Monthly Archives: December 2015

Help Wanted: Be An Astronaut

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Actors playing astronauts walk through smoke

These are actors from a video about the first launch of Orion. The actual roles of “Orion crew members” are yet to be cast.

Many moons ago, an Orion program executive asked on a Twitter chat what advice he would have for the first crew that will fly on the spacecraft the team is building.

The answer could have gone in any number of directions, from how the steering’s going to handle to what to pack for the trip. But what he said was this:

“Hang on! You’re about to make history!”

For me, that response was a good reminder – it’s one thing to remember the historic significance of the first crewed flight of Orion and SLS as a huge stepping stone in human exploration of the solar system, but it’s another thing altogether to appreciate that step as an incredibly unique experience for the individuals involved. When the crew returns to Earth at the end of the mission, they will share stories of what it was like to have the personal experience of looking past the moon and seeing our home planet in the distance beyond.

Others will follow them, and come back with their own incredible stories – living long periods farther from Earth than anyone ever has, voyaging deep into the expanses of space, being the first to interact with raw relics of the formation of our solar system floating in the void. And as those pioneers carry us farther in our journey to Mars, others will remain closer to home, performing revolutionary scientific research aboard the International Space Station.

Not long after that Twitter chat, I was privileged to sit in on a briefing about SLS to a unique audience: NASA’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates. It was interesting to watch them as the presenter talked about the rocket we’re building. At the end of the presentation, they were shown a video – an animation of a crewed launch of SLS and Orion. The video included a scene of a crew walking out to board the vehicle, and, to be honest, I was a little envious watching the future astronauts realize it would be them who would be doing that in real life, seeing them get excited about the possibilities and opportunities that lay before them.

But that moment was also a healthy reminder – we’re building this rocket to carry these people, and others like them. SLS and Orion will open the solar system for exploration by humankind, but will do so by carrying not faceless representatives of our species, but by safely transporting real individuals through the unmatched fires of launch and the unrelenting void of space and the unforgiving heat of entry. It is our job to give them a good ship for the journey.

Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crew members would be arranged for launch inside the Orion spacecraft, using a mockup of the vehicle at Johnson Space Center.

Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crew members would be arranged for launch inside the Orion spacecraft, using a mockup of the vehicle at Johnson Space Center.

And that focus permeates everything we do. When NASA founded the SLS program, one of our key tenets was safety. Before we built, the vehicle was modeled on computers and in small scale. We test the engines and boosters again and again and again. Flight hardware is preceded by test articles that are subjected to incredible stresses to see how they will withstand the dynamic pressures of launch. Where possible, redundancy is included to add an additional level of safety. Contingencies are identified and preparations are made. Spaceflight is an endeavor that will never be without risk. We carry the responsibility of equipping pioneers to face that risk as safely as possible.

Today, NASA is looking for the next group of men and women that will carry forward our work in space, both aboard our outpost science laboratory in Earth orbit and on the proving ground missions that will prepare for missions to Mars, flying on a new fleet of American spacecraft including not only SLS and Orion but also Commercial Crew vehicles.

If you want to apply to be an astronaut, among the credentials you’ll need are a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological, physical or computer science or mathematics and at least three years of related professional experience, or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Visit USAJobs.gov and search for the keyword astronaut to apply online.

And for those who are selected, we’re working hard to build you a great ship. Hang on, you’re about to make history!

Next Time: An Orion Overview

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One Giant Rocket, Batteries Not Included

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This week, guest blogger Jared Austin, a fellow writer on the SLS Strategic Communications team, is back for a look at an example of the innovative technology work taking place in the SLS program. — David

Terry Rolin holds an ultracapacitor

Terry Rolin has a job with real power – researching ultracapacitors for spaceflight purposes. (Get it? “Real power”! Ha!)

Would you like a cellphone, tablet, or laptop that is lighter and more powerful and will recharge for use in a matter of seconds? If your answer is “Yes!” then the Space Launch System Program is working to make your life a little bit better. (If your answer is “no,” are you sure you’re in the right place?)

Rockets and smartphones may not seem like they have much in common, but one thing they do share is a need for reliable power for electronic systems. And that’s where ultracapacitors come in.

