An Interview with NASA Lead Non-Destructive Evaluation (NDE) Engineer at Johnson Space Center

Aida: Hello everyone! I’m Aida Yoguely and I am a pathways co-op here at the Johnson Space Center. This is my second co-op in the materials and processes branch but this time I’m working with the Non-Destructive Evaluation (NDE) Team. We have a very special guest today, he is Ajay Koshti, my mentor, and world renown expert in NDE.

Nice to have you here.

Ajay: Nice to meet you.

Aida: So, you work at NASA. Tell us a little bit about what you do here. This is the lab, this is where we work. Behind me there is an ultrasonic tank.

Ajay: I work at Johnson Space Center here as Lead NDE Engineer. I started working in Non-Destructive Evaluation in 1988. So basically, I’ve almost spent 30 years working in Non-Destructive Evaluation. I am a mechanical engineer with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering as well as Master’s degree, and I also have a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering.

At NASA, we support all NASA programs. This is a NASA Non-Destructive Testing Lab, so we get all sorts of NASA hardware, space flight hardware, and some test hardware for inspection. We inspect the hardware to look for material anomalies or discontinuities such as cracks, pores, and make sure the parts are defect free. And that’s our goal over here.

Aida:  Going back in time, tell me about where did you grow up in and what was it like?

Ajay: I came to the US from India, Mumbai, used to be called Bombay, Mumbai was always the local name, in 1983 as a Masters student in mechanical engineering at University of Oklahoma. I joined the space program as a contractor in 1988 working for Rockwell.

I also did some research in ultrasonic testing, which is part of non-destructive testing. I had some hands-on experience and some research experience. So that interested me to work in non-destructive testing.

Non-destructive testing is physics. So, if you are good in physics, this could be a very interesting career.

Aida: When you were growing up what were your favorite subjects?

Ajay: I was always a mechanical. I used to play with mechanical things, build a model car, model plane, things like that. I was good in math, I won’t say excellent at math. As I went to college, I realized I was very good in physics. I pulled along in chemistry and other science subjects but basically, I realized I could do science better than other subjects.

Aida: What inspired you to work at NASA? How did this transition go between going to Rockwell and doing aerospace type work?

Ajay: So, I got kind of oriented in aerospace right from my Master’s degree. We were doing research. At that time there was a research project going on with a hardware from the B-52 bomber. And there was a piece of hardware, so there was a lot of other aspects to it. Mechanical engineering, testing, destructive testing. But there was also non-destructive testing. Since then I thought maybe yeah this would be a good career. Luckily got a job working for Rockwell on the Space Shuttle program. That was really awesome.

Aida: Was that over at this space center? The Johnson Space Center?

Ajay: No this was as a contractor working in Downey, California. That was their main location where they actually designed the orbiter. They also then had a final assembly in Palmdale, California about 80 miles north of Downey, California.

I actually worked hands-on on endeavor when it was being built in and then all of their orbiters later on

Aida: At what time did you transition to Kennedy Space Center? Because I know you did some work over there.

Ajay: As orbiter endeavor was being built and completed, the manufacturing work was going down at Downey, California facility. For that reason, I took a transfer within Rockwell to Kennedy Space Center but now on operations side of the space program working on the space shuttle orbiter and that happened in 1994.

So, I worked for 6 years in Downey, California. Then I moved to Kennedy Space Center.

Aida: What are your opinions on the contrast of the kind of work that goes on at Kennedy Space Center versus Johnson Space Center?

Ajay:  Kennedy Space Center, when I was working over there on the space shuttle program, it was space shuttle processing. It is in between the flights, processing. There are a lot of hands-on aspect to it, a lot of integration aspect to it, so there are all these mission payloads that are being integrated. Orbiters are getting ready for flight. There is a lot of hardware actually built somewhere else. It could be at Johnson Space Center or could be at contractor locations. Then that arrives to Kennedy Space Center and integrated and checked out.

Aida: Before being flown out to space, right?

Ajay: Correct. Before being launched. So, you don’t see assembly of hardware over there. You see a final assembly over there. You will not see a component level work. You will see a final assembly.

