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Oklahoma State University

The official magazine of Oklahoma State University

NASA's Orion Launches First Flight Test

NASA's Orion is set to launch again in 2018.

Helping NASA go where no man has gone before

Orion exploration vehicle blasts off with America's Brightest Orange


NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle launched its first flight test to analyze the spacecraft’s safety features while passing through the Van Allen Radiation Belt on December 5, 2014.

An Oklahoma State University flag was on board for the trip.

OSU alumni Razvan and Ramona Gaza played an extensive role in the creation and safe journey for Orion, a next-generation spacecraft designed to transport humans to interplanetary destinations and bring them home safely. OSU faculty and students helped with the project.

The Gazas, both research engineers who live in Houston, work for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor collaborating with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to develop Orion.

In 2004, the Gazas earned their doctorate degrees in physics from OSU, both completing their studies under the leadership of Stephen McKeever, Regents Professor of Physics.

Dr. Razvan Gaza is a member of the Lockheed Martin Orion team and the technical lead of the LM Radiation Group, whose work centers on ensuring sufficient radiation protection within Orion. In 2011, he began characterizing and helping mitigate ionizing radiation effects on the spacecraft’s electronic components. He installed the capsule’s radiation area monitors, prepared by his wife, which allow for real-time measurement of radiation levels. One of the major risks of long-duration space exploration is the danger posed by radiation.

Deep space radiation can seriously harm astronauts and damage critical equipment. With radiation engineering being a fairly new discipline, Razvan says he learns something new every day.

“I perform testing of electronic components used on board Orion to characterize their susceptibility to radiation effects,” he says. “From the test results, I calculate probabilities of radiation effects in the space environment and help the circuit designers assess and minimize radiation impacts. In addition, radiation protection for the astronauts will be essential for future Orion manned flights. I help optimize the spacecraft design to provide adequate shielding to the crew and minimize risk of detrimental health effects.”

Dr. Ramona Gaza works for Lockheed Martin’s Bioastronautics team in support of NASA’s Space Radiation Analysis Group, which observes the space radiation environment and provides a suite of instruments to monitor the astronauts’ radiation exposure on the International Space Station. She is manager of the Space Radiation Dosimetry Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and supports projects such as the International Space Station and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Her responsibilities on the Orion Exploration Flight Test included preparing and delivering a suite of radiation detectors called Radiation Area Monitors that were flown on the spacecraft, including post-flight data analysis and radiation exposure summaries.

“Team effort is the key word when your job is to support a manned-space mission, and my everyday work reflects that greatly,” she says. “No day is average in space business.”

Shortly before graduating from OSU, she was offered a position with the Space Radiation Analysis Group to implement the use of optically stimulated luminescence, which measures radiation exposure, for NASA’s International Space Station astronauts and the Space Transportation System.

OSU’s involvement in the Orion project can be traced to the couple’s work alongside McKeever and others with the radiation area monitors and optically stimulated luminescence — and the Gazas credit their success in space exploration to their studies at OSU.

“The experiences in the physics department were literally life-changing,” Razvan says. “We were fortunate to meet exceptional faculty and staff who helped us learn, discover and pursue our academic interests.”

The OSU Physics Department is a storehouse of expertise regarding radiation measurements. McKeever, founder of the Radiation Physics Laboratory, established optically stimulated luminescence techniques that have been used by NASA for many years.

The university also provided support through a national high school contest. Started by NASA and sponsored by Lockheed Martin and the National Institute of Aerospace, the Exploration Design Challenge allowed high school students in the United States to create radiation-shielding technology. The winning experiment was placed aboard the test flight. OSU provided the optically stimulated luminescence dosimeters to measure the absorbed dose of radiation for this project.

OSU has worked on similar projects with NASA before. The university’s latest contributions expand hopes to continue the partnerships with the ongoing need to protect astronauts as they venture to places never before explored by humans.

“The involvement with the Orion program, and with NASA in general, has also grown the reputation of the OSU group,” McKeever says. “It also demonstrates what a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education can do for young students, getting them involved in exploration of the solar system and other worlds.”

Along with McKeever, Mark Akselrod helped the OSU team in its radiation detection efforts. The radiation area monitors aboard Orion contain optically stimulated luminescence material, especially made of sapphire crystals, developed and produced by Landauer Inc.’s Stillwater Crystal Growth Division where Akselrod works.

Akselrod, a former OSU physicist, serves as chief scientist and executive manager at Landauer. He develops new crystals, optical techniques and instrumentation used for radiation detection.

McKeever’s and Akselrod’s optically stimulated luminescence-related inventions were awarded with several U.S. patents. Landauer licensed the OSU patents for its optically stimulated luminescence dosimeters, now used as a commercial product by approximately 25 percent of the world’s radiation dosimetry market, including NASA and the U.S. Army.

OSU’s patents have produced roughly $4 million of royalties to OSU, and students involved with the project have made a name for themselves among potential employers and in the academic world.

“The strong reputation of OSU scientists is well-known around the world and attracts more research funds and talented students who can work in well-equipped laboratories and on the new challenging projects under the supervision of the best professors in the field,” Akselrod says.

As scientists continue to study the data, Orion is set to take flight again in 2018 in an unmanned mission called Exploration Mission 1, which will center on flying around the moon. In 2021, Orion is scheduled to carry astronauts to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. The spacecraft is designed to journey to asteroids and Mars.


Uploaded May 5, 2015