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TSU Trained Engineer Helps NASA Troubleshoot Computer on Malfunctioned Spacesuit

Ron Cobbs, International Space Station Avionics Chief Engineer and TSU graduate, helped NASA engineers identify the cause of a serial interface issue with a spacesuit that malfunctioned during a spacewalk on July 16. (courtesy photo)
Ron Cobbs, International Space Station Avionics Chief Engineer and TSU graduate, helped NASA engineers identify the cause of a serial interface issue with a spacesuit that malfunctioned during a spacewalk on July 16. (courtesy photo)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Teamwork does pay even if you are not part of the team. Just be good at what you do.

Ask Ron Cobbs, a NASA avionics chief engineer assigned to the International Space Station operations. His input has helped investigators trying to unravel the cause of a spacesuit malfunction during a recent spacewalk.

“I personally am not part of the official Extravehicular Mobility Unit (space suit) investigation team that is looking into the suit anomaly,” said Cobb, a 1989 TSU graduate with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. “

However, Cobbs said, since the problem appeared to be electrical, he was asked to “look into” the situation.

“I discovered that the problem was a systems problem relative to operational use of the serial port on the laptop side of the suit,” he added.

As a result, the procedures for the astronauts were rewritten and retested, and subsequently lead to identifying the problem.

“It worked,” Cobbs exclaimed to the excitement of his fellow engineers.

It all started on July 16 when astronaut Luca Parmitano was doing a spacewalk outside the ISS when his suit malfunctioned, cutting short the spacewalk or extravehicular activity. Water used to cool the suit started to leak into his air ventilation system, causing the astronaut’s helmet to start filling with water. Crewmembers sent a short video describing the incident to ground control engineers.

Immediately, a team of investigators, not including Cobbs, was assembled to see what was the cause of the problem with the spacesuit. However, as astronauts and team engineers were having problem downloading the data from the suit for analysis, Cobbs was called in to troubleshoot the problem.

“I am not a mechanical engineer, nor would I have been able to troubleshoot the air recycling/thermal system, but they did call me because of a serial interface issue and I was able to help,” Cobbs said, adding, “The operations group wrote the procedures and the engineers told them how the hardware works, but forgot to tell them that everything works as a system.”

He said, operationally, the laptop Wi-Fi on the spacesuit was active with software loads operating in the background, but “no one asked how they all interact together.”

“It is not enough to know about the design product, but also how it works in the environment, what are the interfaces to the design, and who are the users. All of this is known as the Concept of Operations, which was not appropriately applied in this situation to find the cause of the problem,” Cobbs added.

Cobbs, who also holds a master’s degree in Space Systems Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, said to solve the problem, he repeated the steps of the “documented procedure” to see if he could come out with the same “error.”

“I found out that there were some ambiguities that created the problem. The hardest part in the procedures was making sure they were clear so that anyone could understand them. Never assume that they already know,” he added.

“Ronald Cobbs is a true example of an electrical engineering graduate with passion for life-long learning and professional growth,” Dr. Satinderpaul Singh Devgan, professor and head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said of his former student.

“I think Ron Cobbs’ achievement at NASA is a great story,” added Dr. S. Keith Hargrove, dean of the College of Engineering.

Cobbs, who graduated TSU with honors, is a member of the Eta Kappa Nu Honor Society. He joined NASA at the Johnson Space Center immediately after graduating TSU. He has moved through the ranks from design engineer, systems engineer to now ISS avionics chief engineer.

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