Aida: Here at Johnson Space Center we are Mission Control. So, there is a lot of systems engineering and a lot of program management.

Ajay: At Johnson Space Center, as she said, systems engineering, they also get involved in resolution of anomalies. If we have hardware issues, they’ll send the hardware back to Johnson Space Center. They’ll conduct tests. They may come to the NDE lab for testing.

And then they will set up a separate test program on additional hardware, they’ll have a root cause, that will institute changes in the design, whatever actions comes out. Again, qualification of hardware, so there is a lot of engineering work that goes on. There is analysis, testing, that goes on at Johnson Space Center. They have a lot of facilities over here.

Aida: You are the lead in non-destructive testing. Which means we test parts without destroying them, without taking them apart. We can see what flaws are inside without braking them.

You do this kind of analysis for different programs. What are the different programs?

Ajay: Currently at Johnson Space Center, the largest program is the international space station. The international space station themselves have other contracts given out for what is called commercial cargo contracts. There are a lot of spaceships that dock to the space station providing supplies. So, you have SpaceX docking.

Then apart from the space station, there is the Orion project development at Johnson Space Center.

Aida: The Orion program is the one for sending Astronauts to another planet.

Ajay: Orion is the name for the spaceship which is the capsule. This capsule will go beyond the space station. The space station is in lower earth orbit.

Aida: Orion is going into deep space.

Ajay: It will go beyond that space station orbit.

We are also working with Kennedy Space Center on the manned commercial crew programs. There are 3 or 4 different contractors. The big ones are… SpaceX is a big one for commercial crew; Boeing is another big one; there is Sierra Nevada; There is also Blue Origin.

Again, we haven’t had crew flights yet but within the next couple of years we are going to see some crew flights happening.

Aida: What does a typical day at work looks like for you?

Ajay: For NDE, as a an NDE engineer, I have some weekly meetings, so there are meetings with SpaceX, with the Orion program, contractors, Lockheed Martin. There are internal NASA meetings to report on activities on these programs. Then there are larger meetings. NDE is part of materials and processing systems. So you have to go to those meetings and report. And there are other meetings called fracture control board meetings. Again, NDE is part of that.

In these meetings there are action items that come up. The typical job for a NASA engineer over here, person like me is more on the requirements side.

What are the right requirements? And, how do we meet those requirements for building this hardware and using this hardware in space?

So there are some established NDE technologies and there are some newer technologies. We actually get involved in validating and implementing these NDE technologies to provide adequate inspection of this hardware.

Aida: What are some of your current projects or problems to solve?

Ajay: We are intimately involved with SpaceX NDE. They are using a lot of new technologies.

One of the issues that you have to be careful with, there are requirements and there is a cost associated to implementing those requirements. So, there is a trade-off between technologies. So normally, ideally, you would say “The part needs to be inspected during its fabrication, for surface inspection and internal inspection for all types of flaws that can occur.” We are trying to understand, to find out those methods that are most cost efficient, also efficient in time in acquiring technologies and then implementing those as the processes.

Aida: Could you share with us one of the biggest obstacles that you face as an engineer?

Ajay: Working for NASA, we are telling NASA partners, contractors, what are the requirements. We also know by experience, working for so many years, what are the solutions that are going to solve those problems. Obviously, the end result is the implementation and the cost could be in millions of dollars to understand what is actually acceptable validation. So, we have to convince contracts “OK you need to do this much work.” So that is not an obstacle but that’s a process of getting everybody involved to understand risk and its consequences. And making the right decision for manned space flight.

Aida: What are some projects that you would like to accomplish in your time here in the NDE team over the next couple of years?

Ajay: We are always updating our technologies and we are looking at what’s available in the market.

For example, right behind us is a new TecScan Ultrasonic Scanner. This was procured about a year ago. Aida actually learned how to use this, did some inspections, got some big results.

Aida: I was pretty much the first person to try out this tool and then teach it to you guys.

Ajay: Now we are buying some new digital radiography equipment.

