ASDL launches ACRUM, a year-long NASA collaboration

ASDL launches ACRUM, a year-long NASA collaboration
Atlanta, GA

For the next year, research teams consisting of students and faculty from five universities and several high schools will tackle the asteroid problem using the Innovative Conceptual Engineering Design (ICED) methodology.

At first glance, ACRUM sounds like the plot of a Hollywood sci-fi flick.

After identifying and capturing an asteroid, ACRUM researchers must redirect it into a new orbital path (the moon’s) so that scientists can study it.

In fact, the Asteroid Capture, Retrieval,Utilization and Mitigation (ACRUM) project is a very real NASA collaboration that launched this week at AE’s Aerospace Systems Design Lab (ASDL).

For the next year, research teams consisting of students and faculty from five universities and several high schools will tackle the asteroid problem using the Innovative Conceptual Engineering Design (ICED) methodology.

“Hollywood’s had its take on this,” said Charles Camarda, Ph.D., the former astronaut who heads up ACRUM for NASA. “But this is not a Hollywood movie. It’s real. And months from now, NASA will get nuggets of gold from the research that these teams will do."

That was how Georgia Tech President G.P. "Bud" Peterson described ACRUM at the kick-off event. "From the scope of the project - redirecting an asteroid - to the make-up of the research teams - from high school students to NASA experts - this is an impressive project, one that embodies what Georgia Tech is all about."

Camarda made those remarks during ACRUM’s 2014 kick-off event, August 11, where dozens of educators and graduate students from across the country gathered at Georgia Tech to review the year-long ACRUM agenda.

A veteran of several very successful NASA ventures, Camarda urged listeners to attack the ACRUM challenge with an unorthodox approach.

“Failure is your friend," he said more than once. "You need to fail in order to succeed. That’s how you understand the limits of your analysis. That’s how you get a better concept.”

To back up his claim, Camarda cited a couple of real-world examples where major and very costly aerospace projects were derailed at the last moment because engineers had not allowed themselves to explore possible failures earlier in the project timeline.

It's also about collaboration. 
Camarda relished the opportunity to connect with graduate students from Georgia Tech, Wright State, Virginia Tech, NYU, and Washington University, who came to ASDL this  week to learn more about the ACRUM agenda.

The ICED methodology addresses this pitfall by emphasizing aggressive and multiple concept generations at the front-end of a project. From there, components can be subjected to rigorous testing and analysis, where failure becomes fodder for an optimized concept.

“I want you to fail quickly, often, cheaply and intelligently. You need to think of all the ways a system will fail at the component level, not the prototype level, and test them. You need to come up with an alternative that doesn’t have the same problems,” Camarda explained.

“The alternative is to be slow, infrequent, and dumb. That’s where it gets expensive. And that’s where programs get killed before they have been fully explored.”

Invest in the problem. Early.
Camarda estimates about 70% of a project's overall cost will be defined in the concept generation phase, where researchers typically spend only 1% of their time. Comarda advised ACRUM participants to rethink these priorities.

Camarda said this model is often lost on more rigid work environments, but that it shows great promise for the next generation of engineers – the target audience of ACRUM. The key, he said, is to address every thoughtful critique and explore every reasonable solution.

Lithia Springs High School math teacher Jonathan Freeman said Camarda’s approach is ideal for developing persistence in young minds.

“The idea that failure is okay will help us get through to our kids,” he said. “A lot of them are paralyzed by their own perfectionism. Or arrogance. This will get them to get beyond failure, to come up with new ideas.”

At Georgia Tech, ASDL research engineers will take on the ACRUM challenge, working with undergrads and connecting with high school faculty to push the research forward. Throughout the year, they will have access to subject matter experts (SMEs) at NASA, and will be supported by industry partners, like Boeing and Siemans.

Impressed with Tech.
Camarda decided that AE's ASDL would make a great collaborator for ACRUM when he visited theAerosPACE competition held in Georgia in April. He is seen here addressing the students at that competition.

“This is a natural fit for ASDL, which is always looking to increase its STEM outreach,” said Charles Domercant, Ph.D., the ASDL research engineer who is heading up the GT-ACRUM project.

“It will also give us a relevant, real-world problem that will pull in undergraduates. And all of this will give our graduate students great opportunities for leadership development.”

ASDL Director Dimitri Mavris echoed Domercant’s observations.

“This project will teach students to not be so school-centric, where the teacher tells them what they need to know,” he said.

“That is important, because, when they graduate, they’ll have to work in organizations where they will have to know how to communicate, how to survive failure before they own success.”

 Check out this slideshow of Camarda's visit with ACRUM participants.