Working in the microgravity of space can be tricky, especially when outside the safe environment of a space vehicle. Tamra George makes sure spacewalking astronauts have the right tools needed to work in this unique environment.
What is your job, and how do you support spacesuits and spacewalks?
I am a hardware manager for the Extravehicular Activity, or EVA, office. Along with a few other managers, we help facilitate all the tools the astronauts would use on a spacewalk. From a hammer to a cordless socket drill, I work with great engineers to make sure the tools I am responsible for continue to function and support all spacewalks. Additionally, tasks in a spacewalk may require a new tool design, and my job is to manage the startup of that project through use in space. During the actual spacewalks, I sit with a team of engineers in a support room to Mission Control in case any tool fails.
Why is this element of spacesuit and spacewalk support important?
On each spacewalk the astronauts use numerous tools. From installing a payload or changing out a battery, the crew may use something as simple as a socket/ratchet. Just as we would use tools in our garage to work on our car or house, the astronauts need tools to work on the space vehicles. The largest difference between something we would use on the ground and what astronauts use in orbit is what the tools in space are exposed to. The tools are exposed to much hotter and colder temperatures, the vacuum of space, unique loads and radiation. They must be designed to be operated with large gloves.
How did you get your current position?
I have a bachelor's degree in welding engineering from The Ohio State University with a focus on robotic welding applications and a master's degree from Texas A&M in health physics. I started working at NASA's Johnson Space Center in the robotics operations group, then transferred to the space radiation analysis group after I obtained my master's. With the amount of experience I obtained in those two jobs, and my continued love for engineering, it was a perfect fit for me to obtain the great opportunity in facilitating aspects of EVA tools. The goal should always be to follow what you are passionate about and never give up.
What are the challenges your team faces in working with this aspect of spacesuits and spacewalks?
We must make sure that the tools are designed to handle all environmental aspects of space, while maintaining the form, fit and function of the tools' required capability.
At times we are tasked to design and build a new tool to interface with an International Space Station component that is already in space. Making sure the tool will fit with the space station component once in space is a difficult challenge because we cannot simply check that the tool fits on the ground. Extra engineering reviews occur to ensure the tool will be successful in space. An example is the tool size and the object it will interface with may change at the cold or hot extreme temperature of space compared to the size we see at room temperature on the ground: We must account for this size change in our analysis. An astronaut cannot just go down the street from the space station to a local home improvement store to grab a new tool.
Other challenges the team faces include making sure there are no sharp edges that could damage the spacesuit, maintaining good working relationships with international partners and ensuring the tools continue to function while in space.
As NASA prepares for future missions, what changes will be needed for this aspect of spacesuit and spacewalk support?
For surfaces like the moon, the tools will need to be able to handle the very fine lunar dust that will find its way into every mechanism of a tool. For surfaces like asteroids, each asteroid is different in how coarse the surface is. While one tool could pick up one type rock on one asteroid, the next asteroid may be too coarse to dig into its surface. The largest challenge for Mars may be choosing the right tools for the trip. Currently, the trip to Mars is one year round-trip; the astronauts are that much further away from obtaining another tool.
Have any interesting incidents occurred involving equipment that damaged a spacesuit?
We inspect gloves of the spacesuit after every flight, and we have seen damage on the gloves. We continue to be very diligent about maintaining smooth corners on hardware the spacesuit can touch. We are monitoring the Micro Meteoroid Orbital Debris as it creates "nicks" on the space station. Most of the station has shields to protect from MMOD, but sometimes the tools that stay outside the space station get a nick from an MMOD impact. The EVA gloves have been redesigned to help mitigate any glove damage from these nicks.
Tell us about a tool your team developed to address a particular challenge.
On the last shuttle mission (STS-135), we brought down a failed ammonia pump module (from the station). The design of the mission placed the pump module against the aft wall of the payload bay (of the shuttle). There was not enough clearance between the pump module and the aft wall for the astronaut who was spacewalking to reach two bolts for fastening the pump module into the payload bay.
We designed and built a new tool called the COLT (Contingency Operation LAPA Tool). The LAPA, or Large Adapter Plate Assembly, is the carrier for the pump module. The COLT had to be installed on the carrier while on the space station, prior to being placed in the payload bay. The COLT provided a right angle extension so the astronaut could easily reach and drive the bolts. The challenges with COLT included clearance concerns, ensuring it would attach properly in space, and ensuring it did not change the effectiveness of the form, fit and function of the carrier. With the carrier already in space, the COLT could not be tested or fit-checked with the carrier before use. The COLT team worked with multiple teams and performed extra analysis to ensure the COLT would function properly in space.
One of the most challenging projects I am working on is the SAFER (Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue). Some may call it a "jetpack." The SAFER's purpose is to help return the astronaut back to the space station should the astronaut inadvertently become detached from the vehicle. The SAFER has a propulsion system with a hand-controller for the astronaut to maneuver himself/herself. As you can imagine, the SAFER consists of many components (software, battery power, propulsion tank, multiple mechanisms, etc.). Although bringing all the various components together in one system to ensure the astronauts' safety is a challenge, I am proud to work with numerous engineers who are incredibly good at what they do.
What else would you want to tell people about your job or your experiences with spacesuits and spacewalk support?
I continue to be amazed at how well the spacesuit continues to function as its own spacecraft to protect the astronaut. Every day, I learn more about the history of spacewalks and the tools that have been used. As much as we try to design things so no maintenance or human interaction should be needed, in space we constantly learn that things are not always what we expected. The multiple satellites and telescopes we have performed spacewalks to fix tell the story.
I am very blessed to work with a great group of passionate people who believe in what they do and the human spaceflight program. Our job requires that passion to keep the astronauts safe during a spacewalk. I hope that everyone follows what they are passionate about and finds a job they enjoy.
› NASA's Johnson Space Center
Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services