Ultracapacitors are small devices, as small as roughly the size of a business card, which means more room and less weight than a traditional battery. On top of that, ultracapacitors charge rapidly.

Close-up of an ultracapacitor power storage unit

Close-up of an ultracapacitor power storage unit

NASA’s new Space Launch System will be NASA’s exploration ride for decades to come, and that presents a unique challenge. While the first version of the rocket will be ready to fly in three years, NASA will continue to evolve it into more powerful configurations through the 2020s, meaning that NASA engineers are working today to make sure the final version of the rocket will still be state-of-the-art when it flies. To accomplish that, engineers are already engaged in the long-lead work of maturing new technologies for spaceflight.

For instance, every NASA system – from small “CubeSats” to rovers, satellites, and even rockets – has an electrical system that requires power. The most common power source is a battery. Despite their widespread use, rechargeable batteries come with a number of drawbacks. They are slow to charge up (hours) and are necessarily bulky in order to meet power requirements. Batteries heat up during use (feel the bottom of your laptop after an hour’s use), and that overheating can wear on the device its powering. On top of that, batteries contain harmful chemicals that are bad for the environment, and suffer from early wear-out, especially in the harsh environments of space where many NASA systems operate.

Meet avionics failure analyst Terry Rolin, who kept seeing battery failures that were creating problems for NASA systems.

“I have learned that failures present opportunities for individuals to learn new ways of doing things, build character, and teach new pathways for problem solving,” Terry said.

Rolin at his workstation

The work that Rolin and is team are doing has the potential to benefit not only SLS but also electronics devices.

In 2012, he learned about ultracapacitors and was sure he had found the future.

The ultracapacitors can be significantly smaller than batteries, allowing more room for payloads, which is especially important to CubeSats where every centimeter matters. Ultracapacitors do not heat up during use, which is good for the system it’s powering. Also, due to their solid-state design (batteries contain a liquid core), the harsh environments of space – radiation, extreme temperatures, and pressures – do not affect them the same way they do batteries.

While ultracapacitors pose substantial promise for spaceflight applications, there was one major issue that had to be resolved before they could be rocket-ready. To build the compact ultracapacitors in a way that would maximize their capacity to store energy, they need to be as thin as possible; an ultracapacitor’s ability to store electrical charges actually decreases as it grows in size. Terry and his team won an innovation fund in the summer of 2012 to develop ultracapacitors that could power NASA systems using 3-D printing techniques and nanotechnology in order to manufacture the smaller ultracapacitors.

For SLS, despite the enormous size of the rocket, there are numerous small avionics computer boxes requiring power systems that fit in a tight space. Ultracapacitors are being evaluated for use down the road, either as the primary power system, or in a hybrid combination with batteries taking advantage of the best of both power sources.

“I was seeing increases in the ability of the capacitors to store energy by several orders of magnitude, and getting charging times of seconds rather than hours,” Terry said. “It was very exciting.”

But Terry’s team had difficulty reproducing their efforts. They found micro- and nano-fractures in their ultracapacitors, so they reached out to industry and academia for help.

Rolin at his workstation

In order to use 3-D printing to create the ultracapacitors, Rolins and his team had to find a way to prevent the devices from being damaged by the heat of printing.

It turned out that the nanoparticles in the commercial electrode ink they were using during the 3-D printing process the devices required a temperature so high that it damaged the ultracapacitors. So, Terry’s team developed a new ink that would sinter, or “print,” at lower temperatures, but still work for commercial manufacturing processes. Because of this work, down the road, commercial companies could release a nanoparticle ink that lets anyone with a 3-D printer to create their own ultracapacitors to power their electronics.

While their full potential is still being researched by Terry and his team in the space systems department at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, ultracapacitors show promise to not only make NASA systems smaller, lighter, more durable, easily rechargeable, and more environmentally friendly, but to potentially bring those same benefits to electronic devices in your home or pocket.

Ultracapacitors are only one of the many technologies the SLS program has been developing, both internally with NASA engineers and in partnership with industry and academia. NASA has a long history of “spin-offs” that have taken space system research to make lives on Earth better, from Hubble software that helps with cancer detection to filtration systems that help provide clean drinking water in remote areas.

A rocket for missions to Mars that makes life better on Earth? That truly is the best of both worlds.

Next Time: Hey, Want A Ride?

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