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Speed2Design: A Chance of a Lifetime

I recently had the chance to spend a day at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston with the ten winners of the Speed2Design contest sponsored by Littelfuse, a Chicago-based circuit protection company. The prize was a behind-the-scenes tour of the center, including technical conversations with the engineers working on robotics and rovers, astronaut training, and International Space Station (ISS) research. Having been to NASA facilities multiple times, I had a “been there, done that” attitude at first, but was quickly as amazed and awed as the winners by the technologies and facilities at NASA Johnson.

The first stop was a peek inside the Mission Control Center, which is currently controlling the ISS. Watching the team monitoring both the station and the astronauts made me realize how easy spaceflight and space travel looks to the average American. It’s anything but easy, even though NASA makes it look that way.

While at Mission Control, we had the rare opportunity to go inside the Apollo Mission Operations Control room (above), which is now an historic landmark. Getting to sit in the chair at the console where Gene Kranz was the flight director for Apollo 13 (remember “failure is not an option”?) was a genuine thrill. And then on to robotics and rovers!

The Robotic Systems Technology Branch is responsible for the research, engineering, development, integration, and application of robotic hardware and software for flight and ground robotic system applications in support of human spaceflight. We had the pleasure of meeting Robonaut 2 (R2), a twin of the dexterous humanoid robot now working on the ISS.

Dr. Ron Diftler, Robonaut 2 project lead, demonstrated R2’s abilities to recognize objects, operate tools, lift and move heavy weights, and interact safely with humans. Designed and built through a partnership between NASA and General Motors, R2 can take on tasks that are too dangerous or mundane for astronauts. Robonaut’s form and dexterity allow it to use the same tools as its human counterparts aboard the station.

Dr. Diftler also described the intricate servomotors that enable R2’s amazing dexterity and eerily human-like movements. While R2 currently works atop a fixed pedestal, Dr. Diftler gave us a preview of new legs that have been designed for R2 that will enable it to move through the ISS, and even venture outside the station to assist spacewalking astronauts.

The next stop: the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) that provides training for spaceflight crews and their support personnel. This facility is a cavernous building that houses mockups of the ISS, the shuttle cockpit, and even the newest space vehicle, Orion. The latest rovers, including space and surface versions of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (above), also were housed in the SVMF. (Working with NASA means learning acronyms for everything!)

Rounding out our lab visits was a stop at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL – see, another acronym), which bears the name Sonny Carter Training Facility in honor of former astronaut Sonny Carter Jr. This massive pool is a frightening sight to someone who doesn’t swim, but it’s where astronauts spend hours training for spacewalks. A scale model of the ISS modules sits at the bottom of the pool.

The facts we were given are staggering: it is 202 feet in length, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. It holds 6.2 million gallons of water, took more than a month to fill, and astronauts spend seven hours training in the water for every hour they’ll spend spacewalking – wearing suits that weigh 280 pounds.

We ended the day at what was perhaps my favorite stop. I’m old enough to remember sitting in front of the black-and-white TV watching the launch of Apollo 11, and then the Moon landing. I was fascinated by the huge Saturn V rocket that took the crew to space. So I was equally fascinated to visit Rocket Park, which houses a complete Saturn V rocket that had been scheduled to fly the Apollo 18 or 19 missions, which were cancelled because of a lack of funding.

When you enter the hangar where the massive rocket sits on its side, the scale of it is breathtaking. Looking at photos cannot possibly prepare you for the sight of an actual Saturn V, which is 363 feet tall, or the height of a 36-story building. Think about it: that’s 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Fully fueled, it weighed 6.2 million pounds, or the weight of 85 Hoover Dams!

It was a stunning end to a stunning day of watching engineers act like kids – giddy about seeing this level of technical mastery up close. I wish everyone could have this experience to see what NASA has done – and what NASA still does – that will change our future.

Thanks again to Littelfuse for taking me along on an unforgettable ride.