Austin Langton, robotics engineer for the Exploration Research and Technology Programs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, delves into the most exciting parts of his job and why developing new technology is vital for the space realm in a Q&A.
Please explain your job in a single sentence.
I conduct research and do technology development to advance resource utilization on the Moon and Mars.
What do you find most exciting about your job?
As a robotics engineer doing technology development, I enjoy having the freedom to be innovative and creative to design, build and test new technologies that could help with the exploration of the Moon and Mars. This could range from requirement documentation or generation, which means determining the needs or conditions to meet for a new or altered product or project. The purpose of engineering requirements is to take account of the possibly conflicting requirements of the various stakeholders, analyzing, documenting, validating and managing software or system requirements. Plus working in CAD to design designing something for the project, fabricating parts, building hardware, testing the hardware or documenting the results of the test.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day usually starts off with me planning out what I need to focus on throughout the day. Then I begin working on whatever phase of a project I am on.
Was the work you did your first month at NASA anything like your current work?
My first month of work I was designing the electrical control systems on a test robot in our lab. I was trying to lay out large Electronic Control Units (ECUs) inside of a robot. Now I work on a much smaller scale, designing custom printed circuit boards that house all the ECUs for other robotic applications.
What is your educational background and why did you choose to study those areas?
I went to school for computer engineering. I have always been fascinated by computers, and they were always a giant mystery to me as a kid. It is also an especially exciting time to be a computer engineer with the rapid advances in technology.
How do the era and place in which you grew up shape how you approach your work?
Growing up, I was always involved in many sports. After high school, I served in the Marine Corps infantry. The values and lessons I learned from being a part of efforts bigger than myself shape my work ethic today.
What motivated you to want to work for NASA?
My grandfather was an aeronautical engineer who worked the early Apollo spacecraft. He worked with thermal gyroscopes and designed some of the early heat shields on the Apollo missions. I was always fascinated with how smart he was. He worked on Skylab at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis from 1968 to 1972 as a Thermodynamics Engineer. He worked in a similar capacity on the Space Shuttle at Rockwell in Downey 1972 to 1973. From 1973 to his retirement in 1999, he worked as a mechanical Engineer at Honeywell in Minneapolis, working on components for the space shuttle and a number of spacecraft, doing computer analysis for structural and thermal design, including a lot of analysis of ring laser gyros, ending his career as a Senior Principal Research Scientist.
Why does conducting research and developing new technology matter to you?
The research and technology that NASA conducts benefits all of humankind. I see developing technologies as a way to improve daily life for everyone.
How do you think your NASA research or the agency as a whole benefits people on Earth?
Robotic technologies will benefit people all over the world. Safety devices, medical devices and automation of various products benefit and will continue to benefit each and every one of us.
Do you have any advice for people trying to foster innovation in the workplace?
To be innovative, you have to remove most — if not all — of the structure of a normal engineering design cycle; let the people come up with ideas and let them try their ideas in a quick iterative manner to see if the idea is feasible or not. This will allow people to “think outside the box” and let their creativity come out.