The Impact of NASA’s IV&V Program on the State of West Virginia

When people talk about working at NASA, most assume the jobs are located in Texas, California or Florida. Rarely do people associate the Wild and Wonderful state of West Virginia with space, rockets or robotics. NASA’s IV&V Program is changing that.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration, or NASA, has a presence in many states across the U.S., including the aforementioned states, Ohio, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Alabama, New Mexico, Mississippi, District of Columbia and right here in West Virginia. Some are home to NASA centers, and others, like West Virginia, are home to programs that operate under the guidance of a larger center. Here in Fairmont, NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Program falls administratively under NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) located in Greenbelt, Maryland, but operates under NASA headquarter’s functional guidance.

Home of NASA’s IV&V Program, located in Fairmont, WV.

Established in 1993, NASA’s IV&V Facility, now “Program,” was the first technology entity to be housed in the I-79 Technology Park and acted as the catalyst for other agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to move onsite. In fact, NASA’s IV&V Facility housed NOAA’s weather-predicting supercomputer and other vital backup systems until they outgrew NASA’s infrastructure. Formed as a direct result of recommendations made by the National Research Council and the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, NASA’s IV&V Program significantly contributes to the safety, security, and mission success of NASA missions, assuring that software on those missions performs correctly. But what exactly does that mean?

In short, NASA’s IV&V Program software analysts meticulously test and evaluate NASA’s highest criticality flight and ground mission software (International Space Station, James Webb Space Telescope, Mars 2020, to name a few) with the goal of assuring that the software performs as expected (safely, reliably, and securely) during mission operations. The IV&V analysts are responsible for identifying software defects, and working with the software developers to resolve those defects, prior to the mission going operational. To do this, the IV&V analysts seek answers to the following questions:

  • Will the system’s software do what it is supposed to do?
  • Will the system’s software not do what it is not supposed to do?
  • Will the system’s software respond as expected under adverse conditions?

Given the size and complexity of the system software developed for NASA’s missions, it is not feasible for the IV&V analysts to answer each of these questions completely; however, these questions provide context and serve as a guide for the detailed evaluations performed on the mission software. Ultimately, the goal of this work is to help increase the agency’s confidence that these missions will not fail.

Some of the more recently launched NASA missions that IV&V has performed work on are doing pretty amazing stuff. For example, the Parker Solar Probe (PSP) mission, launched on August 12, 2018, now holds the record for closest approach to the Sun by a human-made object. On November 5, 2018, PSP came within 15 million miles of the Sun’s surface. The spacecraft reached a top speed of 213,200 miles per hour relative to the Sun. Its mission goals are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles. Another NASA mission IV&V worked on, OSIRIS-REx, reached its destination, the asteroid Bennu, on December 3, 2018. Now the spacecraft will spend roughly 18 months surveying Bennu and preparing to collect a sample of surface material for return to Earth. Since asteroids are essentially leftover debris from the solar system formation process, they hold answers to the questions NASA scientists have about the history of the Sun and planets.

Image Credit: NASA
Illustration of OSIRIS-REx orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

It’s important to note that while the PSP and OSIRIS-REx missions are both unmanned, NASA’s IV&V Program has also worked missions that fall under The Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate. HEO provides NASA with leadership and management of space operations related to human exploration in and beyond low-Earth orbit. They oversee missions such as the International Space Station, which IV&V has been working on since 1994. IV&V has also performed work on another HEO program, the Space Shuttle Program, which ran from 1981 until its final landing in 2011. While the International Space Station is currently the only opportunity for humans to live and work in space, IV&V is currently performing analysis on two of NASA’s future HEO programs: NASA’s Space Launch System or SLS, which is an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space and Orion, which will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities. IV&V analysis on these missions is crucial to helping keep the astronauts that will be aboard them totally safe.

In addition to NASA mission work, NASA’s IV&V Program, in collaboration with the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and West Virginia University, helped build West Virginia’s first spacecraft, Simulation-to-Flight (STF-1), that is set to launch in December of this year. NASA’s IV&V Program also provides cybersecurity assurance services to any NASA office or program, other federal agencies, municipal governments and other interested parties.

