Blake Ratcliff, program manager of NASA’s HUNCH (High School Students United With NASA to Create Hardware) program, speaks with Editor Brett Brune about the joint work to come with SME’s PRIME (Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education) initiative.
Blake, what does each entity bring to the partnership?
There’s a lot of synergy between the two organizations. PRIME has about 40 schools. HUNCH has about 137 schools, 54 of those in machining. So between the NASA HUNCH manufacturing sector and PRIME, we’ve got just around 100 schools. NASA brings projects, mentors, expertise, and schools. And PRIME brings also mentors, as well as equipment, to the schools. It has a scholarship component. Those are things we can’t do at NASA.
Why did NASA start HUNCH?
Fourteen years ago, Stacy Hale and Bob Zeek, saw a need for training hardware for our astronauts. They also saw a need for training in the manufacturing field for students. At the time, these were pretty simple projects and we thought, “Hey, let’s give them to the students and let them go and do what they can with them.” The products obviously turned out very nice, and things have progressed since then: They’ve gone from just building training mockups to building space flight hardware and even hardware that the astronauts take out on space walks with them.
I understand students create hardware used in space flight training and also to improve the quality of life aboard the Space Station. What are some specific examples?
We do mock ups. We have things called racks that go in our modules on orbit. And we have our students recreate those racks for training for astronauts. We also have a lot of other training tools. We have a big swimming pool at NASA called Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where our astronauts train in the simulated zero-G environment. And our kids build tools for that.
What’s an example of a tool used there?
Our most recent one is a toolbox. It’s a big box the crews use to keep all of their tools in. There’s a whole room full of tools we’ve participated in, in one way or another.
How about items for life in space?
We have built things like the galley table. It’s a kitchen table that folds out of the wall. All the volume on orbit has to be maximized. So you fold it out and the crew can sit there and have meals together.
What skill sets are needed for the work the students do? And what types of training does HUNCH provide?
The kids need enthusiasm and an interest in manufacturing and engineering. We do projects and build to print or we provide the drawings and they go and do the machining to build the product. We do design and prototype work, where an astronaut may call down or come down after his or her mission and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could do this?” and we’ll take that thought and ask several of our schools to come up with real prototypes that may one day be used on orbit.
What’s an example of that happening?
Sure: They are pads, like kneepads, that the crew uses to write on. Our kids come up with a lot of things like that.