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by Jessica Nimon for ISS Science News
Houston TX (SPX) Jul 18, 2013
Nolan Replogle hasn't yet had the chance to speak with an astronaut, but he would sure like to. And now, thanks in part to the work he did as a NASA intern, other students around the world will have a better chance for opportunities to do just that-have live contact with International Space Station (ISS) astronauts.
"Yeah, I'd love to talk to astronauts! Who wouldn't?" said Replogle. "I think it's really cool! I can imagine it really helps inspire a lot of kids. I think that's the main purpose [of the ISS Ham Radio project], to inspire and engage kids to learn about space exploration."
Replogle interned with the Education Projects Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston from January to April. His role was to update the planning software for the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), which is used to help schedule contact events.
"I brought Nolan on board to upgrade the current ARISS mission planning software, which was critical for scheduling," said Jane Gensler, former manager of the Education Projects Office. "The software was one-fault tolerant, outdated, user and time intensive. We wanted to update it to something that was user-friendly with a graphic user interface, efficient and with reduced user error where possible."
The original software's lack of a user interface meant that people needed to input data directly into text files, and then run the program to see if it worked. As a computer engineering major at Oklahoma State University, Replogle quickly got to work using his programming skills to create a more user-friendly interface for the software. Replogle named the upgraded software ARISS Assistant (ARRISA).
"The software was virtually impossible to use, unless you spent days and days studying it," said Replogle.
"The developer didn't develop it to be distributed, but for his own use, so for that reason he was the only one who really knew how to use it. It was convoluted in a lot of ways, and the technology was outdated. So, my goal was to make it easier to use to save time. The most challenging part was trying to interpret the original author's code and program, because I had to understand that to translate it to this new technology."
Now, with Replogle's updates, there is a graphic user interface that allows users to click on buttons to enter information into text boxes. This automated feature is more intuitive and requires a lot less data entry.
An added feature of the software allows for more efficient integration of the data generated by ARISSA to planning tools used by NASA's Trajectory Operations Officer (TOPO) console position in the Mission Control Center at Johnson. The TOPO uses data from ARISSA as a baseline for upcoming space station contacts, updating the inputs for accuracy as the event date approaches.
"I was broad in my description to Nolan of the project, not understanding a lot of the programming and steps," said Gensler. "He took the initiative to make it his project and took it to a level that I could not have envisioned - not being an expert in this area."
NASA's Teaching from Space Office works in coordination with the global ARISS volunteer team for the ISS Ham Radio project to put students in touch with astronauts orbiting 220 miles above the schools on Earth. The students have about 10 minutes to ask the astronauts aboard the station space-related questions about living in microgravity, science, technology and any number of other curiosities that come from their creative minds.
To plan for these contacts, organizers have to predict the location of the space station in orientation to the ground. With this knowledge, they pinpoint the dates, times and geography of possible connections. This is where the ARRISA software comes into play as a forecasting tool.
"Everybody I've shown it to says it looks pretty impressive," said Replogle. "I demonstrated it to various groups from ARISS, and they said they were excited about using it."
With Replogle's upgrades, Gensler anticipates increases in efficiency and reduced errors, which may lead to more contact opportunities between students and crews of the space station.
Upcoming contacts currently include the Boy Scouts of America 2013 National Jamboree in Mt. Hope, W. Va., scheduled to take place during the week of July 18-23. ARISS planners use the software to identify multiple options for exact dates and times; they finalize the event one week before the contact.
"The undergraduate student workforce is amazing and can bring innovation, creativity and efficiencies into our programs for little cost with big benefits," said Gensler.
"I'm not a software engineer or a computer programmer, but I can find someone like Nolan who is passionate about programming and wants to work for NASA and make a positive difference in our products and services. His success in upgrading the mission planning system in such a short timeframe makes me want to bring more interns in behind him to continue implementation and developing even more upgrades in other areas."
U.S. education organizations interested in hosting an ARISS communication can contact NASA's Teaching from Space Office for proposal information. International schools should apply via the ARISS website for consideration.
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