Tuesday, July 17, 2007

AFIT students conduct payload testing for space shuttle

Capt. Jeremy Owens packages an Air Force Institute of Technology experiment for transport to the Johnson Space Center for preflight testing June 5 at the AFIT laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. An upcoming space shuttle mission is going to feature a flight hardware experiment designed by AFIT students from the graduate school of engineering and management's department of aeronautics and astronautics. (U.S. Air Force photo/Dr. Richard Cobb)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFPN) -- An upcoming space shuttle mission is going to feature a flight hardware experiment designed by Air Force Institute of Technology students from the graduate school of engineering and management's department of aeronautics and astronautics.

Rigidizable Inflatable Get-Away-Special Experiment, or RIGEX, is a space shuttle experiment that will study the behavior of structures built using rigidizable/inflatable technology.

It investigates the structural characteristics of three test specimens when deployed in a zero-gravity space environment.

The overall goal is to demonstrate the feasibility of using rigidizable/inflatable materials to create lightweight space structures that can then be used for a variety of Defense Department remote sensing applications, said AFIT officials. Current payloads are often limited in size due to limited launch vehicle dimensions. Success of this technology would help alleviate size limitations for future missions.

The RIGEX program is being accomplished by combining the efforts of multiple student research theses completed as part of their master of science programs at AFIT. Participants include students from a variety of programs including astronautics, space systems, aeronautics, systems engineering and electrical engineering.

The project began in 2001 with a single student and a handful of experiment objectives, and it slowly developed into a set of preliminary designs and test plans. Each year, the students involved refine the designs, build and test prototypes, and settle on a final design. A unique aspect of the experiment is that each student was fully responsible for his or her contribution to the overall design, including all phases of the design, build, test, and qualification process, said Dr. Richard Cobb, the primary research adviser.

Students led the design reviews and presented them to the DOD Space Experiment Review Board to get manifested for launch, and presented them to the NASA Flight Safety Review Board to qualify the design. As a result, the effects of every engineering decision, both good and some not so good, became apparent as the build and testing proceeded. For a space-qualified design suitable for manned spaceflight, every last detail needed to be worked out, documented, and then presented to the NASA engineering team during flight safety reviews. This process provided the students with hands-on engineering experience.

Testing RIGEX at the Johnson Space Center represented the transition from the design/prototype/test phase of RIGEX to the flight qualify and launch readiness phase. To date, 13 AFIT students, plus the work of several summer intern students and laboratory support technicians including members from U.S. Air Force Academy, Wright State University, Rose-Hulman and the Ohio State University, were involved in the project. RIGEX represents the first-ever designed/built/qualified space flight experiment for AFIT. Along the way, AFIT has developed in-house expertise and implemented facility upgrades for development and flight qualification testing for future AFIT space payloads, enhancing both space research and space curriculum development.

The testing at the Johnson Space Center involved random vibration and electromagnetic testing designed to verify that the flight hardware will survive the trip to and from orbit and that it will function properly in the space environment.

All scheduled testing at Johnson was successfully completed, said Capt. Jeremy Owens, a current AFIT student in the Astronautical Engineering program. Final testing of the RIGEX payload is now underway at AFIT, with a planned delivery of the hardware to the Kennedy Space Center later on this year for a launch on the shuttle in February 2008.