The Future Is in Your Hands
Students standing in front of a 'NASA and You' display

Purdue students had the opportunity to see a shuttle launch as their prize for winning the ESMD systems engineering paper competition. While at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for the launch, Purdue students Lalaine Ignacio, Keena Byrd, Ralph Palmer, April Savoy and Samantha Vaitkunas recorded a video about their project. Image Credit: NASA

A research project by a team of Indiana graduate students may help improve the future of human spaceflight.

The students, from Purdue University, researched communication between engineers and technicians at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for their winning entry in NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate's annual systems engineering paper competition.

Team member Ralph Palmer said the main idea behind the team's paper is to help improve the exchange of information inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy. "Our goal was to help NASA establish an easy-to-implement and inexpensive way to present information to technicians," Palmer said.

The students conducted the research and wrote their paper under the direction of Barrett Caldwell, an industrial engineering professor at Purdue and director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium. The Indiana Space Grant Consortium is part of NASA's National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, which funds research, education and public service projects through a national network of university-based consortia.

Purdue students focused on operations inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. In this immense facility, the space shuttle is prepared for launch, including stacking the external tank, the solid rocket boosters and the orbiter together and preparing the assembled space shuttle for rollout to the launch pad.

Technicians observing the orbiter being moved into place in the VAB

In the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, technicians mark the progress of space shuttle Discovery as it is lowered onto the mobile launch platform in preparation for the STS-124 mission in May 2008. Image Credit: NASA

In their research, the Purdue students considered changes to the building as the space shuttle is retired in the next few years and the Vehicle Assembly Building is modified for the new Ares launch vehicles. The new vehicles are part of NASA's Constellation Program to return humans to the moon and beyond.

The premise of the students' paper is the importance of effective communication between engineers and technicians as new vehicles are built and current facilities are modified. Their topic was grounded in previous research conducted by Caldwell.

"My research had previously highlighted some of the concerns with the changing expertise, availability and impending retirements of the current generation of ground operations technicians, as well as the costs and efficiency problems of solely paper-based procedures for vehicle assembly operations," Caldwell said. "So, starting in fall 2006, I included the topics of work design for NASA ground operations technicians in an undergraduate class, and a more detailed analysis of the systems engineering requirements for the graduate-level seminar for spring 2007."

Current Vehicle Assembly Building procedures for the assembly, integration and maintenance of launch vehicles are compiled into paper manuals and kept in large, three-ring binders. Purdue students evaluated the issues associated with using paper manuals and explored whether the use of portable electronic devices could improve operations.

Team member Keena Byrd said the team used industrial engineering methods and systems engineering tools to analyze the work environment of the Vehicle Assembly Building. "The systems engineering approach helped us to analyze the Vehicle Assembly Building work environment and advance our ideas from a conceptual stage to a real-world application," Byrd said. "This product was a great way to hone our systems engineering skills, allowing us to examine the system from all angles and stages."

A collage of three images of a mobile device being used for work

For their paper, students prepared a prototype of a multi-dimensional device. They used the device in a simulated NASA ground operations work environment. Image Credit: Purdue University

Students said the best part of the project was knowing that their research could have a real impact on the nation's space program.

"Being part of an idea that could be useful to the future of spaceflight had a positive impact on my education," Byrd said. "This project was much more applied in nature than many courses, and it allowed our team to identify the major products, inputs, resources and effort that would be required to change the way things are currently being done at NASA.

"The ESMD paper competition was a great experience, and it gave us the opportunity to develop a creative and low-cost solution that NASA could realistically consider implementing to improve operations."

The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and the Space Grant Consortia work together to engage students in internships and senior design projects. Students funded by ESMD for a senior design project, and teams participating in other approved competitions, are invited each year to submit a systems engineering paper about their project for the ESMD systems engineering paper competition. The competition supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future work force.

Related Resources
ESMD Space Grant Systems Engineering Paper Competition   →
NASA Exploration System Mission Directorate Higher Education Project   →
NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program   →
NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate
Indiana Space Grant   →
Vehicle Assembly Building   →
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services