Using Systems Engineering to Design a ‘Masterpiece Spreadsheet’ For Sustaining Human Life in Space
Connor Anton is a sophomore from Houston, TX, studying Systems Science and Engineering with minors in Computer Science and Engineering Entrepreneurship. He also works as a nanofabrication assistant at Penn’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology and spent last summer working as a systems engineering intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
I had no idea what systems engineering was two years ago. Little did I know that it would lead me to pitching in on the plans for the next mission to the moon — and how to keep astronauts healthy while they’re there.
Before applying to college, I really had no idea what type of engineering I wanted to pursue as a major. Having grown up enjoying math, science, robotics and electronics, I’d known engineering was the right fit for me, but given so many options (mechanical, electrical, computer engineering, materials science), it was so difficult to decide which path I wanted to take. I really had to delve into the different options offered at each school. I first started learning about systems engineering when looking at Penn Engineering’s majors.
I had heard of the term a few times, but really had no clue what the discipline was and what a systems engineer’s expertise really is. However, Penn’s systems engineering curriculum caught my eye and really helped clear that confusion. The program defines systems engineering as a methodological approach to complex problems using skills in integration, management and quantitative analysis. To make an analogy, consider a table: The mechanical, chemical, electrical and other more traditional engineers are the legs, but the systems engineer is the surface you can put things on. The legs are solving the core problem of how to get things off of the ground, but without something connecting them all in a way that serves the user, they don’t have much purpose on their own.
It sounded like the perfect combination of my interests because I’ve always loved the satisfaction of seeing different parts of a project come together and work seamlessly. With a heavy focus on math and analytics, Penn’s systems engineering curriculum is extremely diverse in the fields it can be applied to, such as consumer technology, transportation, energy, finance, software, data networks and much more.
So, starting my freshman year at Penn, I was excited to explore the applications of systems engineering and put the skills I was learning to use in an innovative manner. Talking with other students and professors in systems engineering also fortified my conviction that this was the field I wanted to build a career in. However, as the time came for applying for summer internships, I wasn’t sure where to apply and what for. Having heard about a recent emphasis of systems engineering at NASA, I figured I’d shoot my shot and apply in hopes of gaining some field experience with my major.
After sending in my resume and going on an interview, I was lucky to be placed on the human systems engineering and integration team at the Johnson Space Center. Unsure of what to expect from this position, I went in with an open mind, excited to learn the intricacies of systems engineering. It didn’t take long for me to realize the heavy importance that systems engineering had on the success of NASA’s missions. There are countless projects being worked on simultaneously by specialized teams at all of the space and research centers, but they all had one goal in mind: to keep the astronauts alive.
I quickly learned that each and every team’s system needs someone to integrate theirs with all of the other subsystems to develop a successful mission. For example, the Orion capsule alone contains many subsystems: the computer and engine programming, control panel interface, thruster system, extreme temperature protection and sound control (just to name a few) are all complex individual systems that need to actually work together to make the capsule functional and successful.
Our division specifically focused on integrating all of the aspects of the human system — arguably even more important than that of a vehicle. We specifically worked on the medical subsystem, which included all of the medicines, supplements and other medical devices and equipment that needed to be sent to space for the health of the astronauts.
I was tasked with developing a methodology to assess the technological readiness of these medical devices to help determine their candidacy for further research and development funding. As my project began to come together, the difficulty and complexity of this issue progressively came to light. What made things so difficult was the limitation of data and knowledge of how these resources behaved in space. For example, how are we to know that aspirin has the same properties and reacts with the human body in microgravity in the same way it does on Earth? If there are differences, how can we develop it further to make it behave as intended in space? Are there other more important resource improvements that we need to prioritize over aspirin? And if so, do we even have the funding to make those improvements?
There were so many factors that had to be accounted for when doing this analysis for such a wide database of tools, devices, medicines and supplements. And after all, I was tasked with developing a process to assess those factors that can be used for any set of medical supplies. Luckily, there already existed a more general procedure for doing so for any type of technology at NASA, but its broad application had the consequence of ambiguity for assessing medical resources. In other words, with the specific products we were working with, it might be tough to determine what a “prototype” of a medicine is. So, my team and I identified a need to customize that procedure to streamline it for analyzing a medical resource. With that came many redefinitions and specifications of the currently existing procedure’s charts and diagrams, as well as the development of a database to store all of the assessment results.
As our project finalized, I was taken aback by the complexity and abundance of different characteristics, measurements and requirements needed to assess just one resource. For something as simple as a microscope, we had up to 30 different factors being assessed, ranging from weight, to whether or not it is sensitive to harsh radioactivity, to its commercial availability. It then became clear to me how important it was that the assessment of those be integrated together successfully to make a verdict on if it needs funding for R&D or not. It was my first real grasp (although maybe on a small scale) of the significance of systems engineering and the convenience it brings for everyone.
The final product was a “masterpiece spreadsheet” — a complex but intuitive system of datasets and flowcharts — that I was proud to have developed. It was to be used and further tweaked by the NASA Human Systems Engineering teams across the country, bringing us a step closer to sending astronauts back to the moon in 2024. My contribution may be seen as minute considering the enormous scale of NASA’s overall mission, but it was absolutely necessary and helpful to those working to improve the health safety of the astronauts (which is very critical to keep them alive).
Now back at Penn for my sophomore year, I’ve learned to appreciate and utilize the analytical and organizational skills gained from this amazing experience. Going forward, I’m excited to explore how a systems engineering approach can be applied to other fields and industries as well as how it can be a crucial practice for any project involving several vital elements. My internship with NASA really fortified my interest in systems engineering and I look forward to pursuing it as a career.