KSC Engineers' Reach Exceeds Launch
Engineering and research performed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center can get overshadowed at times by the spectacle of launches, but that doesn't mean the work is any less groundbreaking.
"We've had some technology development expertise for many, many years that many people joke is the best kept secret in the agency," said Karen Thompson, chief technologist in Kennedy's Engineering Directorate.
Working in a variety of specialized laboratories and offices at Kennedy, about 550 engineers support all of NASA's programs and projects, said Miguel Rodriguez, the deputy director for management of Kennedy's Engineering Directorate.
A sample of some of the current work by Kennedy's Engineering Directorate includes continuing improvements to the space shuttle, improving water and air recycling systems on the International Space Station and researching self-healing wiring. Kennedy engineers also are designing ground support equipment for the Constellation Program and working with other centers to develop habitation modules astronauts can live in on other worlds.
Unlike research into fundamental questions of science, such as what far-off galaxies look like, the work by Kennedy's scientists and engineers is focused on turning out a product that improves spaceflight. Some development improves current technology while other work establishes brand-new designs. Still other innovations come from using existing technology in new ways.
"We're not looking to do basic research," Thompson said. "We look for how our areas of expertise can be used to solve problems and meet technology needs."
The passion for working for the space program is one of the reasons engineers and scientists turn away lucrative offers to work elsewhere.
"The typical engineer who comes to Kennedy came because of what Kennedy does," Rodriguez said. "They are attracted by the excitement of flying, of going into space. Once they're here, they typically build a career that lasts generations."
Through the years, the directorate also emphasized advanced education for its staff.
"In the past, advanced degrees weren't that important," Rodriguez explained. "Starting in 1989, we started programs to get master's and advanced degrees."
The center also gets its share of younger engineers, providing a mix of capabilities. The more experienced staff gets to pass on expertise, while those new to the field can teach about new design programs and tools.
The directorate has gone through intense changes in recent years. Created in 2006, the organization drew in agency engineers who worked at Kennedy but were assigned to individual programs, such as the space shuttle or space station. Within the last year, the directorate also incorporated Applied Technology.
"Now we have the critical skills throughout the directorate to perform work ranging from (early) development through implementation," Thompson said.
As the agency's lead launch site, Kennedy handles missions from throughout NASA's network of field centers. So Kennedy's engineers are used to working closely with counterparts throughout the nation, sometimes all over the world for international projects.
"Kennedy has a great reputation for how well we partner with other centers, other agencies, industry, and academia," Thompson said.
Kennedy's role in the partnerships usually touches on several areas depending on a mission, but it almost always involves making sure a spacecraft's delicate sensors and systems can handle the vibration, acceleration and other conditions unique to launch.
"The difference is that we get those elements ready to go into space," Rodriguez said. "We are very good at integration, we're very good at problem-solving such that we can complete the process and fly."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center