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From Alabama, to Florida, to Space: Two NASA Marshall Center Engineers Partner Across State Lines for On-Orbit Success
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)
News Release: 05-119

Emmett Crooks, left, and Tom Erdman with one of three multipurpose logistics modules managed by the Marshall Center. They work in Florida, report to a NASA center in Alabama, and help send experiments and hardware to space. They're Emmett Crooks and Tom Erdman, two engineers employed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., but located at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

As engineering liaisons between the two NASA centers, they've worked on space-bound hardware ranging from rocket-launched experiments to racks that carry supplies to the International Space Station -- the orbiting research complex the United States and 15 other nations are building some 200 miles above Earth.

For Crooks and Erdman, their recent focus has been preparing an Italian-built cargo module named Raffaello for launch aboard STS-114: Space Shuttle Return to Flight. Raffaello is one of three multipurpose logistics modules managed by the Marshall Center. The modules act as the Space Station's "moving vans" for transporting supplies and science equipment from the Shuttle to the Space Station.

On the fourth day of the Return to Flight Shuttle mission, crew members will use the Station's robotic arm to lift Raffaello out of the Shuttle cargo bay and attach it to the Station. They then will transfer several tons of supplies and equipment to the Station. This is the third trip for Raffaello, the second of three such cargo carriers to be put into service.

But before Raffaello left Earth the first time, Crooks and Erdman were part of the team that helped ensure it was ready for the rigors of space travel. Extensive cooperation among the two NASA centers was critical, say the two engineers.

"Since Marshall is responsible for the design of the modules, and Kennedy is responsible for their launch into space, it makes sense to have a Marshall team in Florida acting as a liaison," said Crooks, who is manager of the Marshall office at Kennedy.

"From Marshall, we deliver hardware to Kennedy, provide engineering drawings and test requirements, and make sure it's ready to fly," he said. "At Kennedy, they assemble and test it, and ultimately launch it into space. Working together, we find any problems on the ground before we get into orbit. That's what testing is for."

Shorter response times and reduced travel costs are just two factors in the unconventional arrangement that separates employee and employer by more than 700 miles. Without having a Marshall team on-site in Florida, frequent, long-duration state-to-state travel would be required to complete critical on-site reviews, repairs or changes.

"We want to be closer to the people we interact with, and closer to the hardware," said Erdman. "We'll support any payload that launches, whether it's on the Space Shuttle or an expendable launch vehicle."

Over the years, the two-person team has supported initiatives including Spacelab, the focal point for experiments conducted from 1982 through 1998 by Americans in space, and experiments aboard the Space Shuttle, including several investigations on the influence of low gravity on physical and chemical processes.

The team also has supported numerous missions launched aboard expendable launch vehicles, such as the transfer orbital stage – the rocket that in 1992 boosted the Mars Observer craft into space after its initial launch aboard a Titan III rocket.

Crooks, who earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Florida in Gainesville, joined NASA in 1965 as a co-op student at Kennedy, where his first assignment was supporting NASA's Apollo program – the initiative that landed the first humans on the Moon in 1969. He also supported technical systems aboard the Space Shuttle and helped integrate Shuttle systems with those of Spacelab. In 1991, Crooks joined the Marshall Center, working at Kennedy in his current capacity.

Erdman earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Auburn University in Auburn, Ala. He joined the Marshall Center after graduation in 1989, working two years in Huntsville, where he conducted payload and flight-simulation tests for Spacelab. In 1991, he transferred to the Marshall resident office at Kennedy in his current capacity.

Their jobs, both engineers agree, are made more interesting by the myriad issues that must be resolved before any hardware makes it to the launch pad. "It's enjoyable because it's always a different challenge," said Crooks. "Whether we're dealing with hardware or software, mechanics or fluids, integration or testing, we're able to join firsthand in the solution. I guess you could say that in the heat of the kitchen is where we thrive."

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