Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wiring, Safety Work Earn Chemist Top Accolades

Tracy Gibson of ASRC Aerospace Corp. works in the Space Life Sciences Lab at NASA's Kennedy Space CenterYou may not know who Tracy Gibson is, but one day you might ride on an airplane he has made safer.

Gibson is a senior principal investigator for ASRC Aerospace Corp.'s work at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The invention he hopes will revolutionize spaceflight and air travel is self-healing wiring. If he and his team of researchers can perfect the right compound, odds are a lot of people, from astronauts and pilots to aircraft passengers, will have him to thank for preventing a potentially catastrophic short circuit.

Because the wiring repair field is so fresh, many approaches are being examined. Some designs embed tiny capsules inside wiring insulation. When the insulation rips open or tears, the capsules break and the material inside oozes out and then hardens to close the gap. But that method won't likely work for aerospace applications because spacecraft and airplanes require flexible wiring, Gibson said.

He is searching basically for a compound that pulls itself back together after a tear.

Gibson's research into that burgeoning field and his scientific work on other projects has been recognized with Kennedy's first Engineer/Scientist of the Year award for contractor employees. Gibson's other projects range from a chemical analyzer that can fit on a rover to refining hazardous materials detectors. NASA's Bob Youngquist earned the honor for the agency's researchers at Kennedy.

Scientists here note that research at Kennedy is expected to produce a tangible product that can be applied to a spacecraft, ground support equipment or another aspect of launch, processing or operations. For Gibson, the payoff of applying his work is one of the many rewards of his post.

"I feel pretty privileged with the work I get to do and at the end you get to see how it might impact the future of space and aerospace," he said. "It's exciting work, it keeps me on my toes. I'm not sure I could ask for anything more."

Gibson and his team spend considerable time in labs at Kennedy, whether at the Space Life Sciences Laboratory or inside the Operations and Checkout Building's facilities. Sometimes, the field work takes him far off-center.

For example, his team took a trip to Hawaii last year to evaluate a very small mechanism that could analyze moon dust looking for signs of chemicals which could be turned into water or used as rocket fuel for astronauts living on the moon.

Gibson praises the team approach employed at Kennedy, saying there aren't many trouble spots his group isn't willing to delve into.

"What I view our group as is problem solvers," Gibson said. "We've got very talented folks here at Kennedy. We can sit and brainstorm and overcome the problem."

At 39, Gibson has plenty more time for research and development. Even if he doesn't revolutionize wiring, he and his team are gaining expertise in a variety of areas that he thinks will pay off for the agency and public at some point.

"I just hope that by the time my career ends, I will have developed technologies that will have been utilized by NASA or by some industrial use that's made a difference," Gibson said. "I just would like to know that I've worked hard at what I've done and I've helped push technology forward."

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