Engineers Scott Zemerick and Matt Grubb with the STF-1 CubeSat before it was shipped off for launch in 2018.

Since the year 2000, the annual NASA IV&V Program budget has grown from $21.7 million to $39.1 million, allowing for a continual increase in both projects and staff. This steady increase in budget has both added to the state’s economy and helped foster West Virginia-based small business growth. Currently employing approximately 350 government contract and civil servant employees, NASA’s IV&V Program has nearly doubled in staff in the last 18 years. While a large portion of these employees are West Virginia natives, the IV&V Program has attracted its fair share of those coming from out of state, ranging anywhere from California to Texas. It’s even allowed for some who previously left the state a chance to come home.

While IV&V is certainly interested in attracting engineers, scientists and professionals already in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, the program also focuses on engaging and providing STEM resources to the students of West Virginia. Through educational programs and workshops run by the Educator Resource Center (ERC) and a partnership with Fairmont State University, NASA’s IV&V Program holds various workshops for educators that allows them to take NASA’s broad range of STEM knowledge directly to the classroom. The ERC also hosts student workshops onsite, which allows students to come visit and tour the IV&V facility. The ERC directly impacts around 12,000 students per year, and an additional 12,000 through the resources provided to the educators of West Virginia.

The NASA IV&V ERC is also leading the West Virginia robotics effort, with 14 unique competitions being held right here in the state. To name a few, the FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL), Jr. FLL, Zero Robotics, VEX IQ, VEX University, and the VEX tournaments are hosted at Fairmont State University each year. The ERC is also proud of its most recent effort, the Cyber Robotics Coding Competition (CRCC), which is a free, self-paced online coding competition that features integrated 3D simulations of educational robots within realistically rendered simulation scenes. Students can write, test and evaluate their code while solving problems from the real world. This program was piloted this year and partnered with 18 schools across the state. In terms of overall robotics growth, the ERC has seen programs, such as Jr. FLL (ages 6-10) grow from 6 teams in 2013 to 115 teams in 2017. Likewise, the number of FLL (ages 9-14) teams has grown from 31 teams in 2009 to 116 teams in 2017. The FIRST Tech Challenge, primarily for middle school aged students, grew by 10 teams from 2016-2018. Finally, the VEX program, geared for high school students, grew from 12 teams in 2014 to 66 teams this year.

One of the many robotics Tournament held at Fairmont State University’s Falcon Center in Fairmont, WV.

IV&V employs what is referred to as the “Pipeline Method”, which essentially provides STEM outreach “touchpoints” throughout a West Virginia students’ academic career. Starting with the engagement opportunities mentioned above, IV&V goes on to provide students internship experience. Both high school and college internships are available to those with a GPA of 3.0 or higher and who meet the minimum age requirement of 16-years-old. While the majority of internships available at IV&V are STEM-related, intern opportunities in business management, communication and other areas have occurred. IV&V has hosted close to 800 student interns over the years, with the majority of them being West Virginia students. By providing students in the state opportunities for exposure to STEM throughout their academic careers, IV&V hopes to steer many of them into STEM careers that will benefit both them and the state of West Virginia.

This year, NASA’s IV&V Program celebrated its 25th anniversary, West Virginia’s first spacecraft (STF-1) and the renaming of the facility as the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in honor of the West Virginia native and NASA “hidden figure.”

2013 FIRST LEGO League Robotics Competition

Dean Kamen, entrepreneur and inventor, had a vision that one day scientists, engineers and mathematicians would be celebrated much like sports figures are in our pop culture. In 1989, he founded FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) with this idea in mind.  FIRST® is a robotics science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) competition sponsored by LEGO® that places students in a “real-world” situation solving a problem using innovation and teamwork. Teams gain hands-on experience programming and engineering a robot, as well as teamwork experience brainstorming ideas and learning to manage time. FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL), in particular, involves teams with ages ranging from 9 to 14 years old.

