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Students Shaping America's Next Spacecraft Project

Orion Project

February 24, 2012

While the Space Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour made their final flights and have been permanently retired this year, NASA engineers are busy designing the nation's next generation of spacecraft - the Orion exploration vehicle. Hoping to inspire the next generation of space explorers with innovative STEM education outreach, Students Shaping America's Next Spacecraft (SSANS) gave a group of university, high school, and middle school students an opportunity to help develop the design of the Orion crew module. The SSANS project provided an opportunity for university and pre-college engineering students to work with NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center to design actual components for the mock-up modules being used to develop Orion.

The program grew out of a 2010 meeting between Dr. Dean Fontenot, Senior Director of Texas Tech University's T-STEM Center, and Jeff Fox, Crew Systems Integration Deputy Manager for NASA's Orion Project at Johnson Space Center. They began discussing the possibility of project-based teaching and learning projects that could be used to help develop space-related modules for Orion.

Dr. Fontenot and Mr. Fox decided students could contribute to Orion by designing components for new higher fidelity mockup modules. When they began to bring others on board to help develop the structure and requirements for the project, it grew to include three of the Texas High School Project T-STEM Centers: Texas Tech University T-STEM Center, University of Texas at Tyler Ingenuity Center, and University of Texas Medical Branch Southeast Regional T-STEM Center; it also included 12 high schools and two middle schools served by the centers, along with the University of Kansas and the University of Texas at Austin.

NASA provided packages of drawings and design specifications. University engineering students worked on the more complex packages for structural components, and high school and middle school students worked on the designs for simpler packages such as switch and electrical boxes that will be used by NASA astronauts and engineers to determined placement within the spacecraft.

The flagship of our nation's next-generation space fleet, Orion is being developed to push the envelope of human space flight by carrying astronauts beyond the low earth orbit missions of the shuttle-era to destinations such as near-Earth asteroids and to eventually enable human space exploration throughout our solar system.

As part of the design process, both NASA and Lockheed Martin (the primary contractor working on Orion) make extensive use of full size mockups of the vehicle. Mockups are used to test various design elements and layouts to ensure that the crew will be able to complete mission tasks safely and effectively. As noted in the NASA publication, Orion, America's Next Generation Spacecraft, "Mockups and simulators allow for system design evaluations and training in mission-like conditions. These simulations provide crewmembers with an opportunity to alert engineers to potential issues with crewmember reach, instrumentation and display design, control interaction, and visual blind spots that could prevent the crew or ground-based support from successfully operating the spacecraft." During early phases of the project, low fidelity mockups of the capsule were effective for proof-of-concept testing, analyzing workflow and equipment locations, and other activities to inform preliminary design work where the design is still rapidly changing.

Earning the approval from NASA's Constellation Safety and Engineering Review Panel completed Orion's Preliminary Design Review process, and now the design team is working toward finalizing Orion's design for the Critical Design Review - after which the actual flight vehicle will be built. Vehicle assessment and design verification at this phase of the project requires a higher fidelity mockup that reflects a significantly more mature design. The next phase will be to outfit it with the hardware inside to reflect the latest flight design, including aspects such as seats, crew impact attenuation system, displays and controls, stowage lockers, and equipment boxes.

Students will be challenged to come up with creative designs and selections of materials that most efficiently create the flight design key volume and functionality characteristics at significantly lower cost and shorter schedule. The student designs will need to be adequately communicated and documented through the use of CAD models and drawings or other NASA approved means. The students will have to analyze the hardware they design to ensure it will meet the loads requirements for the load bearing equipment.

The students will build and assemble their designs. They will work with the NASA engineers to integrate their hardware into the mockup, including interfaces with other student designed hardware. As part of the process, students will participate in the NASA hardware development and approval process, including requirements reviews, design reviews, hardware acceptance reviews, and test readiness reviews, all essential to successful implementation of new NAS hardware.

Successful completion of this work with student groups will prepare the Orion project for the next round of mockup evaluations and verification activities, necessary to progress toward crewed Orion missions.

Additional Information


Students Shaping America’s Next Spacecraft

Students Shaping America’s Next Spacecraft (SSANS), is designed to reduce development costs by streamlining production for the Orion Multi–Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) – America’s next generation spacecraft for human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. At the same time, students are encouraged to gain additional skills in science, technology, engineering and math by designing and fabricating hardware for a spacecraft mockup to be used for testing.

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