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Meet Robin Hardy, Test Engineer at NASA Langley’s Landing Impact and Research Facility
Robin Hardy

Robin Hardy, test engineer at NASA Langley’s Landing Impact and Research Facility Credit: NASA

This profile continues a series to introduce the people behind the development of Orion. The first space-bound Orion vehicle recently arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida from Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. At Kennedy, the spacecraft will be outfitted for Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), planned for 2014. EFT-1 is an essential step that will allow engineers to acquire critical re-entry flight performance data and demonstrate early integration capabilities to prepare Orion for deep space exploration.

Robin Hardy, who is originally from Pennsylvania, has lived in Virginia since she was a teenager. Her aspiration was to make it to NASA, and her degree in aerospace engineering helped turn her dream into a reality.

“My degree was inspired because I really loved the idea of space and space exploration and wanted something that would actually get me to NASA,” Hardy said.

NASA was also a stepping stone to earning her Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. Since 2006, Hardy has been part of the Orion team at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Hardy’s Role in Orion

In 2006, the Orion SPLASH team swung a half-size shell, made to represent the bottom of the Orion capsule, into a mound of sand. Hardy plotted, looked at, and interpreted the data retrieved. These tests helped the team understand the interaction between the bottom of the shell and the impact surface. As years progressed, the impact surface changed to the 115-feet-long, 90-feet-wide and 20-feet-deep pool of water known as Langley's Hydro Impact Basin. Hardy’s role also changed. She became test engineer, responsible for all aspects of the tests to be conducted.

“We try to understand the surface that we are impacting - the properties of the materials that we are impacting - whether it be water, sand or dirt, and try to make it safer for the astronauts that are inside,” Hardy explained.

Performing these tests allow researchers to improve and perfect the spacecraft model. They can understand the loads that come in from impact on any of these surfaces and understand how that affects the test article.

Contribution to EFT-1

“Confidence in the data combined with a confidence in the way we are modeling the test article structure and the impact of that structure gives us confidence in the ability of the EFT-1 structure to meet its anticipated flight conditions,” Hardy said.

The team was also able to learn to predict the way impact with the water affects other parts of the vehicle, which gives them more confidence in the safety margins for EFT-1. This allows the team to understand the behavior of “concentrated masses,” such as propellant tanks and batteries that attach to the article structure. If something like a propellant tank or a battery broke loose, it could mean the loss of a critical system. Those things aren’t designed for the purpose of withstanding the impact – they’re designed to hold propellant or power – but they have to withstand it just the same. Hardy’s team was able to verify that when push comes to shove, they will.

Highlight of Work

During tests days, the Orion team arrives at the center at 6 a.m., prepared for a stressful day, and works until 6 p.m. or even later.

“There’s a team of about 20 people depending on the complexity of the test, and I am always amazed to see how beautifully everything seems to flow on the day of a test,” Hardy said. “The exciting thing is when we get the test off on time and completely safe, and everybody works together and is still friends at the end of the day. It’s very rewarding.”

Outside of Work

Away from the office, Hardy devotes her time to her three children between the ages of 7 and 13 by driving them to baseball practice or going to swim meets.

Additionally, her passion for NASA radiates outside of work. Hardy goes to her kids’ schools to talk about how the space program started. She also regularly participates in Langley’s Day of Education, talking to elementary and middle school students in hopes of keeping them interested in math and science.

“I talk about how everything started and relate it to what I do and where we are going with regard to where we’ve been and how it all ties together,” Hardy said. “And I get them excited about the future of space.”