Better, Faster Spacecraft Designs: New Software System Offers Promise of NASA-wide Collaboration

Press Release From: Marshall Space Flight Center
Posted: Monday, May 22, 2006


Even at NASA, host to some of the brightest engineering minds, the term "collaborative engineering" might not elicit excitement until you imagine its possibilities - better spacecraft designs within a shorter turnaround time.

Thanks to a recently launched NASA software system, more efficient space mission planning soon could be a reality. Developed by a team of engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the new system was created to support the NASA design teams charged with engineering the spacecraft of tomorrow - advanced vehicles to realize the Vision for Space Exploration. The vision plans for the return to the moon, human missions to Mars and exploration of the rest of the solar system.

The suite of design tools is called PARSEC, short for the Preliminary Analysis of Revolutionary Space Exploration Concepts. It enables engineers to share design ideas, access the same highly technical information and see the latest test results - all from their desktop computers.

"By evaluating more concepts within a shorter turnaround time, we can review more options early on," said Rob Adams, the Marshall Center engineer who led the software-development activity. "And by evaluating concepts in greater detail in the early stages, we can address potential problems more quickly in the design cycle, which saves time and money."

On an infinitely more complex scale, designing spacecraft is like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle. To develop a single new spacecraft, numerous sub-systems must be conceptualized, developed, tested and integrated into the final vehicle to ensure a perfect fit.

Each engineer is responsible for a select number of sub-systems ranging from electrical to life-support. But to determine whether or not their sub-system is the right one for the job, they must evaluate that system on a global level. They must ask themselves, "How does this fit with the other systems?" and "How does this fit with the spacecraft as a whole?"

The foundation of PARSEC is a central database. NASA engineers across the country can tap into it for up-to-the-minute data from colleagues. Armed with better and more comprehensive information, the engineers can evaluate design concepts earlier in the vehicle design process.

The cycle is self-perpetuating, Adams said, because these early evaluations also are input into the system, fueling better decision-making later in the spacecraft-design process. The system also closes the gap sometimes left in traditional concept and architecture mission studies, which often have fewer analytical details and little continuity between individual studies.

"We look for PARSEC to be a valuable resource not only for Marshall Space Flight Center, but other NASA centers as well," said Ed Threet, the lead of the systems engineering team within the Advanced Concepts Office. "It has been instrumental in completing advanced design studies for nuclear propulsion spacecraft and most recently in Lunar Exploration Architecture definition studies supporting the Vision for Space Exploration."

In addition to data input from engineers across NASA, PARSEC includes design tools and avenues for discussion groups among engineers and scientists - enabling seasoned design professionals to share insights and further fine-tune the software features.

"Our team intends to produce the best conceptual designs possible in the shortest amount of time," Adams said. "In doing so, we have already reached revolutionary improvements in time and accuracy. We expect to realize even higher improvements in the future as we collaborate with our colleagues around the country."

The developers also see potential for the technology to benefit industry and other governmental agencies, particularly organizations that depend on engineering and manufacturing expertise. Currently, all PARSEC design tools are limited to government and affiliated contractor personnel only. More information about PARSEC is available on the Web at:

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