For a group of researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., April has been anything but business as usual.
Ryan Norman, Chris Sandridge, Tony Slaba and Charlie Werneth normally spend their days researching and developing radiation analysis tools in Langley’s Durability, Damage Tolerance and Reliability Branch. This month, however, they are expanding their roles to include analysis of radiation shielding designs submitted by five teams of high school students through the Exploration Design Challenge, or EDC.
The EDC is a design challenge for students from kindergarten to 12th grade to learn about how space radiation affects both humans and machines. The high school portion of the competition challenged student teams to design a shielding mechanism to protect a sensor inside the Orion spacecraft from space radiation.
"Some of the designs submitted were really quite impressive," said Werneth. "You could tell that the students put in a lot of effort researching and developing their shielding concepts."
The five finalist teams hail from high schools in California, Illinois, Kansas, Utah and Virginia. The winning team’s design will fly to space on the maiden flight of NASA’s Orion capsule on the Exploration Flight Test -1, or EFT-1, mission scheduled for December 2014.
EFT-1 will take Orion to an altitude of approximately 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface, more than 15 times farther into space than the International Space Station.
During this testing and analysis phase, the four Langley researchers also have been interacting with the student team members to ask and answer questions, seek clarity about the proposed designs and provide mentoring support to these budding scientists and engineers.
To perform their assessments, the researchers are using a NASA-developed tool called OLTARIS -- the On-Line Tool for the Assessment of Radiation in Space, which provides a common analytic approach for use across the agency. By entering the geometries provided by the students, they then can develop a shielding model, upload it to the OLTARIS website, and perform the testing using a thermal luminescence dosimeter to measure radiation on the surface of the design and also in the center.
When asked about taking on additional workload, Norman replied, "We all have full plates, but this is both important and rewarding. Engaging these students and fueling their interest in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- is really helping to develop NASA's future workforce, which will rely heavily on these exact skill sets."
As the team of researchers finishes the measurements and analysis of the five proposals, the teams eagerly await the outcome of their hard work.
On April 25, 2014, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden will join Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., astronaut Rex Walheim and members of the Orion team to announce the EDC's winning high school team. The announcement will take place at the opening of the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.
The team members who designed the winning radiation shield will be invited to travel to NASA's Kennedy Space Center to see their efforts launch to space aboard Orion later this year. It is quite an achievement for these young engineers -- to design a space-bound payload before their first day of college.
Ann Marie Trotta/NASA Headquarters