Industrial Engineering

Clemson IE Students Work on Space Station Problems

- May 2003

Industrial engineers study how people work and learn how to improve it, to benefit both worker and employer. This kind of study began formally over a hundred years ago, and has been applied to individuals, factories, and, more recently, businesses and government agencies involved in services. Today a group of Clemson students is applying what they know to work situations in the International Space Station. (Photo: Student teams in video conference for design review)

While you might think that absence of gravity makes work easier, the opposite is sometimes true. Imagine turning a control knob and having your body rotate slowly in the opposite direction, or exercise on a treadmill and find that you move a little farther away from in on every step. While absence of gravity might make moving easier, something must replace it to keep the crew member in place when working in a fixed location.

The general term for what keeps astronauts near their work is "crew restraints". Some of these have been in use for several years, on Skylab, Soyuz, Shuttle missions, and the International Space Station. In seeking improvements to these, and in hopes of finding new and better ways to keep the crew comfortable and productive while working, the engineers in the Habitability and Human Factors Office of NASA Johnson Space Center are working with students studying design, architecture, and industrial engineering at several universities.

The Clemson students are industrial engineering students enrolled in a senior elective course in industrial ergonomics. In addition to the usual course lectures and laboratories, three student teams attempted to develop new approaches to the crew restraint problem. Using feedback from ISS and Shuttle crew members about the current restraint systems, and their own ingenuity, the students worked through a design process similar to that used for any NASA development project. They developed their ideas, participated in chat sessions involving all the university teams, and had their designs reviewed by NASA engineers, scientists and astronauts.

Dr. Del Kimbler, professor of industrial engineering, is the instructor of the course. He has kept up his interest in the space program since working as a tracking station technician during Apollo and Skylab missions. His interests in NASA missions now are in how the different environments affect the way people work, and how industrial engineering principles can be used to help long-duration mission crews complete their activities with more comfort and less fatigue. This student project not only exposes the students to real engineering problems and design processes, but it could result in a better crew restraint that might eventually become part of future NASA missions, Kimbler says.

In addition to the Clemson teams, students at University of Texas, University of Central Florida, Tufts University, Rensaellar Polytechnic Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, and Robert Morris University participated. Dr. Mehriban Whitmore, an industrial engineer who manages the Usability Testing and Analysis Facility at NASA Johnson Space Center, coordinates the project. This student activity continued through the spring semester, with final designs reviewed by NASA astronauts, engineers and scientists in late April.

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