Editor’s note: Links to more information appear at the end of this post.
José Alvarez boarded a plane in Guatemala with his aunt. His destination, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD, was nearly 3,000 miles away. Alvarez is one of nine students who attended a VIP tour of GSFC’s facilities as part of SSE101: Survey of Systems Engineering, an online course produced in conjunction with NASA.
Alvarez joined others from all over the continental United States and Canada, one of whom cut his Icelandic vacation a day short to fly to Maryland. The students converged at GSFC in high spirits; for many, this was a dream come true: the VIP tour would lead them into the depths of NASA’s facilities and introduce them to NASA luminaries, including course professor Jeff Volosin and Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather.
To Mars and back again
NASA and the Saylor Foundation launched SSE101 in March 2014. The six-week course covered the basics of systems engineering, the project management “glue” that keeps programs running smoothly.
The course culminated in a final project in which students designed a hypothetical Mars Sample Return mission, which would involve sending an exploratory vehicle to Mars, taking samples, and bringing them back to Earth for in-depth analysis. Sample return missions are an important element in continued space exploration and have challenged NASA and other space agencies for decades.
Meeting again for the first time
The top mission proposal teams were invited to Greenbelt. Among the nine students were four of the five authors of the “Crimson Shift” project, who collaborated wholly online, having teamed up originally on course discussion forums. They met in person — for the first time — at a hotel in Baltimore, several days before the tour, affording an opportunity to visit the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Arturo Davila Andino coordinated the Crimson Shift team, whose members live in both the U.S. and Canada. They met online to divide tasks and natural abilities emerged. Steve Smith of Tuscon, Arizona was in charge of doing research. Fifteen-year-old Sam Hassall of Ontario, Canada crunched numbers to determine if concepts were viable. Daniel Cottitta of New York was “the idea guy,” and generated the concept art for the report. Ken Sullivan of New Mexico, who did not attend the tour, distilled all of their conversations into written reports.
“It was an incredible experience working with these guys,” Smith said. “It was cool to meet people who are as excited about space as I am.”
All agreed that the group project enhanced their otherwise individual class experience. “If it wasn’t for the team, I wouldn’t have done the project,” Davila Andino said. “Thank God this team was so good.”
World’s largest concentration of scientists
Carmel Conaty, a NASA employee who works in systems engineering and who was deeply involved in the SSE101 course, launched the day into action. “We’re going to be meeting John Mather,” she announced. The room buzzed, while Hassall bounced with excitement.
Dr. Mather is a hero for many of the contest winners. In 2006 he received a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which took precise measurements of cosmic microwave background radiation that in turn provided strong evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin.
Mather is one of the best-known of the GSFC personnel – he was listed by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2007 — but he is far from alone at the facility, as tour guide DJ Emmanuel explained to the group as they crossed the campus by bus. “Goddard has 1,500 scientists, which is the largest concentration of scientists anywhere in the world.” The facility employs nearly 10,000 people, two-thirds of whom are contractors, on a campus comprising 1,200 acres and over thirty buildings. Of the ten major NASA centers across the United States, Goddard, named for rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard, was the first center dedicated to space flight. Here, scientists and engineers design spacecraft that will be built and launched in cooperation with partners from all over the world.
Building the world’s most advanced telescope
Emmanuel’s informed enthusiasm about all things NASA was infectious; the already-excited group snapped pictures of the facilities and of each other as the bus pulled up to Building 29, the next stop on the tour. Despite its lackluster name, Building 29 hosts some of NASA’s most exciting testing and assembly facilities. This includes the “cleanroom” where engineers assemble components of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a successor to the Hubble telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.
Such large telescopes are powered by mirrors. Unlike a typical consumer telescope, which uses a lens to magnify light, advanced telescopes use mirrors because they reflect a broader range of wavelengths and provide more comprehensive data. The bigger the mirror used, the more data can be captured. The mirror assembly of the JWST, a honeycomb shape made of eighteen smaller pieces, will measure 6.5 meters in diameter, nearly three times the 2.4 meters of Hubble.
The JWST mirrors are made of Beryllium, a substance that is both strong and extremely light. The mirrors are being prepared for launch in the cleanroom, which ensures that they remain free from blemishes – and which also helps contain toxic Beryllium dust.
Before entering the cleanroom, engineers suit up in head-to-toe gear. The list of rules reads almost like parody: no sharpies, pencils, paper, scents, hand lotions, food, drink, or makeup. But this is no joke, since even the smallest speck on the $8 Billion telescope could inhibit its performance. NASA has even developed special pens and paper specific for the cleanroom. As Emmanuel explained, “It’s about a thousand times cleaner than a hospital.”
Dr. Mather’s engineering challenge
Dr. Mather met with the students at a window overlooking the cleanroom. The Saylor Academy’s open, online SSE101 course is due in part to his determination to expand interest in space systems engineering, a field he believes essential to complex projects like the Webb telescope. With many sub-teams across different organizations and in different states working on the telescope, systems engineers ensure that all of the pieces fit together – often literally – to achieve the project’s objectives. “We have no margin for error,” Mather explained to the students. “We have to get it right.”
The mirrors alone on JWST offer big challenges. Despite being designed to fold up for launch and then self-assemble in space, the telescope is still quite large – about the size of a passenger jet. Mather told the group that the JWST team originally thought that they could make the mirrors even bigger; a skilled team of systems engineers helped to tame any too-wild notions. “Right now the fit is so tight in the rocket that I don’t know what we were thinking,” Mather told the students.
A bigger telescope is sure to come, however, as scientists strive to peer farther and farther back into our universe’s past. Mather parted with a challenge to the students and future engineers: design a larger telescope, ten or even twenty meters wide, that could be transported to space.
Moving from aspirational musings about the future of space exploration, the students next got a taste of the very practical realities of engineering for space flight when they visited the test facilities. One room was a sound chamber that investigates how satellites respond to sound levels equivalent to those in a rocket launch. Carmel Conaty gave some indication of what equipment must endure; “if you were to stand in this room at full blast,” she said, “it would turn you into goop.”
Back to the future
In transit back to the Visitors Center, conversation touched on favorite astronauts. Neil Armstrong, the first American to walk on the moon, was a crowd favorite. “That guy was fearless,” Davila Andino said.
Course professor and NASA project manager Jeff Volosin was on hand at the Visitors Center to congratulate the students, who seized the opportunity to ask questions and discuss their projects. “NASA has always wanted to do a Mars sample return mission,” Volosin said. “Maybe at one point in your careers, you’ll be able to work on that.”
Conaty offered to connect students to further information about internships with NASA. She hopes that the SSE101 course will help prompt the next generation of NASA’s systems engineers. All of the students seemed eager to uphold their part of that equation. “If it weren’t for this course I wouldn’t have an idea that systems engineering existed,” Davila Andino said. “Now that I know about it, I know this is what I want to do.”
Find out more:
- Unique Resources at Goddard – more information about some of the locations mentioned here, including the Acoustic Test Chamber, the Centrifuge, and the Clean Room.
- Interview with Dr. John Mather – in 2013, we had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Mather about his work, how he first fell in love with science, and what advice he has for aspiring scientists.
- Mars Sample Return project overview – a description and guidelines for the project completed by these SSE101 students.
- Mars Sample Return project submissions – see the teams’ submissions!
- Hangout on Air with Jeff Volosin – course presenter Jeff Volosin answers students’ questions.
- Hangout on Air with Dr. John Mather & Mike Menzel – Dr. John Mather answers students’ questions.
- SSE101: Survey of Systems Engineering – Part 1 – learning materials from the course.