September 9, 2010
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - If rocket science is complex, it would seem that aerospace engineering must be just as complicated.
Not to Rob Rouleau, a project manager at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering (CBSE). He considers himself and other aerospace engineers as experts trained to answer a simple set of questions - that is, how will the equipment be used, how to design something that best fits that use and how can the manufacturing match the exact specifications?
The 18-member team in the CBSE has proven it answers all those and more, says Rouleau. The center earns continual funding and a seal of approval from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), including a recent extension of more than $70 million to be shared among UAB and three out-of-state engineering firms.
Years ago, NASA determined that it needed better, smaller and more efficient cooling and freezing equipment for use on space shuttles and the International Space Station. Astronauts and others rely on cold storage of biosamples from space to maintain scientific integrity, Rouleau says.
Originally, the CBSE crew developed MERLIN, short for "microgravity experiment research locker incubator," to meet some of those cold-storage needs. Next came the NASA contract for UAB to design and build GLACIER, short for "general laboratory active cryogenic experiment refrigerator," to fulfill a greater demand for storage and safe transport.
When it first debuted in 2008, the cryogenic GLACIER was instantly put to good use. The sturdy freezers have NASA-approved hardware and wiring, and are built to withstand rocket-launch conditions. MERLIN units also are considered an important part of the cold-storage equation in space flight.
"What we end up using is nothing like what you might call off-the-shelf technology. A commercially available dormitory fridge or deep freezer would never make the cut," Rouleau says.
UAB's renewal and extension on its NASA contract includes continually servicing and maintaining GLACER and MERLIN units in use and any new models ordered. Additionally, the renewal requires the CBSE crew to design and build spacewalk equipment, flight-crew health and conditioning systems, environmental control and life support equipment, says Lee Moradi, CBSE's director of research engineering.
"It really puts UAB in a fabulous position because we can bring other disciplines to the table for the new projects," Moradi says. "If parts of the NASA contract mean that we also rely on local contractors to get the work done, that's fine. But it's really our ability to bring the schools of Medicine, Engineering, Physics and many other players into the mix."
Training and education is a part of the engineering work, too. CBSE is aligned with the UAB School of Optometry, a four-year professional school that is recognized nationally for its contributions to eye and vision care knowledge and vision science. CBSE Director Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D., a renowned researcher and former NASA astronaut, is a trained optometrist.
CBSE also regularly employs undergraduate students from a variety of engineering disciplines such as biomedical, civil structures and materials science. The UAB students usually work part-time at CBSE while taking classes; they learn the processes involved in developing next-generation instrumentation and hardware, Moradi says.
GLACIER and MERLIN fit the next-generation description. Both refrigeration/freezer units are now mainstays of storing biosamples and research experiments during trips to and from the space station. CBSE engineers monitor and keep the units running properly from a satellite-linked monitoring station housed at UAB.
GLACIER is compact enough to mount in what's called the shuttle mid-deck, where the crew spends a great deal of time when not in flight mode. The freezer can maintain a temperature of minus-256 degrees Fahrenheit and keep up to 22 pounds of material frozen solid.
MERLIN units are about half the size of GLACIER and can cool to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit; MERLINs also can be switched to warm their contents, like the incubators used in biophysical science projects. CBSE engineers say they are confident that when the final decision is made, the UAB freezers will meet NASA standard for payloads aboard new orbital vehicles that replace the shuttle fleet.
Rouleau says the types of scientific payloads making their way back to Earth frozen by GLACIER include racks of Petri-dishes filled with microorganisms and blood samples taken from astronauts during orbit or spaceflight. Early test results indicate that GLACIER will meet the qualifications
So while he can't claim to be a rocket scientist, Rouleau does get the satisfaction of knowing his designs are helping NASA do its job - and he can literally watch his work take off. That's because CBSE sends Rouleau and a team to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the launches and landings.
"To be there when they're installing the freezers on the shuttle and to monitor them remotely is very rewarding," Rouleau says. "To watch astronauts work on your hardware is really exciting."
Known for its innovative and interdisciplinary approach to education at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is an internationally renowned research university and academic medical center and the state of Alabama's largest employer. For more information, please visit www.uab.edu.