NASA's Kennedy Space Center: Visualizing the Possibilities

NASA's Kennedy Space Center: Visualizing the Possibilities

Virtual world sessions also show how unexpected events can be dealt with effectively and in some cases prevented

Note: This is the second of a two-part article. The first part is NASA Rolls Out New Technology in 3D Simulation

For nearly half a century Kennedy Space Center has been the launch site for every U.S. human space flight, evolving over time to meet the changing needs of Americas space program. In that time, NASA has built dozens of facilities within KSC to support the engineering and construction of rockets, capsules, launch pads and components of other varied projects.

Tracey Kickbusch's 10-person team of civil servants and Boeing workers, known as the Design Visualization Group, or DVG, is applying the lessons of the past to determine the best way to handle spacecraft of the future. The group uses 3D simulation to plan and modify procedures ranging from covering a satellite with a fairing, to developing the route for a multi-vehicle support convoy without moving a piece of real equipment or risking any flight hardware. These virtual world sessions also show how unexpected events can be dealt with effectively and in some cases prevented.

"Our goal is to support the customer's ability to achieve a successful operation the first time through," Kickbusch said.

The simulations allow the group to work through the considerable challenges involved with processing future rockets and spacecraft in facilities built before some of the designers were born.

At the heart of this simulation process, Kennedy's DVG relies on Dassault Systmes DELMIA to conduct its simulations. The group has modeled dozens of facilities and support equipment within the virtual world allowing them to move equipment around and test designs and procedures. These simulations can help answer questions ranging from where to place a swing arm on a launch tower to how member support team members can be inside a spacecraft as they help astronauts strap in for launch.

In order to work with new spacecraft, facility or equipment designs, DELMIA allows DVG to import CAD data directly from engineering teams. Using the STEP open file format enables the team to import data from whatever CAD system the engineering team chose to use. A complete design is imported down to each last nut and bolt so the team to view objects in their entirety -- as they would look in real life -- or drill-down and view specific components.

In addition to being called upon to evaluate predictable processes, DVG has also been asked to consider unlikely scenarios so NASA can be prepared for improbable occurrences. For example, a large Hyster forklift and lifting fixture used to remove or install three 7,000-pound main engines from the space shuttle in an orbiter processing facility is controlled by a person sitting atop the fixture. The group not only simulated the new forklift fixture design and installation procedure for feasibility and cost effectiveness, but also simulated specific safety procedures. In this case, the group was asked to determine a course of action should the operator of the installation fixture be stricken with a heart attack while behind its controls.

"Before the advent of 3D simulation, many processes were planned with two-dimensional cutout representations of the facilities and hardware," Kickbusch said. "It was a much less precise method and did not take into account possible obstructions that were not in the footprint of the facility."

Kickbusch said today's version of M&S software is able to render much more realistic images than even two years ago.

"Someone commented that one of our posters of a planned vehicle looked more like a window than a picture," Kickbusch said.

Before the DELMIA system was implemented, analysis was done based on verbal descriptions and instructions from engineering teams. That presented its own challenges because the people and groups involved sometimes used widely varied terminology, which led to confusion.

However, with the lifelike simulations in DELMIA, everyone involved can see and understand what is being proposed and engineering teams are provided videos of the simulation to accompany the final ground operations processing documents.

"One of the main challenges in designing new systems or processes is having everyone interpreting the data in the same way," Kickbusch said. "With design visualization everyone sees the same image or simulation and you can build consensus much easier."

She said the subject matter experts all have good ideas on ways to improve the design or process and one of the main challenges is making sure her team documents all of the requested changes that occur during one of the integrated sessions.

"The ideas are coming fast and we don't want to miss anything," Kickbusch said.

The detail in the program can show potential trouble spots long before a spacecraft is built. For example, when the group was working on the Constellation Program, the analysis showed one design would limit access ground crews wearing safety gear had to access a panel on the Orion spacecraft stack. The review was specific enough, and came soon enough, to have the panel design enlarged.

The group's extensive library, made up of computer models built from a number of different computer-aided designs from engineers all over Kennedy, can be updated with laser scans of particular pieces of equipment to ensure safety or plan reutilization of an unused item.

"Being able to repurpose old equipment saves time and money," Kickbusch said.

Integrated into current and proposed programs, the Design Visualization Group is showing that 3D simulations can be as valuable for the ground operations team as blueprints are for an architect.

Peter Schmitt is vice president Sales Americas, DELMIA for Dassault Systmes and Les Goldberg is executive account manager, Aerospace and Defense, DELMIA for Dassault Systmes.

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