This Summer Intern Built a Spacecraft in Her Apartment

Christine Yuan points to the 3D printer she used to build a prototype spacecraft from her apartment this summer as part of her JPL internship. Image Courtesy: Christine Yuan | + Expand image It sounds like a reality show: A team of six interns working remotely from their homes across the country given 10 weeks to build a prototype lunar spacecraft that can launch on a balloon over the California desert. But for Christine Yuan, a senior at Cornell University, it was just another engineering challenge. This summer marked Yuan’s second time interning with the Innovation to Flight group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group brings in a collaborative team of a dozen or more interns each year. Their task is to create and test prototypes of far-flung ideas for spacecraft and space technology over the course of their internship. But this summer, with most of JPL’s employees still on mandatory telework and interns required to complete their projects remotely, the team had an even bigger challenge to overcome: How could they build a spacecraft together while hundreds of miles apart? Yuan flashed back to her days using materials from around the house to build props and costumes from her favorite TV shows and games. It was what made her want to become a mechanical engineer in the first place. She had a 3D printer and tools in the apartment she shares with a friend from school. So it was decided. She would build the spacecraft in her apartment and mail it in parts to the other interns working on electronics and software from their respective homes. We caught up with Yuan to learn how she and the team took on the challenge of building a spacecraft from home, how her childhood hobby served as inspiration, and to find out whether the test flight was a success. What are you working on at JPL? I’m an intern with the Innovation to Flight group, which is a team of interns that works with JPL engineers and scientists to take ideas for new kinds of technology or spacecraft from ideation to flight in one summer. The goal is to quickly develop prototypes to see whether an idea is feasible and increase the technical readiness level of various hardware. I was part of the group last summer, too. This summer, we’ve been split into two groups. The group I’m working with is exploring whether we might be able to use a constellation of CubeSats [small, low-cost satellites] to support robots and astronauts on the Moon. So we’re building prototypes of the CubeSats and the communications and navigation technology. How might CubeSats support astronauts and robots on the Moon? The goal is to have a couple of these CubeSats orbiting the Moon that can assist with various surface operations, whether it’s a rover or a small robot or an astronaut trying to communicate. There are a couple parts to it. One is localization, the ability to figure out where you are on the Moon – sort of like our GPS on Earth – so different assets know where they are relative to each other. The other part is communication. If you’re collecting data, the data could be sent from the surface assets to the CubeSats to another surface asset or ground station. The CubeSats could take away a lot of the onboard processing that needs to happen so assets on the Moon could use less processing power. You’re interning remotely this summer. Are you actually building the CubeSat? Yeah. On the CubeSat team, there are six of us, so we have a couple of people working on the software and then a few of us are working on building the CubeSat itself. I have a lot of tools and a 3D printer, so I’m working on designing the structure and then prototyping it using the stuff I have at home. The team has been getting materials out to me, and I’ve been printing stuff on my 3D printer and building it out. Then I’ve been mailing out parts to our avionics people so they can load it up with all the electronics. Wow. That’s so cool. Are you building all of this at home or in your dorm room? Are the people living with you wondering what you’re up to? I spent the first half of the summer in my parents’ house, so I was operating out of their garage. Now that I’m back at school, I work from my apartment. I’m living with one of my friends right now. She’s also in the aerospace field so she has an idea of what I’m doing. Most of the time we’re just working in our rooms, but I normally have a bit more of a “dynamic” going on in my room. How has the team adjusted to working remotely? Half the team is returning from last summer, so we’ve worked together before. But when we were at JPL, it was easier because we could walk back and forth with parts and hand things off. When we were planning for the summer, we were talking about the different options that we had. I like to build things in my free time, so I have a bunch of different tools. I’m a mechanical engineer, so I was going to be working on the structure anyway. So I said, “I’ll build the structure, ship it in pieces to the rest of the team, and give them a detailed explanation or a CAD model so they can assemble it.” Our software and electronics guys are coding everything and sharing their files. Two of the team members are roommates this summer, which is really convenient. They’re working on the electronics and avionics out of the basement at one of their family’s homes. Then, we’re just constantly messaging with each other. We talk at least once a day. It helps that we’re a small team. What’s your average day like? I’m on the East Coast, so the time difference hasn’t affected me too badly. I wake up, work out, and then I start work. In the morning, I’ll check in with different members of the team. I like to have a to-do list, so I normally have one for the week. Depending on what I need to do, my day ranges anywhere from trying to figure out what I need to prototype next to 3D printing something or drilling holes in this or that. I use any downtime to talk to other team members, figure out what they’re doing. How has the remote experience compared with last summer, when you were at JPL in person? The most disappointing thing was not being able to be at JPL in person with everyone. Last summer, there were about 15 of us all working in the same room together. We’d have big brainstorming meetings, all getting together and working on the white board. It was kind of a chaotic, loud mess, but it was a lot of fun, and we got a lot of work done. I was always moving around, always talking to somebody, always building something or testing something. I really enjoyed working on a team like that. It was very fast-paced. This summer, it’s a little more difficult, because I haven’t met half the team members in person, and it’s just slower. We’re shipping things to one another and some of us are in different time zones. It’s just been a little more difficult to get things done as fast. Another big change is that at the end of last summer, we had two flight tests. We launched one of our prototypes on a tethered balloon, and then we tested some of our other projects on a high-altitude balloon. We’re not going to get to do that in person this summer. Do you feel like you still have that team comradery even though you’re apart this summer? Definitely. Half the people are returning from last summer, so we’re still pretty tight, and we’re all in this together. It may not be as dynamic and as fast-paced as last summer, but we’re building something together pretty well and pretty quickly. What are you studying in school, and what got you interested in that field? I’m studying mechanical engineering. I got into mechanical engineering for a variety of reasons. When I was younger, I was a huge nerd – I still am. I would spend my summers in my parents’ basement, making costumes and props from my favorite movies and TV shows. I realized that I really liked making things. I liked putting things together and seeing them work. I also think space is really cool. I want to be able to tell my future kids and grandkids, “I worked on projects that helped us discover all these things about the universe.” There’s so much we don’t know, and I know I can’t learn everything, but I want to be a part of the discovery process. So I took those two […]

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