source, meaning it is freely available to the public, it encourages open collaboration on the internet.

It wasn’t until college that I learned how to code but practicing these skills helped grow my confidence in my engineering capabilities tremendously.

Each coding kit comes with the following:

  • HiFive Inventor mini-computer
  • Doctor Who and Tynker coding lessons
  • Thousands of activities and challenges
  • External speaker
  • Light up USB LED cable
  • External battery pack
  • Alligator clips

Each kit is powered by Tynker, the world’s #1 creative coding platform that is used worldwide by 60 million kids in over 90,000 schools. The HiFive Inventor is even equipped with WiFi and Bluetooth capability and has sensors that allow it to interact with the environment around you.

As our world continues to rely more heavily on automation, computers and technology to drive innovation, employers will continue to demand a highly skilled workforce with the problem solving capabilities that coding helps to foster. Further, it is increasingly likely that many jobs will require at least a basic level of coding. By exposing kids to these activities at a young age, we are setting them up to be the confident change-makers our world needs.

You can purchase your very own HiFive Inventor Coding Kit here.

Education, STEM Resources

Professional Courses to Boost Your Resume

Are you an aerospace engineering professional looking to boost your resume? I have compiled a brief list of some short courses to help give you an edge in your career.

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AIAA On-Site Courses: Check out the website for a myriad of courses which your employer can bring right to your office from computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to model-based systems engineering to tactical and strategic missile guidance and so many more.

AIAA Online Education: Here you’ll find a long list of courses (of varying lengths) taught by industry experts. All courses are taught online, offering great flexibility.

The University of Kansas: KU Aerospace Short Courses

KU offers a wide variety of options for many disciplines within the aerospace profession. Check out the course catalog for the full list of 50+ classes with many options taught several times throughout the year and in multiple locations. Some examples are “Flight Test Principles and Practices”, “Structural Composites”, “Advanced Avionics” and “Project Management Fundamentals for Aerospace Professionals”. They also offer Certificates of Specialization with many specialties to choose from.

Southwest Research Institute: NASGRO Training

NASGRO is the most widely used fracture mechanics and fatigue crack growth software program in the world. It was developed under a Space Act Agreement between SwRI and NASA. I have personally attended this training program and found it invaluable. It is a 3-day course which takes students through the very basic background of fracture mechanics, which is the basis for the program, as well as through each of the program’s modules with hands-on practice examples. Many industry leaders utilize NASGRO to ensure safe operation of structural components.

Dassault Systemes: Introduction to Abaqus

This course is currently offered online and teaches students not just how to model, submit jobs and view simulation results in the software program, but also teaches the technical basis the program utilizes to solve problems. Abaqus is the Finite Element Analysis (FEA) tool I utilized for my graduate school research.

Codecademy: Learn Python 2

Python has quickly become a favorite language due to its versatility and straightforward syntax. Because Python is open source, meaning it is freely available to the public and thus encourages open collaboration, there are many free resources available online. If you’re looking for something a little more structured, this course takes about 25 hours to complete, requires no prerequisites and promises to leave you comfortable enough with the basics to be coding your own script by the end. You can download Python for free here.

If there’s a class you’ve taken and highly recommend, drop a comment!