Aida: So, these are X-ray…

Ajay: X-ray equipment. Again, these cost about $100K. It is a major investment. We also have computed tomography.

Aida: Computed tomography are CT scans.

Ajay: X-ray computed tomography.

Aida: You’ve probably heard of when people go to the doctor. Except we don’t inspect people, we inspect hardware.

Ajay: In medical field, they are using x-ray computed tomography, we use that same technology in the NDE lab but we use it on hardware. In medicine they also use phased-array ultra-sonics. Pretty much everyone has seen baby’s ultrasound picture.

They use borescopes in medicine.

Aida: So, borescopes are like this really long thin wire that has a camera at the end and you can put it in to these tight spaces and see the inside.

In medical you would put it in a heart operation, maybe?

Ajay: Colonoscopy!

Aida: Well that is definitely a use for it.

We can put the borescope in parts.

Ajay: Like tubing, pipes, internal cavities… Just yesterday Aida and me visited the NBL, Neutral Buoyancy Lab, and there we inspected some space suit hardware looking for debris, or FOD (foreign object debris).

Aida: Space suits have these cooling systems composed of many tubes, that flow liquid or air, whatever is necessary, and so the borescope can be used to inspect these tubes.

Ajay: Yeah one of the things that we had found out was that liner of the tubes had essentially disbonded from its outer shell.

Aida: Could you tell us about one of your memorable moments here at Johnson Space Center?

Ajay: Right after Columbia accident I was actually the project engineer to institute non-destructive evaluation on reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge of the space shuttle orbiter. That material is also used on the nose cap. The Columbia accident happened because the impact caused a hole in the leading edge of the orbiter. So, we wanted to make sure the leading edge of the orbiter had good material integrity and NASA decided to institute inspection between missions. We completed that task. Delivered a flash-thermography system. That was a pretty proud movement for me.

Aida: To be part of that failure investigation.

Ajay: Yeah, instituting the non-destructive evaluation system for space shuttle orbiter and that inspection continued until the end of the program.

Aida: Could you tell us about a memorable moment over at Kennedy?

Ajay: This was in time frame of 1990. One of the tasks they gave us was inspecting the tubing inside the wings and the wing pole of space shuttle orbiter. A team of two persons, me and another engineer, we would actually crawl inside the wings, inspect all those struts. We had an ultrasonic instrument. I was the inspector and the other engineer would record the information. We used to work midnight shifts and crawl inside the orbiter. Go all the way inside to the tip of the orbiter and then come out. They replaced some struts based on our data actually.

Aida: One of the lessons I noted was a quote from you, “The reason things work for me, is because I tried.” Could you share us a story about where that quote comes from?

Ajay: People come to you saying “Hey look I have this piece of hardware and we think we have this issue. Can you inspect it?

To better answer it, you can look at what you have and you say “No, we don’t have the right tools.” And you can say “It can’t be done.”

Or you can say “We can do this much. But if we get this type of a transducer, this type of a scanner, then we can get this information.” Then the customer says “Oh, we can provide you the funding.”

So, it’s the can-do attitude. You can tell how much can you do and how much more you can do if you have the resources. Or you can say if someone else has. Having that can-do attitude, how to find how to do it and understanding that it is possible, and standing and saying “yeah, it can be done.” Just don’t be shy in attempting to do the work. That’s my attitude.

Aida: Yeah so that is what makes a really good engineer. Someone who can think outside the box and provide solutions to a problem, as opposed to saying “Meh, there’s nothing we can do!”

What are some personal goals that you hope to accomplish this year? Like, I know that aside from the work you do here at NASA, you also on your spare time do some things that drive you. Can you tell us more about that?

Ajay: I was always interested in research. I was glad that my professor in University of Oklahoma, his name is David Egle. He was my research professor. On that project I realized, that I can do research and he was the right person to motivate me and guide me. So, we published that work.

