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Sizing Up Space Exploration
Three students with a laser scanner

Teams of Navajo Tech students worked with NASA over the course of several summers to conduct measurements. Image Credit: Scott Halliday

When NASA needed help sizing some things up, they turned to students at the Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M.

Students from the two-year college worked with two NASA centers during the summers of 2010 and 2011 on projects related to future space exploration. The college is a recipient of two grants through the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program's Minority Small Projects grant initiative.

In the summer of 2010, students and faculty from Navajo Technical College came to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. They used laser-scanning techniques to determine whether there was enough clearance to move a piece of developmental rocket hardware from one building to another. The techniques allowed the team to make reliable, detailed measurements of the buildings.

The Digital Manufacturing and Process Planning Team received a NASA Group Achievement Honor Award. The interns that supported the team's effort were credited for their contributions. "This award was for 3-D manufacturing simulations and process planning," said Steven Phillips. Phillips' team generates 3-D simulations that use computer-aided design models for buildings, machines and product data.

Phillips explained that the summer project for the Navajo Technical College was to scan several structures inside Building 4707 and generate CAD models for use in the Marshall team's simulations. "Scott (Halliday, of Navajo Technical College) and his students did an outstanding job scanning and modeling the requested facilities," Phillips said.

Halliday, the course leader for the project at the school, explained that different groups of students visited Marshall over four consecutive summers, with a total of 11 students participating in the work. The students produced their measurements using a combination of tools from the new (laser scanning) to the old (blueprints dating back 70 years). The students measured not only buildings but also equipment like forklifts.

Saturn stages in a large-bay building

Navajo Technical College students used new technology to learn more about an old building at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center: Building 4707 was used to work on the Saturn rocket during the Apollo program in the 1960s. Image Credit: NASA

The other project involved working with NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Unlike the Marshall project, this project involved staying closer to home and getting out in the field. Four students and three faculty members used laser scanning techniques to create a detailed 3-D computer model of a lava tube in the El Malpais National Park in New Mexico. The model was created using 240 million measurements taken in the lava tube.

The purpose of the project was a proof-of-concept demonstration for space-exploration applications of the scanning techniques. The moon and Mars have lava tubes and caves similar to the one that was studied in New Mexico. NASA is interested in whether or not a robotic rover could use laser scanning to explore one of those formations on another world and transmit a model back to Earth. In the long term, such models could even pave the way for human exploration of other worlds, since underground formations could provide natural radiation shielding.

During summer 2011, Halliday's students returned to Marshall and again used the laser scanner to assist engineers. They spent a week taking measurements to correct problems with a 12- by 18-foot autoclave. The door would not seal when closed, and repairs were needed to restore the function of the autoclave. The measurements taken by the students provided the information needed by the repair crew to make the necessary corrections.

Navajo Tech students Candice Craig and Oga John worked on the project. Both women are interested in digital manufacturing and plan to complete degrees in engineering.

Candice Craig described working as an intern as a "great and valuable experience." To Craig, working on the scanning project to collect 3-D data to examine the autoclave at Marshall means being a part of something bigger than a small, local effort. She believes her team's progress will make a positive contribution in the use of the autoclave.

Craig said taking part in projects and events with NASA has a huge impact on her career decisions. Being around people who are so knowledgeable and talented means "there is no way not to be motivated in some way." She believes spending time on-site is beneficial. So she plans on taking her own children to a NASA center and thinks just visiting NASA will encourage their "Engineer" genes to surface. Craig's opportunity at NASA has both inspired her and given her confidence that she can go further in her work with the agency. Craig hopes "to be 'NASA-ready' within the next couple of years." And she hopes one day to inspire her children to work at NASA.

Two women standing in front of the 18-foot-wide opening of an autoclave

Engineering students Oga John and Candice Craig use laser scanner measurements to identify problems with an 18-foot autoclave at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 2011. Image Credit: NASA

Intern student Oga John said that having hands-on experience has helped her better understand digital manufacturing and that assisting in the problem-solving process with NASA is "incredible." She has been able to apply the skills acquired at Navajo Tech every day.

John’s experiences as an intern have not only impacted her but have helped her instill the values of determination and persistence in her son. The six-year-old's goals are to build rockets, do laser-scanning and create cars that transform. As John puts it, "That sounds a lot like me."

"Working and visiting the Marshall Space Flight Center was amazing," John said. She sees her opportunity to work with NASA as reinforcing "the idea that anything is possible."

Navajo Technical College first became involved with NASA in 2006 through a Summer Research Experience offered by NASA's Tribal Colleges and Universities Program that is administered by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. During that first summer internship experience, Navajo Technical College students created 3-D models of NASA facilities.

Halliday said their experience with TCUP NASA/AIHEC Summer Research Experience internships was invaluable for the students and Navajo Technical College in that it prompted a huge revamping and growth in curriculum.

Through participation in the TCUP Summer Research Experience in 2006, Halliday said Navajo Technical College was able to leverage a small seed grant to purchase rapid prototyping equipment and laser scanning equipment. The college sustained the partnership with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center by incorporating the equipment and software into the curriculum through funding provided by the grant. Once again, Navajo Technical College leveraged another grant and expanded the curriculum to a four-year Baccalaureate of Applied Science in information technology in the areas of computer science, new media and digital manufacturing.

Navajo Technical College, due in large part to the funding from NASA, has continued to expand the curriculum by winning an award from the National Science Foundation to expand the fields of engineering degrees offered. Holliday said the college is now developing four-year degrees in industrial engineering and computer/electrical engineering. The college also is establishing a Center for Digital Technologies to house laser scanning and rapid prototyping equipment.

"Who would have thought that what we were participating in as drafters and 3-D modelers would provide so much growth and educational potential, which will impact the people of the Navajo Nation?" said Halliday.

NASA's Minority University Research and Education Program is an effort of the agency's Office of Education that engages underrepresented populations through a wide variety of initiatives. Multiyear grants are awarded to assist Minority Institution faculty and students in research related to NASA's missions. MUREP focuses on recruiting underrepresented and underserved students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines through completion of undergraduate or graduate degrees in support of the students' entry into the scientific and technical workforce.

Related Resources
› NASA Minority University Research and Education Program Website
› NASA Education

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services
Rebecca Dorfmueller/NASA Educational Technology Services