“My colleagues at any other institutions come here and they’re jealous,” Christensen said. Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) delegations have visited and muttered they don’t have a facility that nice.
“It takes money to make money,” Christensen said. “You build a facility like this, it pays for itself. NASA does not want you building stuff out of spit and baling wire. When they come here and see this, they say, ‘You guys are for real.’”
The clean rooms in the space building are about the size of a small high school gym. It has the usual desks, monitors and chairs. What isn’t usual are the two vacuum chambers, one the size of a packing crate and the other about the size of a Volkswagen bus. They’re used to simulate space conditions. The lab team can crank all the oxygen out of the chamber, drop the temperature down to absolute zero (0 degrees Kelvin), and see how what they’ve built stands up to space conditions.
“You turn it into outer space,” Bell said. “It’s pretty rare for a college campus (to be able to test instruments in that environment). Only a handful of campuses around the country have that capability. Typically you only find that in NASA centers and big aerospace companies.”
They put machines inside the vacuum chambers, thrown in a bunch of dust and rocks, and crank the temperature up to see how they fared. (If you were put inside, your eyeballs would pop, the blood in your veins would boil, and eventually you’d boil away. Outer space is a tough place.)
It’s not uncommon to come in to the clean rooms at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning and find grad students working on projects. About 15 to 20 people are working on all aspects of design and development at any given time.
No stove piping
The School of Earth and Space Exploration is not a conventional aerospace environment. A scientist can walk down the hall, tell an engineer he needs to get data from somewhere really nasty and inaccessible, and the engineer can figure out how to make a machine that will go there, survive, and get the data home.
That’s rare, Bell said.
“The reason that I left my previous university was because I couldn’t do this kind of stuff there. It was the typical U.S. university of systems. You had the engineers over in the college of engineering over on that side of campus and the scientists over in the arts and sciences department on this side of campus, and they’re physically separated and they’re bureaucratically separated, and the students can’t take classes — one of the other — and get the credit that they need for their graduation. That’s been the typical system. They call it stove piping. ASU has kind of destroyed a lot of those boundaries, and we’re seeing other schools do this as well. And seeing them learn from this kind of a model of integrating and cross discipline and transdisciplinarity and lots of collaboration and mixing of expertise within the same academic units, that wasn’t possible where I was before. … So far the experiment’s working great. … I mean, this is really what employers are looking for and looking for people who can work on a team, understand other disciplines, that type of thing.”
It’s a far cry from the ’60s, when engineers fought scientists. Now they are in the same building, unseparated by distance or bureaucratic walls.
“The cutting edge of space exploration is that it’s not good enough to just tell somebody to go build a camera and show up and use it later,” Bell said. “You really have to have your goals in mind while that instrument is on paper. You really have to dive in and become an optics expert. I’ve got to work with optics experts and electrical engineers and all that because I want to make a certain measurement to a certain level of accuracy in a certain environment. The more I can partner with people who understand the engineering and the guts of the electronics, the better my experiments will be. Building those people into the department that is my home at the university is just incredibly efficient and wonderful.”
What it takes to go to space
Some 40 years after Greeley’s time, NASA now comes to ASU’s door.
“When you do things well — really, really well — people notice.” Christensen said. “It’s not just me. (They say), ‘Oh, ASU can build those instruments.’ And that flows over to Jim and Craig (Hardgrove, principal investigator on the moon CubeSat mission) and Lindy (Elkins-Tanton, former school director). We’ve built ASU’s reputation.”
The Mars Rover helped a lot too, he said.
“Being world leaders in something as visible as exploring Mars got a lot of attention to ASU that leveraged a lot of things going on here now,” Christensen said. “A lot of science is fabulous but, I’m sorry, landing on Mars is not the same as discovering a new type of plastic for Coke bottles — OK, great. Landing on Mars gets you on the cover of magazines.”
In the current era of space exploration, NASA and the big aerospace legacy outfits like Lockheed Martin aren’t the only players any more, pointed out Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. New Space companies — many of which are in Arizona and hire the school’s grads— have a lot of skin in the game.
“There are also new technologies and different types of platforms, such as CubeSats and SmallSats, that are allowing cheaper and more efficient ways for us to explore our solar system and beyond,” said Wadhwa (Asteroid (8356) Wadhwa), also a science team member on one mission in flight. “I see ASU leading the charge in many such areas, and creating innovative new pathways for space exploration that will involve the participation of people that have traditionally not been so well represented in this grand endeavor.”
Taking on a mission like Psyche requires a lot of commitment from the home institution, Elkins-Tanton said. You need project managers, course releases for faculty involved, physical lab and office space.
“It really takes the determination of the whole organization to make something like this work,” she said. “The truth is we need people from every discipline to make space exploration successful. … A place where a lot of universities can’t really step up is the need for really special financial support, budgeting, forecasting and reporting. And of course just handling the money coming in and going out, and tracking, and the needs for a really big mission are often completely beyond anything else that a university has done in terms of scale and specificity of requirements. And so you need the whole university to want to support the endeavor.”
One big advantage ASU has — and an area that Elkins-Tanton feels has led to the university’s space success — is teamwork.
