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ODU Engineers Have Front-Row Seat for NASA Hubble Space Telescope Repairs

For months, a group of Old Dominion University students teamed up with local high schoolers, wrestling with a problem posed by the Virtual Exploration Sustainability Challenge (VESC).

They were tasked with researching and constructing a computer simulation of a repair to a insulated panels on the outside of the Hubble Space Telescope. Then they demonstrated their research and simulation to a panel of NASA experts in a contest hosted by NASA Langley Research Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA).

As the winning team, they got quite the prize - a visit last Thursday to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to watch NASA scientists tackle that same problem in the real world.

"The whole experience was really great," said Tim Dugan, and ODU computer engineering student, who will begin his senior year in the fall.

The students and ODU faculty mentor Lee Belfore, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, learned how painstakingly the NASA team trained by doing 13 trial runs on a replica of the Hubble Space Telescope before any maneuver was attempted in space.

They developed an appreciation for just how complex an operation space flight really is.

Dugan said that 20 NASA scientists were seated at large video consoles in the control room, "and each had an exact model of the telescope on their desk."

The contest was part of an effort by NASA to promote the modeling and simulation field. This year was the first time it was held. Despite a relatively short lead time, ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology was the driving force behind finding participants and making it happen.

In addition to Dugan, the winning team included ODU computer science student Andrew Miller and three students from Grassfield High School Technology Academy in Chesapeake.

The high schoolers tracked down every piece of research that was available on the insulated panel, known as a New Outer Blanket Layer (NOBL), their simulation was designed to replace. Miller designed the computer model of the space telescope and the NOBL. Dugan designed an interactive, 3-D presentation in a 3-D environment where one could see the work the students had done in an interesting, organized fashion.

"The students had only 15 minutes to present their results and demonstrate their simulation. And they had to do it in a fashion that everyone could understand and follow along. ," Belfore said.

Sharon Bowers, a Virginia Beach Schools teacher who is an Educator in Residence with NIA, said the interaction between NASA engineers and aspiring modeling and simulation students was a big step.

"It's huge, not just for NASA, but for every company or organization that needs future researchers," Bowers said. Contests like this one "excite kids to want to go into the field."

Bowers said something is happening in education that is making many kids lose interest in math and science in middle school, robbing society of needed expertise later on.

"That's why programs like this one are so important. They bring the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education alive for the kids."

Belfore said NASA took the contest as seriously as the students. The panel of six judges included two former astronauts and the Hubble Space Telescope EVA Manager.

As news reports about the Hubble Space Telescope repair have indicated, the actual work related to the students' project didn't go quite as well as planned - although the problem was resolved ultimately.

Belfore said some aged bolts caused delays in other servicing activities, moving the NOBL repair to the fifth and final space walk. Indeed, the NOBL repair ended up being the final servicing activity on the Hubble Space Telecope. This demonstrated to him and his students the value of constructing models and simulating the work before trying a difficult maneuver in space.

This article was posted on: May 20, 2009

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