NASA astronaut leads 'crash course' in problem solving

September 02, 2008

Charles "Charlie" Camarda, NASA astronaut and deputy director for Advanced Projects in the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), recently taught a five-day course at Penn State for NASA employees through the NESC Academy.

The course, titled "Innovative Engineering Design," focused on developing creative solutions for real problems facing NASA. The challenge for this course was to solve a contingency landing problem in which NASA's new Crew Exploration Vehicle, called Orion, would need to make an emergency landing on land rather than in water and would not cause injury to the crew.

While the NESC Academy offers many courses to its members, this course was unique in that participants took on a more creative, hands-on approach to problem solving. The course, held at the end of July, allowed the participants to "think outside the box" and push back on boundary conditions.

"What we wanted to see them do and help them understand was to be critical thinkers, to not accept all the 'facts' they are given, to question boundaries, to question the constraints and to question objective functions," said Camarda. "We wanted each of them to look at the problem and define the problem from their own viewpoint. When each team member does that, you begin to see the problem through another person's eyes."

Camarda noted that the diversity of the team allowed for more ways to think about the problem. The team of instructors and participants included senior personnel at NASA; aerospace, electrical, mechanical, industrial and biomedical engineers; professors from Penn State, MIT and Georgia Tech; and two undergraduate students from Penn State and MIT.

"I saw a lot of interaction and cross-pollination between the different disciplines and a lot of different ideas," said Camarda. "We saw a lot of crazy ideas that turned into something reasonable for the end product."

Some solutions to the problem included finding ways to decelerate the vehicle or protect the individual crew members by using air bags or other cushioning systems. Some ideas were taken from the race car industry.

"Some of the participants said, 'You just need to develop heartier astronauts!'" said Sven Bilen, course co-instructor and associate professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering at Penn State.

Bilen described some of the most unique ideas he saw during the course. One idea was an expanding foam concept. Another involved non-Newtonian fluids -- those materials that act like a liquid until a lot of pressure is applied, which causes the material to harden and act like a solid.

"An example of a non-Newtonian fluid is a mixture of cornstarch and water," said Bilen. "These types of materials are used when you want something to be flexible but you want it to be hard in a crash to apply some restraint."

Throughout the course, participants utilized the facilities and equipment at the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory at Penn State for prototyping and hands-on exploration of the problem. They also had access to all resources within the Center for Engineering Design and Entrepreneurship.

"Many of the students really liked getting their hands on the equipment and revisiting a skill they maybe haven't been able to use for a while," said Marcia Gibson, NESC Academy program director.

Gibson also mentioned the use of a Wiki created for the course in which participants could easily share updates and ideas. She said that course participants are still using the Wiki to stay in touch and discuss the problem.

During the intense five-day course, the participants worked on the problem from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. and sometimes even later. They stayed together throughout the course, and distractions were limited.

"We wanted to totally immerse the participants in the problem," said Camarda. "We wanted to keep them sequestered and together so that they would think about the problem day and night and work with their comrades on trying to solve the problem."

Although the course was intense, the feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive. While a typical course offered by the NESC Academy involves lectures that can be recorded and later be used for online instruction, the best way to share the lessons from this course would be to hold another session in a similar format.

Camarda said the Penn State setting was ideal. He hopes to return to the University in the future -- possibly for that next session.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009