Institute will give university researchers more prominent role in helping NASA make space travel safer, less

ORLANDO — The University of Central Florida will help lead a new space research institute at Kennedy Space Center, giving the university’s researchers a more prominent role in helping NASA make space travel safer and less costly.

Through the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute, UCF and other researchers throughout the nation will work with NASA scientists on projects such as developing the technology to detect corrosion on space shuttles without having to remove tiles and finding better, safer ways to monitor space traffic with satellites.

UCF signed a contract last week with ASRC Aerospace Corp. of Maryland to become the lead university at the institute, which NASA started eight months ago to expand universities’ involvement with the space program. UCF will partner with more than 30 other universities, including the University of Alaska, University of Florida, Florida State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, University of Miami and University of Michigan.

The specific work of the university researchers will depend on NASA’s needs. By finding ways to make access to space safer and less expensive, the universities could “help open up missions to Mars and the moon and make them more affordable,” said Mike O’Neal, NASA’s assistant to the chief technologist for university research at Kennedy Space Center.

“We’re trying to create a collaborative environment among academia, our industry partners and NASA,” O’Neal said. “We’re really trying to get some of our researchers a little more shoulder-to-shoulder working with academia.”

ASRC Aerospace Corp. signed the University-affiliated Spaceport Technology Contract with NASA in March. The five-year contract, which includes the new institute and other space-related projects, is renewable for another five years. The contract includes about $400,000 of seed money to help start research at the institute. NASA will provide separate funding as specific projects are developed.

Richard Kniseley, ASRC Aerospace’s program manager, said the company selected UCF as the lead university because of its researchers’ “energy and excitement” and the quality of the institutes already set up at the school. He specifically praised UCF’s Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers, or CREOL.

“This is quite significant for us to be selected for a leadership role,” said M.J. Soileau, UCF’s vice president for research. “Space research really has been in our mission from the very beginning, and we’ve worked very hard to try to find the best way to make the talent of the university available to Kennedy Space Center and to the industry associated with the space program.”

UCF and NASA have worked together on space research projects since the university’s early years in the 1960s. Last year, UCF received about $7.9 million for research on NASA projects, including work at Kennedy Space Center.

In addition to working more closely with the space center, UCF will strengthen partnerships with researchers at several prominent universities through the new institute, Soileau said. Researchers affiliated with the institute also could take on projects for other government agencies and corporations.

One ongoing project at the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute could benefit NASA and commercial airlines, said Ron Barile, the institute’s acting director. Scientists are developing sensors designed to give an early warning when wires on a spacecraft are prone to fail, reducing the potential for a short circuit or sparks that could cause a fire.

UCF professors are involved in two other ongoing projects. Fernando Gomez, a computer science professor, is helping NASA make its database of daily, shuttle-related reports easier to access, and R. Glenn Sellar, of UCF’s Florida Space Institute, is assisting with efforts to better detect hydrogen and helium leaks from spacecrafts before they are launched.

The institute does not yet have a permanent home but likely will move into a new or renovated building on the space center grounds in about two years, Barile said.