IIE Annual Conference & Expo 2016
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Q&A with Nancy J. Currie

Nancy J. Currie is a principal engineer with the NASA Engineering and Safety Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She is a veteran astronaut, serving as a mission specialist on four space shuttle missions, as well as a retired U.S. Army colonel and master army aviator. She will be giving her keynote presentation at the IIE Annual Conference Tuesday, June 2.

What is the most exciting development or, conversely, the most pressing challenge in the field of industrial and systems engineering today?

From a NASA perspective, one of the most exciting developments is additive manufacturing. We recently deployed a 3-D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) and in December 2014 they completed a demonstration of how additive manufacturing might be used by crews during space missions. While it's not a tool that's able to be used – it's a plastic version – they did successfully demonstrate the capabilities by printing out a ratchet wrench on the ISS. The wrench was actually designed on the ground and then the file was uplinked and printed out onboard by the astronauts. The entire end-to-end process was only a week long, which included the time for engineers on the ground to design the tool, approval by safety personnel and other reviewers, sending the file to space, and the process of printing, which took roughly four hours.

This test was an important step in the process to validate the ability to perform additive manufacturing on orbit, a critical capability for longer space flight missions, such as a mission to Mars. The longer the mission, the more food, provisions and consumables such as oxygen, are required to support the crew. So it is highly desirable to reduce to the greatest extent possible the mass and volume required for additional items, such as tools. NASA engineers continually ask "what if" before every mission and try to postulate every potential failure that could be encountered by the crew in space and provide them with the tools and training to respond to those failures. However, if you packed all the necessary tools to respond to every potential failure that could be encountered during a two-year-long mission, the result is an extremely sizeable tool set, which translates into substantial mass and volume in the spacecraft. So people at NASA are really excited about the potential to use additive manufacturing during space missions and the International Space Station is an excellent test bed for this technology since tools can be developed in a short period of time, printed out on orbit and then be returned to the ground for analysis.

What do you plan to discuss in your keynote presentation?

I think a topic that is going to be pertinent and interesting for the folks at this conference is the importance of a rigorous systems engineering integration function in the design and operation of complex systems. Especially in the human space flight world, some of the things we’ve encountered over the years have highlighted the need for independent checks of critical models and rigorous independent analysis and testing to anchor models and simulations.

Typically, in a presentation such as this, I will cite two very well-known accidents: the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in January of 1986 and, more recently, the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia during entry in February 2003. In both of those cases, the accident review boards pointed to a lack of a rigorous systems engineering integration function that ultimately played a major role in designs and decisions leading up to both of these accidents. As we design our next generation human spacecraft system, we're encountering the same types of challenges as all NASA programs in the past – such as budget limitations and schedule challenges. So it is important to constantly remind others of what we have learned at NASA through our failures about the importance of systems engineering and integration to include systems safety engineering.

I will also discuss the role of the NASA Engineering Safety Center, which was started as a direct response to the Columbia accident and a recommendation from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. This independent engineering organization was established around three basic tenets - strong in-line checks and balances of critical systems design and analysis, healthy tension between the engineering organization and program/project management, and value-added independent assessments. The NESC is frequently asked to assist with failure investigations or significant engineering challenges within NASA programs and projects. Working in a "tiger team" fashion, teams of experts from NASA, other government agencies, industry and academia are assembled to either independently assess difficult engineering problems or to assist program and in-line engineering personnel. The most interesting facet of the NESC is that we never know what issues we're going to be asked to assist with. While our primary focus is on NASA programs and projects we have assisted with such diverse issues as the Chilean miner rescue operation. The NESC is an extremely unique organization and perhaps even the smallest engineering organization, or certainly larger corporations, could consider establishing a similar function.

What would you like attendees to take away from your presentation?

The importance of industrial and systems engineering in an organization that engages in high-risk operations, such as NASA, can't be overstated. As an adjunct professor, I teach classes in both aerospace systems engineering and systems safety engineering. One of the things I emphasize in those classes is how frequently issues in complex systems arise at the interfaces between the subsystems – such as between the launch vehicle and the crew module. A strong systems engineering approach is needed to both identify potential issues, particularly at complex interfaces, and to develop integrated solutions since a single program might only be focused on their own element of the system.

For more information about Nancy Currie and the other IIE Annual Conference keynote speakers, go to the Keynote Speakers page.