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Top Center GoalsNASA@work challenge winner creates novel approach for future lunar landings

June 21, 2018

When Johnson Space Center intern Austin Joseph was a kid, all he wanted was to fly fighter jets in the U.S. Air Force. His childhood teemed with visions of oxygen masks and the curvature of  Earth but, as he grew, he came to learn that his eyesight was not up to Air Force standards. (Back then, anything less than 20/20 was a no-go.) He gave up that dream and moved on to other things in his early adulthood, but remained captivated by the concept of soaring beyond the domain of gravity and the world’s flagbearer of human spaceflight: NASA.
“In the last five years, my interest in spaceflight was kind of reignited by some of the projects NASA was working on, like Curiosity,” Joseph said. “It got me thinking, like … wow, maybe I could actually go back and participate in some way.”
After attending school for classical music for two years, he switched to a more technical degree: electrical engineering at Portland State University. There, he has taken an active interest in his studies as team lead for the power system design on his team’s 2U CubeSat—a miniature satellite with a primary purpose of experimental research.
“It turns out, I may actually be better at the technical stuff than I would have been as a pilot, anyway,” Joseph said.
His change of course has already proven beneficial, allowing him to participate in an ongoing NASA internship as an engineer in Johnson Space Center’s Command and Data Handling Branch. Currently, Joseph is working to develop a command and control product for an experimental environmental control payload that will fly on the International Space Station next year.
Though interns at NASA work on projects far from the stereotypical tasks of fetching coffee and mindlessly filing documents, Joseph indicated that there’s still a bit of free time. His allowed him to participate in the agencywide NASA@work platform.
NASA@work is an internal crowdsourcing platform that provides NASA employees an unconventional and inventive way to share knowledge and solve problems. If someone within the agency needs a problem solved quickly and efficiently, they can try to find a solution by creating an agencywide competition. The NASA@work platform hosts challenges to which agency employees (from interns to astronauts) can submit possible solutions. The challenge owner then chooses a winner, and that winner receives a prize—and the gratification that their solution sparked a breakthrough.
“This platform is a great starting point for new technologies and processes,” Joseph said. “The brainstorming portion of any new endeavor can set the trajectory of a project. If one starts with more exhaustive possibilities, then better decisions can be made about the optimal solution, or solution sets.”
NASA@work operates under CoECI, or the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation. CoECI runs competitions both nationally and globally, teasing out improbable solvers for seemingly impossible problems. True to its name, this group recognizes the strength in numbers and the power of millions of unique world views, all of which have the potential to offer unique solutions that may otherwise have gone undiscovered.
“Having a fresh perspective is a great way to find radical ideas,” Joseph said. “Sometimes those ideas aren’t feasible or well thought out, but they may still provide an alternative approach to a specific problem.”
In the video below, Joseph describes his winning solution to a recent challenge through NASA@work to find low-cost automotive and related sensors for lunar landing applications. His solution involves the combined use of Lidar and long-distance laser-range sensors to produce a more accurate picture of the lunar surface when coming in for a landing. Joseph’s ideas will further NASA’s mission to develop habitats on the Moon and, eventually, Mars.
Though Joseph remains grounded, he has big dreams for the future.
“I’d like to have a garden on Earth and to be working in space,” Joseph said.
To learn more about how to get involved in NASA@work or to see the open challenges, visit:

Austin Joseph, an intern at NASA's Johnson Space Center, discusses how NASA@work opens up the possibilities for innovation within human space exploration, as well as his own solution to a lunar landing challenge. 

Stephanie Zeller
NASA Johnson Space Center