NASA Collaborates With External Organizations to Improve Workforce Development
NASA’s radiation effects community, with support from the NASA Electronic Parts and Packaging program, collaborated with Texas A&M University (TAMU) academia and Radiation Effects Facility staff to develop a radiation effects training “boot camp,” first held in February 2022, with plans for future annual training. The boot camp was in response to a National Academy study called “Testing at the Speed of Light,” that looked at the available U.S. infrastructure available to provide the types of energy and ions used to do the type of spaceflight testing NASA aims to do and also the people available to do the work. Training included attendees from government, industry and academia.
The radiation effects community, both at NASA and throughout the United States, is small, and with the agency facing an aging workforce, workforce engagement and development will be key to sustaining this unique skillset. The boot camp gave radiation effects experts and junior engineers an opportunity for hands-on experience in the Radiation Effects Facility and immediate learning from the people that form their network.
According to Greg Allen, Radiation Effects Group lead at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the small pool of radiation test engineers is due in part to the fact that there’s not a lot of education available for this type of work, leading it to be a very apprenticeship-based field.
“At JPL and Goddard [Space Flight Center], we’re standing on the shoulders of people who have done this for a long time, so we have a lot of tribal knowledge we want to pass on,” said Allen. “There’s a bit of altruism there — we want to make the community as good as we can — but we also want to make sure everyone uses the resources to the best of their abilities because that’s time we as a community can’t afford right now [with limited resources]. As experienced users, we’re kind of taking ownership of passing on a lot of the tribal knowledge we have [through this boot camp].”
“There were a number of junior engineers from different organizations trained and [they] actually conducted heavy ion Single Event Effect radiation testing on EEE [Electrical, Electronic and Electromechanical] parts,” said Peter Majewicz, NEPP program manager. “This was a huge step in addressing the lack of experienced radiation test engineers.”
Other Training Efforts
In addition to supporting the boot camp, JPL has its Center for Space Radiation, which supports its efforts for engagement and growth. NASA faces a challenge of finding mid-level engineers in radiation effects, so it’s turning in-house to “make” them. The center works across different branches involved in radiation activities to teach new engineers and grow their skillsets into what will become a radiation-related capability.
Limited Facility Resources Amplify Need for Training on Efficient Testing
“Across the United States, there are very, very few heavy ion accelerators that are able to give us a large nucleus with [sufficient energy and] charge stripped away,” added Michael Campola, Radiation Effects and Analysis Group leader at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “The main two we use, the ones we call our workhorses, are the Lawrence Berkley National Lab [88” Cyclotron] and Texas A&M [University Cyclotron Facility]. These facilities are unique in that they can accelerate these particles so they can deposit charges in our devices, which happens readily on orbit. It’s how we test on the ground to see what [will] happen on orbit.”
According to TAMU, the facility “provides a convenient and affordable solution to commercial, governmental and educational customers in need of studying, testing and simulating the effects of ionizing radiation on electronic and biological systems.”
Because of the uniqueness of these facilities and the high cost of operating in them, it’s essential that when organizations, like NASA, book time for testing in the facility, they are prepared to make the most of every minute. The facility runs 24-hours per day to provide the maximum hours to the community and help meet demands.
“In the grand scheme of things, this is a very precious resource to us and our flight programs and projects,” said Campola. “We’re trying to maintain knowledge and ethos. How we get there may be dependent on the technology we’re looking into and standards and practices, but we all [NASA and others] have the same goal post. The goal is to use this precious resource in an optimized way. This is workforce engagement and workforce development, but the big goal here [with the boot camp] is putting out into the world how to effectively go to these facilities and use them wisely.”
About 15 attendees joined about as many instructors for the February boot camp.
“We curated the list of attendees in a way such that we knew whoever was coming was going to come from different experience levels,” said Campola. “People who had never been [to the facility] to people who had been there but didn’t necessarily understand why that facility was needed. This span of experience level was intentional on our part when we chose the class and the class size. The line of questioning between the students themselves — it really drove the discussion to have people asking the questions from those different vantage points.”
As Campola explained, someone brand new may ask something in line with the content being presented, where someone with more experience may ask a deeper question that went beyond what was on the screen.
“We got feedback that the highlight to attendees was the conversations that happened off-chance between members,” added Campola.
Students and instructors alike were able to share their experiences and lessons learned.
“[They’d say] ‘This is how I messed up, don’t do that; you may make new mistakes, but don’t make the mistakes commonly made,” shared Allen.
The equal numbering between students and instructors also allowed for significant one-on-one training to help everyone get acclimated. Many of the instructors came from Goddard and JPL, which lead NASA’s radiation effects efforts. Instructors included Subject Matter Experts in different device types, with each one bringing what he or she was best at to share with the class.
By pairing classroom training with hands-on time in the facility, students left feeling confident in how to do a test on their own. One of the focuses of training is making sure there’s a solid understanding of everything to do before arriving at the facility, such as debugging a system or ensuring everything needed for testing is shipped, to make the most effective use of limited testing time.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re being a good steward of the resource,” said Campola. “We fast-forwarded that first hurdle [through this training]. They’ve seen a facility, have seen things plugged in and have had eyes on what they’re up against.”
According to Campola, without this training, engineers are more likely to hesitate when it comes to recommending costly testing to programs or projects, because they don’t feel confident they can properly execute the necessary tests. However, in the end, if the project isn’t meeting requirements, the testing will still be needed and it’s now later in the project life cycle when corrections only get more difficult and costly. The goal is to instill confidence in how much time a test will take and how much it will cost.
“That’s not a communication skill that comes straight out of school or working somewhere else,” said Campola. “When weighing a lot of risks on projects that are no longer risk adverse, you need to be able to talk cost and schedule.”
Overall, the goal of the boot camp is to get the radiation effects community to what Allen describes as a “more sustainable place.” Demand is up and testing is going to be a necessity. Solid understanding of the U.S. facilities availabilities and strong communication within the community will ensure quality testing regardless of the organization and an open flow of communication, avoiding different organizations from reconducting testing already done by another.
“It’s [the training] providing the apprenticeship model that we had, because when we got hired, we had someone 20 years ahead of us,” said Allen. “Now we’re providing that expertise for those who don’t have that at their own institution.”