Dr. Kate Fu and the EDRL do Research Study at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Dr. Kate Fu, assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Engineering Design Research Lab (EDRL), first became interested in space mission design upon taking a course on the subject as an undergraduate at Brown University. Several years later, she found herself and her students at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, studying how professional space mission designers develop the plans for the United States’ most ambitious space endeavors. Her Ph.D. student, Blane Fillingim, helped to drive the research they did with JPL.

Dr. Fu in a control room at JPL.

Dr. Fu became involved in space mission design research when she was awarded a CSTAR Fellowship in 2017 in response to her proposal to study design at JPL. The fellowship gave her the opportunity to examine the Architecture Team (A-Team) at JPL, which is group of experts who focus on maturing the most advanced mission concepts, and as such, they are involved in the earliest stages of the designs for these novel missions.

Dr. Fu, Blane, and three undergraduate students (Hannah Shapiro, Ossie Nwaeri, and Felipe Borja) took multiple trips to JPL during the Summer of 2017, each lasting several days. During these visits, the group observed the A-Team as it functioned naturally, and they conducted interviews to understand the heuristics that the members of the A-Team brought into their own studies. Heuristics are the “rules of thumb” that experienced designers apply to cases on a repeated basis, and they typically develop these rules of thumb after years of successfully following and implementing the same patterns to work through a part of the design process. The heuristics of the A-Team are particularly interesting because it is a team made up of very experienced individuals who are actively applying their heuristics to ensure the feasibility of missions at their earliest stages of design.

The team of student researchers posing with mock-ups of Mars Rovers at JPL. Left picture: Hannah
Shapiro. Right picture (from left to right): Ossie Nwaeri, Blane Fillingim, Felipe Borja.

“Our goal was to help [the A-Team] understand and document the less formalized knowledge they were using to make their decisions,” Dr. Fu explains. Examples of heuristics used by the A-Team range from best practices for evaluating ideas during brainstorm sessions to rules of thumb for how to mitigate the effects of radiation in deep space. Dr. Fu and her researchers looked at all these heuristics (more than 100) to uncover trends among their frequency of use, reliability, and evolution.

The results of the initial study proved beneficial not only for the EDRL’s understanding of heuristics in the space domain, but also for the A-Team’s understanding of their own design processes. Dr. Fu and her group performed a follow-up study for which they documented their findings and presented them to the A-Team. The formalization of the rules of thumb used by the A-Team affords efficiency savings, especially for onboarding new members. Ultimately, the significant amount of data gathered made it possible for Blane, Dr. Fu, and the other researchers to publish two journal papers on the subject.

Blane, a Mobile, Alabama native and University of South Alabama alumnus, became involved in the JPL research not long after coming to Georgia Tech, and it ultimately has become a profound learning experience for him as he nears completion of his Ph.D. He noted, “I could really apply the design principles I was learning to any domain,” which is fundamentally important when it comes to studying design methods across multiple disciplines.

Dr. Fu and her research group do much more than study space missions. The EDRL takes an interdisciplinary approach to enhancing innovation and creativity in design, performing a multitude of studies on design processes, many of which focus on the ways that humans make design decisions. Dr. Fu does note, however, that space mission design is of particular interest to her, as it is a “highly constrained design environment and really complex systems.” While the collaboration with JPL was the first and only time that the EDRL has ventured into the space domain, Dr. Fu is quite interested in answering more design questions in the aerospace industry as opportunities arise.

More than anything, Dr. Fu expressed her deep gratitude to CSTAR and to JPL for the opportunity to travel to JPL and work with the A-Team on this research. “It was the experience of a lifetime,” she said as she reminisced on the extraordinarily positive impact it had on all those involved.


Published: March 2020