During a simulated fueling operation Thursday in Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, a technician wearing “smart” glasses beneath a hard hat and safety visor will be able to monitor temperatures and hazardous gas levels.
If highly toxic hydrazine spacecraft propellant were to leak, the helmet’s infrared “predator vision” would allow the technician to see the lethal but invisible fumes.
The visor could quickly display emergency response procedures, or off-site personnel watching the action through another helmet cam could radio instructions.
“The goal of this project is to improve operations here on Earth and in space, and specifically to improve efficiency and to improve safety,” said David Miranda, 32, the leader of a young team of KSC engineers developing the wearable technology.
In Downtown Orlando on Wednesday, Miranda’s team showed off a prototype of the device — including the helmet, glasses and a utility belt — to news media and to senior NASA technology officials who have funded the project with a two-year grant worth up to $2 million.
Called IDEAS, for Integrated Display and Environmental Awareness System, the project seeks to apply consumer technologies like Google Glass or Fitbit trackers to work processing spacecraft and rockets, first on the ground at KSC and maybe eventually in space.
“Once we go beyond the lunar system, we’re going to need the astronauts to be more independent, everything from repairing equipment to dealing with medical emergencies,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. “This technology can absolutely help them get through those nominal and off-nominal situations.”
Jurczyk met the IDEAS team at the high-rise offices of digital creative agency Purple Rock Scissors, one of NASA’s three partners on the project along with the Florida Institute of Technology’s Human Centered Design Institute and Abacus Technology.
The scene offered a striking contrast to the typical KSC office environment, highlighting IDEAS’ interest not only in wearable technologies but in collaborating with outside partners with different cultures to help spur innovation and efficiency.
A ping pong table occupied the center of the open workspace lined by employees typing on laptops as if in a Starbucks, sitting beneath exposed pipes and ducts in the loft-style space overlooking downtown. The arcade game “Mortal Kombat” stood against a color-splashed wall near a café area.
Jurczyk and Miranda said the partnership with the creative, non-aerospace company, and the others, was a strength of the IDEAS project, one of four “early career" proposals funded last year through a NASA competition.
“We’re trying to do that more in general within Space Technology at NASA, partner with companies that have technology that can advance our objectives, but they’re not necessarily aerospace companies,” said Jurczyk.
After a year working alongside Purple Rock Scissors, Miranda has brought some seemingly minor but powerful new habits back to KSC.
For example, the downtown office's walls are whiteboards that teams draw on together, not conference rooms in which a single person presents to an audience, which may discourage collaboration. Miranda's team now holds many meetings standing up to keep them short and focused.
“Get to the point,” he said. “What are we working on, what are you doing next and what’s your impediment to getting that work done? And then we can help each other.”
IDEAS has implemented a development approach referred to as “agile” and “lean,” emphasizing quick prototyping, testing and adjustments along the way. A more traditional model used by NASA — known as the “waterfall” — establishes a project's requirements at the outset, directing a workflow that is not easily changed mid-stream.
The more nimble approach tends to fit small, lower-budget projects like IDEAS, but Jurczyk said it can and should be scaled up to bigger projects.
“In the early days of NASA, this was an approach we really took, which was: build a little, test a little,” he said. “Many rockets blew up before we got the first rocket to be successful. In many ways I think we need to get back to that approach where we’re building, testing. It doesn’t work? That’s fine. Learn from it, build a next version, test.”
If successful, the IDEAS project could be extended beyond its two-year grant. But even if that does not happen, the young NASA team can infuse its experience into future projects and NASA's broader culture.
“They’re going to be the leaders of the future,” said Jurczyk. “Hopefully they will carry this forward with them as they move on.”