NASA Flight Opportunities Program PI Spotlight: Kevin Crosby

Kevin Crosby during a microgravity flight on G-FORCE ONE airplane.

EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — With a half-dozen Flight Opportunities campaigns under his belt (including one currently underway — see Flights section above), Carthage College professor Kevin Crosby understands the value of the program. Through flight testing, he has been able to raise the technology readiness level (TRL) of his slosh control and propellant gauging technologies for spacecraft.

As head of the school’s Space Sciences program, Crosby blends his development of these technologies with powerful learning opportunities for his students. We spoke with Crosby about what he has learned during his years of flight testing and how those lessons apply to both students and the research community as a whole. 

How do you address some of the key challenges of suborbital flight testing?

There are a lot of unknowns and counter-intuitive forces at play in zero gravity, which requires creative problem solving and planning for contingencies. I recommend three things. First, communication is essential. My teams do daily check-ins and document exchanges. Communicate constantly with the team and expect them to communicate with you. Second, build in a 25% schedule margin to accommodate team members’ other priorities. This is especially important when working with students. Finally, involve external reviewers. When someone from the outside provides feedback about the payload and experiment design, they pose questions you might not have thought of. This helps you anticipate potential failures before flight.

Tell us a bit more about how you approach preflight risk mitigation.

Well, failure can be a great learning moment, but we do try to stay constantly aware of the potential for failure. So, we clearly articulate the goals — both our minimum success criteria and some stretch goals — and then we plan for all the ways we might fail. We want to guess at every way there is to fail and mitigate against those. If we don’t meet a goal, we want it to be because of something we couldn’t have foreseen.

Are your students disappointed when things fail?

I’ve found that they are more resilient than most of us. Plus, they often get to fly again. That’s the beauty of Flight Opportunities: You fly, come back down, adjust the hardware configuration, and try again. The stakes of suborbital tests aren’t as high as orbital flights, so it’s perfect for involving students. They learn valuable lessons they can’t get in any other environment. It is extremely motivating to them to be at this frontier of common access to space, particularly for those with a commitment to making a career in aerospace. And many of them have. My students have gone on to work at various NASA centers and commercial space companies. One is now working on the next generation of spacesuits at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

It sounds like you focus on more than just technical skills with your students.

Yes, they learn a lot of soft skills, like team management. People skills are so important when you’re working in a high-pressure environment on a tight schedule. We also provide the history and relevance of their projects. We talk about how parabolic flights translate into cost reductions and technology acceleration. We give them context for what they’re doing so they understand how their work benefits NASA missions. We also teach them how to talk to the general public about the work. Outreach and being able to explain to a non-technical person what you’re doing and why NASA is funding it is so important. They need to learn this skill as early as possible.