My wonderful experience with VSGC/NASA Program (VASTS) by Sai Manaswi Gonela

The Beginning

I had originally not planned on participating. I had seen my counselor’s post about this opportunity on our school webpage, but I was hesitant to take it on, as it was my junior year and I would have a lot on my plate from school already. But, I took that chance. I decided to apply, just because having a shot at being accepted into a week-long Residential Summer Academy at the NASA Langley Research Center was too tantalizing to pass on. Although I had no previous experience with space research, I was accepted into the preliminary course that lasted from December to May, but my journey had only just begun.

December - May

Our very first assignment was to write a technical report of the ethical choices made that led up to the STS-51L “Challenger Disaster”. This report focused on what mistakes were made and where better decisions could have been made in the process leading up to this particular launch and in the design of the “Space Shuttle” system itself. I got very familiar with the NSPE® Code of Ethics for Engineers and applied it to the individuals that violated it in this case study.

From this first module alone, I could tell that the program I had signed up for was going to be no easy task.

As I moved through the program, I wrote technical reports about several different topics: an innovation proposal for an EVA tool, mission design for anything of your choice, designing a lunar base intended to house a human crew, the scope for a robotic exploration of the surface of Mars, managing risk for human exploration, and proposing a long duration experiment for a human crew going to Mars.

All of this research culminated for our final task: a Mars Outpost Concept of Operations Proposal. In this final project, I pulled together all that I had learned from writing previous technical reports to cover all the different aspects of this paper; I used a Scope Summary page that I had learned how to write in a previous report, and I also created a Mission Timeline, defined Mission Goals, determined the Mars Outpost Surface Base Location, defined Mission Elements, detailed the Mission Requirements and System Requirements, as well as the Crew Responsibilities, conducted a Risk Assessment, and determined Mission Constraints. All of these elements of mission design were first taught in the Mission Design module that I had completed earlier on.

Once I felt that there was nothing more I could improve on the project, I submitted it and anxiously awaited the results. I was elated to discover that I had not only gotten a perfect score on my final project, but that I had also been accepted in the Summer Academy!

Summer Academy

The one thing that had drawn me to actually apply to this program in the first place was the opportunity to stay at the NASA Langley Research Center for an entire week and receive special facility tours and meet NASA scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, through which this program was being conducted in partnership with NASA, had decided to make our Summer Academy virtual instead of Residential. This meant that instead of staying at the NASA Langley center, I would instead be logging in to our meetings at 8:30 in the morning and finishing our day past 11 at night every day for a week. Although I was disappointed by their decision to make it virtual, I understood their decision and respected it.

For the Summer Academy, they had decided to split us into 5 teams: Mission Integration, Mission Transit, Human Factors, Science and Surface Operations, and Strategic Communications. I had chosen to be a part of the Human Factors team, due to my interest in bisphosphonate agent that slows down bone mass loss I had learned about while researching risk management and had subsequently expanded on for my Long Duration Experiment Technical report.

I was appointed to the role of Mass Budget Analyst for my team, which meant that I was responsible for tracking how much mass of team-specific equipment was required for the mission to function successfully, and analyzing ways to remove mass and yet still meet mission goals.

I worked very closely with the Habitat Design Crew and ECLSS Specialist to determine the amount of mass I would need to allocate for the Human Factors Team’s necessary equipment. I had also stepped up to lead the Power Budget and Cost Budget Analysts in creating a system of organization for our spreadsheets that would automatically calculate our budgets as we added or removed values

We worked very hard to fulfill our team’s responsibilities for the overall mission that was being developed by all 5 teams. We often consulted NASA Scientists and military specialists who had volunteered their time to work with us. At the end of the week, we presented our week’s work to a panel of NASA Scientists and military specialists, as well as people who work for various commercial space companies. I was also chosen as one of four people to be interviewed for the highlight video that would remain in NASA archives along with our work.

Overall, this was an experience that I will truly never forget. The people I met and the research I’ve done are invaluable and this program has opened me up to several opportunities, including being appointed as Vice President of Space Research with Artificial Intelligence. Looking back, I am so glad that I decided to apply although I was uncertain of how it would impact my life. All I’d needed to do was to take that chance.