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Putting the steel in steely-eyed missile men and women

Come see the next payload drop 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at ISTB4 in Tempe.
April 23, 2018

ASU class prepares next generation of space explorers with hands-on payload drop project

One by one during the class, strange crafts fall from the sky. They look like badminton shuttlecocks, restaurant roll baskets, or aluminum Jiffy Pop domes. They land softly or hard, sometimes spraying parts, sometimes missing the target.

None of them are missing the point, however, which is learning how space scientists and engineers work in the real world to explore the solar system.

This is SpaceWorks 1, being taught in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I’m trying to get them to think like engineers,” said class instructor Phil Christensen, no stranger to things that fall from the sky and then have to work perfectly. Christensen, a Regents' Professor and NASA veteran, has instruments peering into various corners of the solar system.

The students are budding astrobiologists, systems designers and aerospace engineers. Their challenge? Drop a payload, have it safely land in one piece on a foam pad, and then deploy something. There’s a weight restriction: 500 grams for the whole package. It can’t have any power. And all this has to be done on a strict schedule.

Today is the first test. After this class, each team has to go before a Failure Review Board and explain what went wrong and how they’re going to fix it.

Christensen stands at the railing on the fifth floor of the atrium inside Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV on the Tempe campus. “There’s a reason people still die jumping out of planes with parachutes,” he said. “They rip, they tear, they don’t deploy.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

It took years — years — to perfect the parachutes that dropped the rovers to the Martian surface. They ripped. They tore. They didn’t deploy.

“Cameras are ready,” Christensen said. “Lights are ready. We just need some action.”

It’s go time for Team 12. Their craft looks like a big blue badminton shuttlecock. It lands top-up with some tethered orange balls flying out to the side.

The next craft is much larger, made of clear plastic panels and orange plastic parts. It misses the target, but a black parachute deploys quickly and it lands softly.

Team 10 has taken the classic approach. Their machine looks like the Apollo lunar module, with legs jutting from the sides. In NASA parlance, it has heritage; it’s a design or system that has flown before successfully. NASA likes heritage. They don’t like reinventing the wheel.

But the parachute doesn’t deploy too well from Team 10's module. It inflates as much as a tube sock would. Landing is rough. A leg breaks off.

Next up: This one looks like a restaurant roll basket with a maroon napkin hiding something unpleasant in it. Landing is accurate, but not up to commercial aviation comfort standards.

Finally, there’s an aluminum ball that looks like a fully inflated Jiffy Pop dome.

Rachel Roland breathes a sigh of relief. Roland, earning a second degree in astrobiology, signed up for the class to get some experience cross-training in engineering. Should she ever take part in a mission to Europa or Enceladus as she hopes, it could come in handy.

“I think it’s really important as a scientist to understand what the engineers do,” she said. “If I ever want to be a part of a project that will go into space, I need to know how this works. I think it’s really cool and I’m actually having fun learning about engineering. … Getting to see my project work was actually a bonus.”

The students didn’t get any hints or ideas from instructors. “Go be creative” was the extent of direction.

“It’s been really fun to watch,” Christensen said. “They’ve had to work in groups, which students hate, but we told them that’s the real world. They had to learn how to machine things. They had to go through reviews. They had to turn in a schedule. They actually had to live under a budget. We were trying to teach them real-world professional engineering skills, but let them have some fun at the same time.”

Whether they become scientists or engineers, they’ll need to know how to work like this to be successful at places like SpaceX or Orbital ATK. Working engineers from the space field talk to the class about their jobs. The students learn about what programs engineers use, and they get clean-room and machine-shop training.

“All of these skills will be very important when we actually go into the industry,” said David Madden, a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering (astronautics). He plans to go to grad school after earning his bachelor’s degree.

They won’t panic when they hear the words “critical design review,” Christensen said.

“(Co-instructor) Sheri Boonstra and I are trying to professionalize these students, so when they go out into the world and work for NASA or SpaceX or whatever, they’ve done this kind of thing before,” he said. “They can say, ‘Yeah, I can work in a team, and I know what a milestone is and I know what it means to have a schedule I have to stick to.’ The stuff they learn in classes is fantastic, but applying that in a real-world kind of way is what we’re trying to do here.”

Boonstra said that’s what NASA and the industry has told her directly.

“They’ll be able to take their degree and work directly in the space industry,” she said. “We’re mapping our activities in this class to what industry and NASA has been telling us, ‘These are the top things we need them to be good at.’ Those are the things that are embedded in this course.”

The space industry wants engineers and scientists who can hit the ground running. Part of the class is learning the business’s specialized vocabulary.

“What’s a critical design review?” Christensen said. “What’s an end item data package? I want the students that come out of here to show up at JPLNASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and say, ‘Yeah, I know what that is. I’ve done that. I know exactly what goes into one of these reviews. I know what it means to be the program manager. I know what it means to be the manufacturing engineer.’ … How do real engineers go about their daily jobs?”

So how did they do at the end of the day?

