This coming week is National Engineers’ Week, a combined celebration of engineers’ technical accomplishments and outreach event designed to promote STEM field awareness. A couple of my co-workers and I visited a local high school to talk to some of the students about what we do as aerospace engineers. (I used my favorite, and not entirely inaccurate, job description phrase: I steer spaceships.)
As a guidance and control engineer, a lot of what I do requires a solid grasp of the motion of a spacecraft; the orientation of various sensors, thrusters, solar arrays, and transmitters; and the geometry of the spacecraft, the Earth, the Sun, and other things in the space environment. Some of the control algorithms I work with, for example, might be designed to point the solar panels at the Sun while a camera or transmitter stares at a spot on the Earth – all while the satellite zips along its orbit at several tens of thousands of miles an hour. Visualizing all this stuff going on can be tricky. We have some 3D graphical tools (a few written by me, as I was trying to puzzle all this stuff out). We do a lot of vector math and look at plots of vector components in various reference frames. But, often enough, we just can’t beat a good, solid, hand-held model of the spacecraft to swoosh around and help us try to picture what’s happening on the real thing.
As a result, just about everybody in my group has a little cube made out of paper, or cardboard, or foam board, that is labelled with relevant features of the satellite. I have this:
I used the free Design by Me software from Lego to design myself a model of our spacecraft, and then order all the parts I would need. (I was sure to get myself lots of extra doodads to be antennae, reflectors, sensors, thrusters, and other such stuff!) What you see in the picture above is a generic configuration of the spacecraft, representative of the class of satellites that I work on, rather than a specific spacecraft. Of course, at work I have lots of extra flat plates which I have labelled with various details!
While it’s certainly not to scale or completely accurate, it’s about the right shape and size and – important for visualization – I can move the solar panels around. It’s pretty easy to think to myself, “okay, the Earth is down there and the Sun is over there, so my satellite is doing this…” Legos give the model just the right amount of heft. And they are just plain fun!
This model is not just helpful at work, but it’s also a tremendous attention-getter. I find it valuable to make my work more concrete. So I certainly made sure to bring it with me on that school visit.