Imagine standing on the surface of an alien planet or satellite. High in the sky, a soft breeze is interrupted by the whistling sound of a tiny probe sent from Earth to study the atmosphere, or to land on some high-value target on the surface. Now imagine that this probe is followed by a dozen others, all entering in distributed locations throughout the geographic landscape. These probes are systematically and methodically being released from an orbiting spacecraft, perhaps having arrived months in advance. Or maybe the probes themselves are released systematically months in advance by and approaching mother-ship. Although probes have been sent to celestial neighbors before, what is unique is that these new vehicles had their genesis on the highly popular Cubesat specification My dream is to make spaceflight so mundane, we can actually routinely leave the bounds of our planet to explore en masse our solar system. For that, we must create systems that allow us to bring space exploration within the realm of our everyday lives. No longer exquisite systems but just good enough, where failure is an option and a new opportunity.
The internship was located at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) Innovation Design Center (IDC), which is a facility where the JSC workforce can meet and conduct hands-on innovative design, fabrication, evaluation, and testing of ideas and concepts relevant to NASA's mission. The tasks of the internship included mechanical prototyping design and manufacturing projects in service of research and development as well as assisting the users of the IDC in completing their manufacturing projects. The first project was to manufacture hatch mechanisms for a team in the Systems Engineering and Project Advancement Program (SETMAP) hexacopter competition. These mechanisms were intended to improve the performance of the servomotors and offer an access point that would also seal to prevent cross-contamination. I also assisted other teams as they were constructing and modifying their hexacopters. The success of this competition demonstrated a proof of concept for aerial reconnaissance and sample return to be potentially used in future NASA missions. I also worked with Dr. Kumar Krishen to prototype an improved thermos and a novel, portable solar array. Computer-aided design (CAD) software was used to model the parts for both of these projects. Then, 3D printing as well as conventional techniques were used to produce the parts. These prototypes were then subjected to trials to determine the success of the designs. The solar array is intended to work in a cluster that is easy to set up and take down and doesn't require powered servomechanisms. It could be used terrestrially in areas not serviced by power grids. Both projects improve planetary exploration capabilities to future astronauts. Other projects included manufacturing custom rail brackets for EG-2, assisting engineers working on underwater instrument and tool cases for the NEEMO project, and helping to create mock-up parts for Space Center Houston. The use of the IDC enabled efficient completion of these projects at significantly reduced cost. I acquired and improved manufacturing and prototyping skills during my tour including learning about a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) program called Creo (Creo Parametric; design software), gaining valuable conventional machining experience with lathes, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling machines and various other tools, and improving my engineering project communication and collaboration skills. The internship also allowed me to better understand operations at NASA. I plan to work in the aerospace industry or do academic research benefitting space science and exploration, and this internship experience will enable me to have insight into manufacturing processes for research and development.