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April 12, 2001 Education Technology graduates have a role in space





Ed Tech grads at space agency

Maureen Gittens, who was on staff at Concordia while she was a student, is at the front on the left. Above her are Ian Gaither, Elaine P. Greenberg (former Canadarm course leader) and Michael Delaney. On the right are (starting from back row) Denise Quildon, Marie-Hélène Lambert, Sharon O’Connor, Peter Coirazza, Chris Chisamore, Roxane Power Marin and Eunyoung Lee. Another Concordia Ed Tech grad is Heather Fink, now a technical writer in the Radarsat (satellite) division.

Photo by Jean-François Majeau


by Marie Valla

When astronaut Chris Hadfield goes on a space walk in about a week to deploy Canadarm 2 at the International Space Station (ISS), back on earth, every one of his moves will be closely followed by a few Concordia Educational Technology graduates.

“After having been here for four years and telling everybody how it’s going to work, we’re actually going to see it in action,” said Marie-Hélène Lambert.

She has been working at the Canadian Space Agency in St. Hubert as an Instructional System Designer (IDS) for the past four years, though she graduated hoping to produce children’s television programs. She is one of 11 ISDs who design and develop the course material that astronauts and mission controllers use during space missions.

On a quick coffee break in the cafeteria of the CSA, Lambert and her colleagues Maureen Gittens and Sharon O’Connor all look exhausted. They’ve put up with 12-hour days and working on weekends to get everything ready for the Canadarm 2, also known less colloquially as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System.

Their work doesn’t stop there. Not only will they monitor Canadarm 2, but starting this week, they’ll train the team who will oversee the installation of the Mobile Base System, the second of three components delivered by Canada to the ISS in February 2002.

Recruited by the firm Tecsult-Eduplus, these educational specialists are hired to work on contract for the CSA. ISDs gather and compile data provided by CSA engineers, NASA, and MDR-Advanced Robotics, the manufacturer of Canadarm 2. It includes includes classroom presentations—lessons plans, graphics, animation and simulator activities.

None of them have a scientific background. “It takes a long time, when you don’t have scientific training, for your brain to adjust to engineering concepts,” said Lambert. “But here, you learn something new every day.”

“It is quite unusual for people working in the field of educational technology to have to learn the subject matter of the lessons to quite the extent that we do,” Gittens said, “but here, it is essential, and it can take up to a year.” This means intimate knowledge of the materials—the arm’s electrical and mechanical components, the principles of robotics, and the software controlling the arm.

The ISDs’ offices are next to a life-sized model of Canadarm 2. It is a 17.6-metre-long robot that will be used to assemble the ISS. But unlike the first-generation Canadarm, which is attached at one end, the Canadarm 2 is not is not permanently fixed at either end; in fact, either end can become a base, or shoulder.

When folded in two, it looks a bit like a giant pair of legs. Its seven joints allow it to walk around the space station as it performs its operations.

Astronaut Hadfield, who is acting as the shuttle co-pilot, will unfold the arm and hook up power cables. Once in orbit, Canadarm 2 will stay there. Any further maintenance work will take place in the weightless environment of space.

These operations require a great deal of care because Canadarm 2 is a very complex robot. This is why the CSA offers a two-week intensive Canadarm 2 course to astronauts and to the mission controllers who will plan their missions. The course teaches how to operate the arm, capture and release payloads, and walk around the space station.

There are no windows on the ISS. Vision is provided by four cameras placed on Canadarm 2. The main challenge is to learn how to manipulate the arm from a two-dimensional screen in a three-dimensional space without colliding with any of the other modules that form the ISS. “It’s like driving a car without windows just by looking in the rear-view and side-view mirrors,” Maureen Gittens explained on a tour of the models.

The training development began with Elaine Greenberg. Since the actual training program started in 1998, 25 astronauts, 32 mission controllers and 22 mission planners have completed the course. Many of them regularly come back for updates.

The course is a mix of Web-based lessons, formal classes and practical exercises. At the end, each student sits at a space-flight simulator and goes through a series of scenarios involving every step from powering up and operating the cameras and using hand controls to manoeuvring (or flying) the Canadarm 2.

“Learners are provided with one-on-one training and are given as much time as they need to master their performance on the simulator,” Gittens said.

In the training facility, a simulation of the Canadarm 2 slowly starts moving down on the computer screen. A couple of engineers review all of the procedures to ensure accuracy. The thick handout they’re flipping through lists the manoeuvres the astronauts will be performing and will be sent up in a book or be available electronically on station.

What happens if something doesn’t work properly? There are contingencies and procedures for pre-identified failures, explained Gittens, who designed the Canadarm 2 – Malfunctions and Troubleshooting lesson.

“We teach them how to respond to malfunctions by recognizing, responding, selecting the right procedure, and determining the failed component and how to resolve the problem.”
A willingness to learn, a penchant for details, and team spirit are what are requird to be an ISD for CSA. Being responsible for the end product puts you under a lot of pressure.

Sharon O’Connor concluded, “There are times when we feel overwhelmed and exhausted, especially before a course is given to a new group of astronauts or mission controllers. We wonder if it is worth the stress, but when we think of the uniqueness of the job and the fact that we are contributing to a historical event — it keeps us going.”