“I came in here today fully expecting all of these projects to fail,” Christensen said. “I was stunned and amazed when things went as well as they did today. I’d say about half of them pretty much did what they were intended to do, and the others came close. That’s a sign these students have taken this seriously, they’re enjoying it, they’re really putting their energy into it. They did their homework when they showed up today.”

Visitors are invited to attend the second round of the class' payload drops to see how the 12 teams do. It’s in the atrium (third through seventh floors) of ISTB4 at 781 S. Terrace Road in Tempe. The class runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25. No admission fee.

Top photo: Twelve teams created modules that would fall 30 feet, deploy a controlled landing device, land on a mat on the impact crater carpet, and then follow that up with a NASA-like failure design review. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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How do we amend Arizona’s archives?

April 23, 2018

ASU archivists work to reduce a disparity in the representation of minority communities in archival materials

Arizona State University archivist Nancy Godoy begins her "Archival and Preservation" workshop with a startling statistic: Minority communities constitute 42 percent of Arizona's population, but their photographs and documents only make up 2 percent of materials in state archives.

The workshop, led by ASU archivists, looks at methods of organizing family archives. The series, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aims to teach archival methods to underrepresented communities in Arizona.

“I think the three-year grant project is meant to lay the foundation for change in the next 30 or 40 years,” Godoy said. “We want them to know how to preserve and do it themselves and if they need help or support they know who to turn to, and if people do want to donate material that’s going to help us fix that gap within the archives.”

ASU alumnus Carlos Dominguez came to the workshop with a large plastic bin overflowing with photographs and materials spanning 100 years of his family’s history. Godoy was excited.

“It gave me an archive glow,” she said.

Godoy and archive specialist Alana Varner suggested that Dominguez begin organizing by time period since many photographs have no notes. They offered clues to help sort: A red-tinted color image is likely from the '70s, and a short tie on a man was popular in the '40s.

Godoy held up a photograph of a couple with a young boy, impeccably dressed, at what appears to be a festival. In the background a couple of young women, in tight jeans, lean against a booth.

“Look at her glasses,” said Godoy, pointing out the stylish horn-rims. “I’d say early '60s, if not late '50s, and look at the pants they’re wearing in the back too.”

They admired a baby shower invitation for someone who would be nearly 90 today, and a group photo of his grandfather, the first Latino lineman for SRP. Dominguez’s own elementary school portrait, complete with neon splatter backdrop, is mixed in with the photographs of the previous three generations.

The task may seem daunting, but for Dominguez it’s a matter of taking the occasional weekend or evening to sort it out.

“Families are like living things, so it’s always a work in progress no matter what,” he said.

For participant Lisa Chow, a visit to her father’s old store in Cleveland, Mississippi, and a fortunate discovery led her to learn more.

Amongst pots and pans and old clothes meant for a rummage sale, her husband discovered a box of items from her late uncle’s World War II service, including purple hearts and letters of thanks from President Harry Truman.

“It was a fluke that we found them,” she said. “He found this huge box that had even some old black-and-white photos from the 1920s that were my uncles and were all going to get tossed or donated.”

At the end of the workshop, Godoy sent participants home with the tools they’ll need: an acid-free box, folders, Mylar sleeves for photographs and materials, and cotton gloves, but first she reminded them that the important thing is to save what’s important for their own family histories. 

6 tips for archiving your photographs

1. Ziploc bags for photographs and plastic bins are a good starting point if you’re on a budget.

2. Michaels sells acid-free photo albums that are a better alternative as most scrapbooks and albums will deteriorate photos.

3. VHS and other magnetic tapes need to be scanned as soon as possible. They detoriate faster than Super 8 or 35mm reels. 

4. Family photos will deteriorate over time. Scan photographs, make a new print and store the original images in Mylar sleeves or on acid-free paper in acid-free folders to preserve them for the future.

5. Use cotton gloves and pencils instead of bare hands and pens. Fingers have oils, and most inks will deteriorate documents over time.

6. Ask family members to look at photographs with you and write down what they say. Videotaping this is a good idea too to capture the stories they’ll share. 

Future events

Scanning and Oral History Day

Learn how to scan archival material. ASU staff will scan up to 50 free scans per person. Using StoryCenter listening stations, people will also learn how to conduct an oral history interview and have the option to record their own stories.

• 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Friday, April 27, Alston House, 453 N. Pima St., Mesa. Details are available on the Facebook event page.

• 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Saturday, May 19, 9405 S. Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe. Details: Facebook event page.

Archives and Preservation Workshop

• 6–8 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, AE England Building, Downtown Phoenix campus, 424 N. Central Ave. Details: Facebook event page.

10 a.m.–noon. Saturday, May 12, Harmon Library, 1325 S. Fifth Ave., Phoenix. Details: Facebook event page.

Top photo: Archivist Nancy Godoy helps ASU alumnus Carlos Dominguez organize his photographs and archival materials during the "Archives and Preservation" workshop at the Tempe Public Library on April 15. ASU Library staff taught individuals how to appraise, arrange and describe archival materials in order to preserve them for future generations. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Deanna Dent

Photographer , ASU News