Demonstrating the unique skillsets acquired by rocket scientists and engineers supporting human space exploration, members of Engineers Without Borders- Johnson Space Center (EWB-JSC) actively translate their expertise to real world problems in remote areas. This association of Johnson Space Center (JSC) employees, contractors, and other professionals in the Houston/Clear Lake area volunteer their time to participate in the projects and efforts of Engineers Without Borders-USA, a non-profit organization established in 2000 to help developing areas worldwide with their engineering needs, while involving and training a new kind of internationally responsible engineer. EWB-USA projects involve the design and construction of sustainable water, waste-water, sanitation, energy, and shelter systems. These projects, initiated by the host community, are jointly designed between the EWB-USA chapters with input from the community.  Participation in EWB-JSC is purely volunteer based on members’ own time, and is not directly endorsed or supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Recently I had the honor of interviewing Tyler Blair-Sheppard, a co-lead for a priority EWB-JSC project, the design and implementation of a fruit drying system for an orphanage in Rwanda seeking economic stability.

What do you do for NASA?

I am the Environmental Control and Life Support Systems Flight Controller for the International Space Station. The easiest way to explain my job is that in space, we have to reproduce everything that the Earth does for us; recycle water for the crew to drink, produce oxygen for them to breathe, remove carbon dioxide from the air. My team manages that system from the ground so the crew can focus on operating the ISS as a science facility.

When and why did you join EWB?

I joined EWB-JSC in December of 2008 because I wanted to be able to apply my knowledge and experience to problems in the developing world.

Role in EWB-JSC

I’m a project lead for our Rwanda Project, where we’re developing a sustainable fruit drying system for L’ Esperance Children’s Village in Rwanda, so they can sell the fruit abroad. The hope is that the orphanage will be able to create their own income source, and remove themselves from the seemingly endless cycle of donations eventually that run out. It’s all about a sustainable income model; if they can start a business where the profits pay for the children’s healthcare and food, the operations of the orphanage and then send the children to school and then provide scholarships for university, so they can establish a new model of sustainable development.

Describe the connection between rural developing communities and space exploration.

Very often developing communities exist on the margins of resource availability. Lack of access to clean water is a huge problem in the developing world, as is are meeting basic sanitation needs. The community in Rwanda where the orphanage is doesn’t have access to an electrical grid. In many ways, issues within the developing world parallel those in space; scarce or very strained resources for sustaining life. NASA has a strong history of developing technology to sustain life in space. Much of that technology is applicable here on Earth to sustainably improve life in the developing world.

How does what you do for NASA relate to what you do for EWB?

Maintaining life in space is probably one of the most difficult things NASA does. Much of it has to do with using resources as efficiently as possible. EWB applies the same logic to work here on Earth.

Name 5 uses for Duct Tape.

I once used it to fix a pipe in my bathroom while living in China. You really can do just about anything with it.

Do I have to I have to be a rocket scientist to join Engineers Without Borders?

There are a long list of people who made a difference before we even had rockets, so the answer is pretty solidly no.

What others applications between exploration and developing communities can you identify? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments space below!

About Samantha

samantha.l.snabes@nasa.gov