Q&A: NASA Project Manager Reveals How One Robot is Changing the Way Space Vehicles are Made

06 November 2015

John Vickers talking to Dava Newman, the deputy NASA administrator, who toured the Composites Technology Center during a visit to Marshall. Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC Image Credit: Emmett GivenJohn Vickers talking to Dava Newman, the deputy NASA administrator, who toured the Composites Technology Center during a visit to Marshall. Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC Image Credit: Emmett GivenNASA’s Composites Technology Center has come a long way since it installed its first commercially available fiber placement machine. Now, the space agency has employed a robotic manufacturing system to create the largest, lightweight components ever constructed for space vehicles. John Vickers, manager of NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing tells more about the robotic technology and its impact on space vehicles and exploration.

Electronics360: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at NASA?

John Vickers: I am John Vickers, the manager of NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing and the project manager for a Technology Demonstration Mission project that will be one of the first projects to use the new composites manufacturing robot.

Electronics360: How long have you been working at the Marshall Space Flight Center? On this particular project?

John Vickers: I have been at Marshall for almost 30 years and we have been working on composites research and development for launch vehicle structures at Marshall for just over 30 years. Currently, we are working on a project that is in its first year for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, Technology Demonstration Missions Program. The project is intended to demonstrate composites technology for the Space Launch System, NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket program’s Universal Stage Adapter (USA). The USA will be a mass-efficient element between the Exploration Upper Stage and Orion crew spacecraft. The stage adaptor will accommodate small secondary payloads, such as CubeSats. Our work on the USA will focus on composites technology development and demonstration and technology infusion leading to improved capability for the SLS and our journey to Mars. Our work is concentrated on the effort that best advances the certification pathway for the inclusion of composites on large human-rated launch vehicles and to demonstrate weight savings for the rocket.

Electronics360: I understand that the giant robot that is working in the Composites Technology Center is assisting in building the largest, lightweight components ever constructed for space vehicles. Can you tell me about the robot’s role, as well as the technology and components involved?

The new robotic composite fiber placement system. Image courtesy of NASAThe new robotic composite fiber placement system. Image courtesy of NASAJohn Vickers: The robotic fiber placement equipment is a fantastic addition to Marshall’s Composites Technology Center and is a part of NASA’s National Advanced Manufacturing Center. The robotic fiber placement system is the latest generation of advanced technology for automated composites manufacturing equipment. More than 20 years ago, we installed the very first commercially available fiber placement machine in this same location at Marshall. Through these technology projects, NASA is collecting data to demonstrate how these new composite manufacturing innovations can fundamentally change the way NASA builds aerospace structures. They also have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost and time from design to production for certain rocket parts.

Electronics360: Why turn to a giant robot for this project?

John Vickers: We need this capability to make our NASA missions more affordable and more capable. Reducing weight is a key objective for Space Launch System (SLS) to maximize launch vehicle and spacecraft performance. Each pound of weight reduction results in an additional pound of payload capacity. In other words, if the rocket weighs less, it can carry more equipment to space. The robot is able to make some of the largest and lightest weight composite structures ever built for space vehicles. Production of such large composite structures presents big challenges. This equipment offers flexibility with very high speed and precision for composites manufacturing and that equals lower cost and better quality and performance. The system is considerably faster than traditional systems.

Electronics360: What type of components is the robot currently working on? How big will they be?

John Vickers: Today, we are working on the SLS USA, but in addition, the robotic system has widespread applicability to other space systems such as: Dry structures (launch vehicle fairings, adapters, interstages, and spacecraft structures); Cryogenic structures (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant tanks); and Pressurized structures (spacecraft/habitats). The USA is 8.4 meters in diameter and 10 meters in length.

Electronics360: Currently, what are the largest components used in building space vehicles?

John Vickers: The state of the art is at about 5 meters in diameter, but the future launch vehicle and spacecraft needs structures from 8 to10 meters.

Electronics360: What is the robot working on right now?

John Vickers: Our top priority is structures for the SLS, but we are looking ahead to the ultra-lightweight structures needed for rockets and other spacecraft for the trip to Mars and other locations in deep space, i.e. beyond low-Earth orbit, a couple of hundred miles above Earth where the International Space Station is currently located.

Electronics360: Are there disadvantages to relying on robotic systems like this one for development of vehicle components?

John Vickers: I don’t think there are any obvious disadvantages. Looking forward, there are enormous advantages; these robots are key to maximizing performance of design and manufacturing. The ultimate vision is something we call the “digital twin”. In this digital environment, we can create, test and build our structures in a virtual environment before we physically manufacture it. The new robot and its software is a critical part of the system-wide digital-twin approach.

Electronics360: Can you explain the importance of composite materials in NASA projects?

John Vickers: Advanced manufacturing and composites are technology areas that are critical to all of our NASA missions: in exploration, science, aeronautics and technology. Composites are materials of the future, with the potential for 30 to 50% weight reductions by comparison with metals. This new robotic fiber placement capability allows NASA to take a technology area that is exotic and in the future and bring it into the realm of the present and the practical.

Electronics360: In your opinion, what would you consider some of the most pivotal technology being developed at the Marshall Space Flight Center right now? In the agency as a whole?

John Vickers: We have a wide-ranging, incredible set of capabilities and very talented people at Marshall and NASA where we are developing and leveraging many cutting-edge technologies that are advancing missions for the Nation. I think it is the game changing technologies that provide the most innovative/high impact capabilities and technologies that have the potential to revolutionize future space missions. Furthermore, we work with industry and academia to accelerate technology advancement. Together, we can help drive and harness innovation and advances in materials and manufacturing technology. Working technology solutions with industry and academia can be a powerful advantage and multiplier effect. Composite technologies are just one great example of key technologies needed for space exploration. Composites allow you to travel lighter because they replace some of the heavier metal structures. The lighter you travel, the more launch vehicles, rovers, habitats and so forth that you are able to bring with you. When the first humans reach Martian soil, we will all be able to look back at this work being done today, knowing that it is major part of the reason why people are on Mars.

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