Kennedy Pushes the Boundaries of Innovation During Employee Event

Kennedy Space Center innovator Sherry O'Brien
Sherry O’Brien proudly displays her first-place check in the No Cost Proposal Awards category from Kennedy Space Center’s Innovation Without Boundaries competition. Photo credit: NASA

Eleven Kennedy Space Center employees in two different categories were selected as winners in the 2021 KSC Innovation Without Boundaries competition. Winning proposals spanned a wide range of topics, including cryogenic fixtures, multi-chargers for emergency communications, and a space chili challenge.

“It was amazing to see the passion the employees have,” said Innovation Lead Hetal Miranda. “Their creative ideas are inspiring innovation at KSC.”

Kennedy Space center innovator Jaime Toro Medina
Kennedy Space Center engineer Jaime Toro Medina poses with his first-place check from the Innovation Without Boundaries Award event. Photo credit: NASA

Sponsored by Kennedy chief technologist Kathy Loftin, the Innovation Without Boundaries campaign is in its third year. The competition took place in person at Kennedy in 2018 and 2019 and was held virtually in 2021 due to concerns with COVID-19. Presentations were made in November and winners were announced in December.

Kennedy Space Center innovator Nicolas Donahue
Nicolas Donahue stands in front of Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building with his second-place award. Photo credit: NASA

The event featured six winners in the “No Cost Proposal Awards” category (ideas that could make a significant impact with little-to-no associated cost needed to implement) and five winners in the “Small Project Award” category (ideas that would require funding up to $20,000). Contestants made presentations before a panel of judges, who were permitted time to ask questions about the proposals. Judges made recommendations to the chief technologist, who made the final determinations.


Here are the winners in the No Cost Proposal Awards category:

  • First place, tie: Jaime Toro Medina (NASA Engineering) – KSC National Instrument Center of Excellence
  • First place, tie: Sherry O’Brien (TOSC contract) – Scanning part tags used for flight processing into Solumina
  • Second place, tie: Ian Rook (NASA Engineering) – Adjustable window frame prototype for optical testing
  • Second place, tie: Nicolas Donahue (TOSC contract) – Cryogenic valve tuning fixtures
  • Third place, tie: Athela Frandsen (NASA Engineering) – Multi-chargers for sustained communications during emergency lockdowns
  • Third place, tie: Kimberly Phillips (KLXS III contract) – Program model number tool upgrade

Here are the winners in the Small Project Awards category:

  • Jacob Torres (LASSO contract) – Space chili grow a pepper plant challenge
  • David Miranda (NASA Exploration Research and Technology) – Remote collaboration tool
  • James Mantovani (NASA Exploration Research and Technology) – Advanced lunar array for regolith monitoring validation in the SwampWorks GMRO Lab BP-1 Test Facility
  • Thomas “Trey” Barnes (NASA Engineering) – Increasing capability of chemical analysis via sorbent pen technology
  • Misle Tessema (NASA Engineering) – Method development for determining wide range of low allow steel chemistry

“We want to encourage our KSC workforce – both civil servants and contractors – to be innovative with ideas that could not only impact their organizations, but KSC and NASA,” Hetal Miranda said. “Our goal is to continue to provide opportunities to bring these ideas forward through future Innovation Without Boundaries calls.”

Students Show off Plant Research at Symposium in Miami

Trent Smith, left, and Gioia Massa give a talk on Veggie at the Student Research Symposium in Miami on April 27, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Dinah Dimapilis
Trent Smith, left, and Gioia Massa give a talk on Veggie at the Student Research Symposium in Miami on April 27, 2019. Photo credit: NASA/Dinah Dimapilis

By Rachel Cox
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

Students from around the country convened with NASA scientists in Miami for the Student Research Symposium on April 27 as part of the Growing Beyond Earth program, a partnership between NASA and the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Growing Beyond Earth is an educational outreach and citizen science program that reaches over 170 middle and high schools from Florida, Colorado and Puerto Rico. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center plant production scientists Gioia Massa and Trent Smith train teachers, who then receive plant growth chambers that mimic Veggie, the space garden residing on the International Space Station.

Students and teachers listen to Ray Wheeler discuss the history of plant research for space. Photo credit: NASA/Dinah Dimapilis
Students and teachers listen to Ray Wheeler discuss the history of plant research for space. Photo credit: NASA/Dinah Dimapilis

In the fall, students set up their plant growth chambers and conduct experiments designed by Fairchild in conjunction with Kennedy.

“Every year, it’s something different,” Massa explained. “Last year, they were looking at photoperiod, how plants respond to different durations of light. This year, they’re looking at the neighbor effect, how different plants influence each other by growing next to each other.”

Since the beginning of the program, students have tested approximately 130 plant varieties under different conditions. Some schools are in high humidity areas, like Puerto Rico, while others have low humidity, like Colorado. Sometimes students overwater their plants; other times they forget. Sometimes the power goes out over the weekend. Plants that do well across these different environments make good candidates for space.

Both middle and high schools participate in new crop testing. But after getting a good grasp on the system in the fall, high school students can take it a step further and design independent experiments in the spring. These projects were the focus of the Miami symposium; 34 high schools presented their independent research, plus 17 middle schools presented their work on new crop testing.

“We had the students testing some really creative things,” Massa said. One project looked at using nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the substrate. Another 3D printed different containers.

The students created scientific posters, just like a NASA scientist would for a conference, with sections for the abstract, introduction, materials, results, conclusion and references. Fairchild printed out the posters, and the students presented them. Then Massa and her colleagues judged them on their poster, the quality of their project and presentation, the significance to NASA and how well they understood it.

Twelve Kennedy employees supported the event, including Bryan Onate, chief of the Life Sciences and Utilization Division, and Josie Burnett, director of Exploration Research and Technology Programs, along with plant production scientists and interns. Massa, Smith and Ray Wheeler gave talks to the students about Veggie and plant space research.