Designing Tools for NASA Unlocks Skill-Building Opportunities for ME Major at the Univ. of Alabama

by Alaina G. Levine

Published July 2016

Alex Mitchell grew up on the space coast of Florida in the shadow of Cape Canaveral. He always knew he wanted to work in the space industry, and pursued a bachelors in mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama (UA) to make it happen. But it was his involvement in ASME that catapulted his cosmos-career aspirations into the stratosphere.

In 2015, NASA announced a design challenge, in which undergraduates from around the nation were charged with designing, building, and testing a tool or device that addresses a current need in space exploration. The program, entitled the Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT), gave students the opportunity to engage in developing the tool which, if chosen, would then be tested in the simulated microgravity environment of the NASA Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).

The Universities Float sample grabber prototype. Photo credit Alex Mitchell

Mitchell jumped at the chance to participate in a real-life space exploration project. He and his colleague Stephen Peter Rowe led their fellow team mates, ASME members and Society of Women Engineers members alike, to form 2 teams and submit 2 proposals to this program. The first proposal, led by Mitchell, was called Understanding Asteroids and aimed to design a float sample grabber, which could be deployed from a spacecraft, to collect small, loose asteroid samples for further scientific exploration. The second proposal team led by Rowe, named STRAHL, focused on designing a Gap Spanner Boom, a device that astronauts could use to traverse the distance between a spacecraft and an asteroid The purpose of this boom was to operate with the Orion, a newly designed spacecraft for taking a crew to an asteroid or other planets, which will be docked to an Asteroid Redirect Vehicle (ARV). “A gap of 56-inches will exist between the Orion and ARV, which must be traversed by astronauts without damaging delicate heating shield tiles on the Orion,” explains Mitchell. “The Gap Spanner Boom is the tool to help astronauts move through this distance.”

The teams started planning their projects in August 2015, submitted their letters of intent at the beginning of October, and finalized their proposals, with a proof of concept of their tools, by the end of October 2015. In early December, they received notice of acceptance of both proposals and since then, have been designing and building the tools. NASA accepted only 25 teams nationwide for this program, and UA was the only university to have 2 teams represented. “It’s pretty amazing that I’m involved in building tools for NASA,” he says. “It’s not something I expected to be doing in my undergrad experience.”

In May and June 2016, the two teams ventured to NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston to see their prototypes tested in the same pool where astronauts train for space missions. “At that point, NASA could take the tool and use it “as is”, or redesign it or learn from it to design a better tool,” explains Mitchell. “They have intellectual rights to our tools and designs.”

In addition to the technical facets of the project, the teams considered outreach a vital component, and they received an ASME Diversity Action Grant to facilitate community engagement. “We wanted to get people excited about engineering and science, especially those who don’t have much of a chance to access this stuff,” he says. The team approached elementary and middle schools and arranged for visits in which the ME students gave presentations about space exploration and careers in space and at NASA. They also conducted workshops for the kids, where they had the opportunity to build their own float sample grabbers. As the team members guided the children in designing their own tools, the kids learned the fundamentals of the scientific method, team-based problem-solving, and logic and analysis.

Team STRAHL (left to right) Rene Gromotka, Logan Cook, Hope Thompson, Andrew Sanders (Missing - Andrew Sanders) speak to students about NASA’s “Path to Mars”. Photo credit Andrew Sanders

The teams interacted directly with upwards of 500 students at 6 schools, ranging from a technology magnet school to inner city schools with limited resources for STEM education. “Some of the kids are in low income areas, so the chance to give them this opportunity to see the stuff is touching,” he says. They also presented to 250 kids as part of the February 2016 Engineering Day at McWane Science Center, a regional science museum in Birmingham, AL. The ASME members strove to not only engage younger students in the projects but also ignite their passion for space and engineering problem solving. “At the high- and magnet schools, the kids designed a robot,” describes Mitchell. “One of the magnet schools has a robotics team and so we tasked them with converting their robot to a sample grabber and then we competed with them with our tool.”

“The impact was significant and clear,” notes Mitchell. The teachers specifically remarked that their pupils not only enjoyed their presentation but found great value in it. “We had younger kids who didn’t understand that some career paths draw from engineering, such as pilots, and professionals who work on space missions, that they get their start with these subjects,” he says. “It was eye-opening for them, that these degrees, mechanical engineering in particular, give them a wide range of career paths later in life. One third grader said he wanted to be a pilot. We told him that pilots and other similar military professionals require a background in engineering. It was great to see that really struck a chord with him and made him want to engage with the lesson.”

Not surprisingly, the entire project struck a chord with Mitchell and his team as well, as there was much value gained. On the technology front, he expanded his knowledge of material properties and interfaces, as well as machine shop and engineering design. The team used a 3D printer to construct the tool, so they learned about the complexity of using this manufacturing method for rapid prototyping of the parts. But it was the opportunity to hone his capacity for leadership that benefited him the most. He oversaw 1 team of 6 students and coordinated simultaneously with Rowe and his team over the course of an entire school year. “I had experience running student design projects, but this was a different animal,” he says. “It was a learning experience in time management and coordinating others.”

Strong communications was an essential element of the project’s success. Mitchell discovered the importance of adapting his communication methods depending upon the needs and preferences of the individual team member. Furthermore, there were plenty of opportunities to hone skills in a diversity of communication mechanisms, from social media to promote the teams’ progress, to technical documentation required by NASA, to public speaking as part of the outreach. “Near the end we had to submit multiple documents for multiple people, put together a final report and poster for the university as well as for NASA, and do outreach,” he says. “A lot of things were going on at the same time. And I knew I had definitely improved as a leader because sometimes things fall through the cracks. But in this project, nothing fell. We were all pulling our own weight. There was delegation and motivation, and we all improved as a group, and I improved my own leadership skills.”

Reflecting back over the exciting year, Mitchell sees it as a win-win-win-win, for himself, his team members, the kids he presented too via the outreach, and even future UA ASME members. “It’s been a wonderful experience and hopefully we can keep the door open with NASA to help other people get the same experience we got,” he says. “We want to help the UA chapter in the future, and the network of engineers coming up. I would definitely like to see them be in this career area.”

In May 2016, Mitchell graduated from the UA and is headed to Lockheed Martin to serve as a Mechanical Design engineer in Orlando, just a stone’s throw from Cape Canaveral. Mission: Accomplished.