“To be successful in these big endeavors, especially in space exploration, you need the faculty talent, of course, but that’s where people’s thinking usually begins and ends in academia,” she said. “If you hire the right people who are doing the exciting stuff, then it will all happen. But one of the big differences between space exploration and other things that we do in the university is that space exploration is done in teams. And it’s done in big teams (with) a huge amount of pressure and absolute requirement for incredible quality and rigor. And doing those things in teams is not something that is taught very often in academia. In fact, we’re kind of brought up to be separate — individual heroes of our little fields.”
Without teamwork, you don’t go to space, she said.
“One of the things that ASU has got going for it is … you can start right here at home with putting together some people who are going to be helpful and supportive and try to see if they can add their ideas, to make the central idea bigger and not necessarily make it just about themselves. And you can take that core capability outside and you can partner up with your NASA centers and other universities and other people. But without the willingness of people to put the greater good of the whole or the team or the exploration or the goal above the greater good for themselves? You’ll never get to space. And so that’s one of the things that ASU has that’s special.”
Students in space
While the faculty lead the charge into the solar system, students benefit. At ASU, undergrads don’t hear, “That’s not for you.” When students work on projects, they’re not models or games or toys. They’re real NASA missions.
“Here at ASU, we pride ourselves in preparing our students not only for the jobs today but also for the jobs of the future,” Wadhwa said. “Part of this preparation involves giving the students the opportunity to work on real world problems, and on real spacecraft missions that will be exploring our solar system and beyond. It also gives our students the opportunity to learn some of the key job skills that many employers look for, such as how to work well as part of a team.”
Last November, the first fully student-led CubeSat (a satellite about the size of a big shoebox) was launched from the International Space Station. About 100 students and faculty members from four schools within the university played a role in either developing or promoting the Phoenix CubeSat.
Video of Phoenix CubeSat ISS Deployment ~ Captured by NASA Astronauts
Phoenix CubeSat launching from the ISS.
A $200,000 grant provided by NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project (USIP), and the NASA Space Grant Consortium as an Educational Flight Opportunity gave undergrads the opportunity to pursue a hands-on project that helped prepare them for careers in the space industry while benefitting NASA. They learned spacecraft development, interdisciplinary communication, project management and how to develop a scientific objective from the ground up.
About 550 students have participated in the Psyche mission in some way, Elkins-Tanton said.
“I think that that changes their lives,” she said. “It gives them a little window into something else. It connects them to a larger world, to add to all the other experiences they have in their lives. And that to me is something very important and, and really worth spreading the word about.”
Touching a piece of machinery that will fly in space is a powerful experience. Making that happen is a powerful experience for faculty too.
“There have to be people along the way to give them footholds and handholds,” Elkins-Tanton said. “And as a university, we can do that now. And that is, ah, that’s lovely for me to see. … We get messages from students all the time saying, ‘It’s just my lifelong dream to work with NASA. How do I do that?’ And to be able to be one of those places where students can come in and they can participate in this boldest of all human explorations, that seems like a very worthwhile way for us to be spending our time and resources to make that accessible.”
Students in the Space Works 1 class learn exactly what space companies like Orbital ATK and Paragon and SpaceX want in employees. Can they work in a team? Do they know what a milestone is? What it means to stick to a schedule? Planetary science and aerospace engineering classes teach a lot, but not everything.
Sheri Klug Boonstra has more than two decades of experience in creating and implementing national NASA STEM education pipeline programs stretching from pre-college to workforce. NASA and industry have told her exactly what they want in new hires.
“They’ll be able to take their degree and work directly in the space industry,” she said. “We’re mapping our activities in this class to what industry and NASA has been telling us, ‘These are the top things we need them to be good at.’ Those are the things that are embedded in this course.”
She co-instructs the class with Christensen.
“The stuff they learn in classes is fantastic, but applying that in a real-world kind of way is what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “What’s a critical design review? What’s an end item data package? I want the students that come out of here to show up at JPL and say, ‘Yeah, I know what that is. I’ve done that. I know exactly what goes into one of these reviews. I know what it means to be the program manager. I know what it means to be the manufacturing engineer.’ … How do real engineers go about their daily jobs?”
The degree to which students are involved with the school’s missions and projects has been spotlighted by the government.
“Our student collaborations are so innovative and so large, so much larger than what other space missions have done in terms of the number of students involved that NASA regularly holds us up as the exemplar of what we could do with our student collaborations and of all the things we’re doing on the mission,” Elkins-Tanton said.
One of the newest programs in the school is a satellite command and control operations certificate. ASU has a ground station, but the capabilities are still being developed. They can communicate with satellites in Earth orbit a bit, but it’s all run through NASA’s Deep Space Network via JPL.
“We’re certainly training the kinds of future engineers, scientists, managers and administrators who are going to be working with robotics and who are going to be doing a lot of the ground support kind of activities for human and robotic exploration in the future,” Bell said. “Absolutely.”
And everyone is welcome on the ride. Come on along to space, Wadhwa said.
“At ASU, our core values are about innovation and inclusion,” she said. “In the School of Earth and Space Exploration, our goals for space exploration are also about being innovative and entrepreneurial, and about including everyone who wants to be involved in the excitement and scientific discovery.”
Top photo courtesy Pexels.com.
This Article firstly Publish on news.asu.edu