Each year, teams are giving a unique and different challenge. This year’s challenge was “Nature’s Fury.” Teams were faced with the task of identifying a specific natural disaster such as an avalanche or landslide, tornado or cyclone, earthquake, tsunami, flood, volcanic eruption, hurricane, wildfire, or storm and then from that point, designing an innovative solution for the community. Their innovation is then tested in several areas:  robotics challenge, robot design, project and core values. The robotics challenge includes programming a robot to maneuver a playing field with obstacles related to the theme using a LEGO® brick with sensors, motors, and gears. Robot design allows the teams to showcase their robot and answer engineering-related questions regarding their build. The project portion involves the research work needed to solve the presented problem and the innovative solution in which they arrived. Finally, core values encompasses how the team worked together to solve the problem.

This year 58 FLL teams from all over various counties of West Virginia including school groups, 4-H clubs and Boy & Girl Scout teams attended the State Tournament at Fairmont State University on December 7, 2013, making it the largest STEM competition to date in our beautiful mountain state. It didn’t take long for Dean Kamen’s vision to materialize as the gymnasium transformed into a room full of competitors, spectators, and excited energy. Teams could be found in the pit and judging areas perfecting their robot programs, rehearsing their presentations, chanting team cheers, wearing costumes (one of the biggest traditional in FLL history), meeting new teams and making new friends.   One of the team members of the Brix Mix from Putnam County, who competed for the first time, stated, “This is a lot bigger than we thought it would be. This has been a GREAT learning experience!”

Awards for the 2013 West Virginia State Tournament

Champions Award, 1st Place, Nerdbots (Fairmont)
Champions Award, 2nd Place, SCIENEERS (Fairmont)
Champions Award, 3rd Place, Technomancers (Morgantown)
Robot Performance, 1st Place, Technomancers (Morgantown)
Robot Performance, 2nd Place, Robocats (Morgantown)
Robot Performance, 3rd Place, Nerdbots (Fairmont)
Project: Research, 1st Place, Silicon Stream (Mineral Wells)
Project: Innovative Solution, 1st Place, Infini-Miners (Morgantown)
Project: Presentation, 1st Place, Tech Nados (Arthurdale)
Robot Design: Mechanical Design, 1st Place, West Side CyberCubs (Fairmont)
Robot Design: Programming, 1st Place, Suncrest Stemtists (Morgantown)
Robot Design: Strategy and Innovation, 1st Place, Fairmont Blockheads (Fairmont)
Core Values: Gracious Professionalism, 1st Place, F.I.R.E. (Martinsburg)
Core Values: Teamwork, 1st Place, Warriors (Nitro)
Core Values: Inspiration, 1st Place, Fifth Element (Caldwell)
Judges Award: Against All Odds, Resolutions (Charleston)
Judges Award: Against All Odds, RebotiCX (Huntington)
Judges Award: Community Engagement, Coalbots (Pecksmill)
Outstanding Volunteer, Abraham Falsi, (Montgomery)
Adult Coach Award, Ann Burns, (Fairmont)
Youth Service Award, William (Morgantown)

The 2014 teaser “World Class” has already been released and can be viewed at the FIRST LEGO League website.  Since the WV State Tournament has become so large Todd Ensign, tournament director, made the announcement during the tournament that next year there will be five regional qualifying tournaments.  This step is a must as WV becomes a bigger and bigger player in STEM engagement initiatives and needs are met over all 55 counties.

To help make the State Tournament a success we enlisted 100 volunteers to assist in judging, registration, tour guides, social media gurus, as well as audio visual and sound technicians.   The MARS (Morgantown Area RoboticS) FRC high school robotics team volunteered to referee the robotics tables and challenges.

Sponsorship for the tournament included a $2,250.00 total donation from Thrasher Engineering, West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission in Science & Research, and Par Mar Stores.  These funds allow the winning Championship team additional monies to attend another FLL event such as the national tournament.  Additional sponsorship to help run the state tournament came from NASA’s Independent Verification &Validation Program, WV Space Grant Consortium, and Fairmont State University.

For more information visit the FIRST® LEGO® League homepage.

Jaime Ford
NASA’s IV&V Program ERC’s Graduate Assistant for Student Programs