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Student design team gets a taste for NASA Engineering
The Prairie View A&M senior design team (in purple) poses with the ARGOS team underneath the gravityThe Prairie View A&M senior design team (in purple) poses with the ARGOS team underneath the gravity offload system.
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NASA engineer and Prairie View A&M graduate Cecil Shy talks with Prairie View senior Toan Nguyen inNASA engineer and Prairie View A&M graduate Cecil Shy talks with Prairie View senior Toan Nguyen in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center. › Larger image

Five mechanical engineering seniors at Prairie View A&M University have been busy designing and constructing a prototype that may one day help engineers test hardware and large-scale projects in a simulated microgravity environment while still on Earth.

Their work is part of a senior design project led by Dr. Donald Harby, a Prairie View mechanical engineering professor who received a NASA education fellowship to model possibilities for a future generation Active Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS. Their project is funded through the Exploration Space Grant Project, managed for NASA by Kennedy Space Center’s Education Program Office.

ARGOS mimics reduced-gravity environments by using a robotic motion platform to vertically offset the weight of a human. Designed and built by Johnson Space Center’s Dynamic Systems Test Branch, the current system used on site helps engineers and astronauts get a firsthand feel for elements of microgravity. Harby first connected with NASA when several of his pupils began working at JSC as students.

“They’ve used several students from our program as interns the last few years, so that’s how I initially got involved with ARGOS,” Harby said.

During the 2010/2011 school year, some of Harby’s students developed a conceptual design for a behemoth ARGOS, approximately 100 feet by 500 feet, or about the size of JSC's Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. It would be capable of hoisting hardware that the existing human-rated system cannot accommodate. The students are building a small scale model of the colossus ARGOS to study and develop the controls required for such a large scale system.

“It turns out there are a lot of questions,” Harby said.

If the current ARGOS configuration and materials were put to use in a larger model, many of the components would be too heavy, too large, or not meet other requirements.

After the initial conceptual design, Harby spent the summer at NASA coming up with several new, radical designs. This year’s group of Prairie View seniors has researched and selected components for the upscale model, such as motors and structural materials, and is building a small-scale prototype of Harby’s soundest design.

“It’s small enough that you can’t put a person on it, but it’s a totally different design from what they’re using in ARGOS currently,” Harby said.

While investigating design features, the students had to consider cost, maintenance, efficiency and machinability—all elements that any engineering effort must take into account. The student team will test the small-scale model in a space software simulation lab on Prairie View’s campus.

“We’re putting this right in the middle of it,” Harby said.

His students will be able to test control theory and answer other questions that can’t be addressed with NASA’s operational ARGOS, because it is already human rated and used for crew training and developmental testing.

Through the senior design project, the students also learned about NASA’s systems engineering approach.

“It’s an integrated approach, so you have electrical and mechanical and all these different disciplines working in a large system,” Harby said. “Part of the requirement is that you take it back to your school and develop the curriculum for the senior design [project]…using the NASA approach.”

The work has given the students a real-world look at the challenges and excitement of engineering.

“Actually sitting down and modeling it and explaining it—that’s really hard,” said Ashia Daniels, one of the students participating in the project.

“Most of the time when you do a senior design, it’s not a real piece of equipment,” Harby said. “But we’re actually building something similar to real equipment and using the same software.”

The seniors also had to present their design to NASA’s ARGOS team, explaining why they picked particular design elements, and received feedback from experienced designers.

Said Harby, “Next year we will be applying for another senior design project, for sure.”
Rachel Kraft,
NASA's Johnson Space Center