But since then I started doing research on my own with that confidence that I gained from it. I published several papers, and these are research papers, that means typically in NDE you come up with a model of how the process works. It allows you to predict what kind of flaws you can detect. So, you publish that model and then you have experimental work to show that it does. I’ve done several models in ultrasonic measurement. There is a patent going out. So, I patented one of the publications. These were actually models I used on the space shuttle program, on the orbiter. They had a real application. Then I continued doing more research work, and developing models in X-ray flaw detection. So, then I published those models. So currently I am doing research in X-ray and also doing research in flash thermography and I’ve written a program. So, there is a commercial company who has been using that program for two years so there are a couple of patents on that one. So, I really enjoy doing research because you are doing things that no one has done before. When you see people are using that work, it’s fantastic. You are leaving a legacy behind. I’ve seen people using my work from China and other countries. So that really makes you feel good as an engineer, who’s contributed to improving technology.

Aida: Research is essentially expanding the boundary of knowledge. There is everything we know, and then there are things we don’t know, and you are reaching into that unknown. Discovering new methods and new techniques.

Typically, people do research as doctors of philosophy, and people who go to pursue a PhD. But Ajay, you are doing research and you’ve done for a while now in your spare time and that takes a very highly motivated person to do that kind of work.  You’ve earned the title of Doctor of Science. You’re the first person I’ve met that has a Doctor of Science.

Can you tell us the difference between a Doctor of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)?

Ajay: PhD you have to go to school. It is the next step to the masters. And then, Doctor of Science is usually professors apply for that based on a lot of original research, published papers. To distinguish themselves as having contributed to science in a significant way, the university awards them Doctor of Science. So, I have a lot of papers in ultrasonic measurement, I opened up various ways of measuring stress in bolted joints, that’s why I got this Doctor of Science degree.

Aida: So, Ajay, what would you like to be doing in the next 10 years or 20 years.

Ajay: I actually enjoy doing what I do because one of the things in my career I’ve noticed is that every day I do slightly different work. It’s a progression of what was done before. Constant learning and I think that excites me.

Aida: Yeah that is one of the reasons I love NASA so much, every day has something new, exciting, and challenging problems to solve.

Ajay: Correct! I’ve been trained now for 30 years to work in that environment and I want to continue because it is very exciting to do that kind of work. I cannot stand doing repetitive paperwork job. As long as I have energy, I think I want to do that. I want to do more research, publish more papers. And lately I’ve been publishing 3 papers in a year. That’s very interesting actually.

Aida: That’s almost at the rate of a grad student but you do it in your spare time.

Ajay: Right, and it’s mostly single author papers actually.

Aida: What advice to do you have for a high school student that is interested in your career?

Ajay: You want to become a good engineer. If you want to work in NDE, you want to like physics. Because most of what we do over here is physics based. There is thermal which is also physics. There is wave propagation that’s vibrations, that’s also physics.

Aida: How sound moves.

Ajay: How sound travels. X-ray, that is also physics. We also do electromagnetic testing, which is also physics. If you are really good in physics, and you like to work in all these fields, NDE would be a really good fit for you. Do some research, develop communication skills.

Aida:  Your work from day to day isn’t just understanding the science and solving those problems, but it is communicating with all these teams from the different contractors.

Ajay: Correct! Because once you are given a stage to resolve an issue, you start out with the problem statements: This is what we are doing; This is what we are expecting; And this is where we are. Communication is very important in how you put your work and your results.

Aida: Into a story, right?

Ajay: Into a story and communicate that to a greater team and move forward.

Be good at writing. Whatever you are writing right now in high school, whether it’s stories or reports. Be good in English and in writing sentences. There are no shortcuts at NASA, we don’t use short languages, we spell out everything.

So, you have to be good in graphics, and to put your thoughts across, you need to be able to make some graphics. Take some pictures, edit.

She’s very good in video. Those are important skills definitely for an engineer, for tomorrows engineer. All types of communication skills, electronic based communication skills are very important.

Aida: Thank you very much for your time Ajay and for the opportunity to have worked with you this summer. It’s been a real honor.

Ajay: It was a great honor to work with you. And good luck to you. I will want to see you come back next spring.

Aida: Alrighty, bye!

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