"Space…the final frontier, where no man has gone before.”
This phrase from the famous TV show ‘Star Trek’ enthralled and captured millions of imaginations around the world for decades.
Ronald Cobbs was one of them.
Cobbs, a 2012 space systems engineering graduate from the School of Systems & Enterprises (SSE) at Stevens, recently received the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director’s Commendation Award. The award, the highest honor given by the NASA-JSC administrator, recognizes the center’s civil servants with “significant” contribution toward the mission and operations of the JSC.
Cobbs's journey with NASA-JSC started around three decades ago. Starting as a design engineer, Cobbs moved up the ranks to become a systems engineer and is currently an ISS avionics chief engineer.
Last year, during a spacewalk, Cobbs was helpful in identifying the cause of a space suit malfunction. Although, Cobbs was not part of the official Extravehicular Mobility Unit (space suit) investigating team, he was brought in as an electrical expert to look into the problem.
“I discovered that the problem was a systems problem, relative to operational use of the serial port on the laptop side of the suit,” says Cobbs.
As a result of his findings and intervention, the procedures for the astronauts were rewritten and retested, subsequently leading to identifying the problem.
Cobbs credits his success to his parents and his education, especially, the Stevens program.
“My parents taught me to believe in myself, have faith and shoot for the moon…that’s what I am doing. And the Stevens master’s in space systems engineering is helping me get there.”
A master’s degree, Cobbs says, gives you the tools needed to think at a broader level.
“Think of it this way, getting an undergraduate degree helps you to become good in one particular field, but a master’s helps you to become a leader and a team player, in not only your field, but other engineering disciplines as well,” he says.
As avionics chief engineer, Cobbs is currently responsible for overseeing the engineering development, and tasks and operation of all space station avionics. His role is to ensure that engineers in the NASA Directorate adhere to the “right processes.”
When there are issues that arise, or any new system that will be implemented on the space station, I have to think about the broad picture (i.e., systems perspective) to ensure things will work, he says.
This is where his Stevens’ knowledge and training comes into play.
“Stevens gave me the training needed to think outside the box and to delve deeper to where issues may potentially arise. I learned that the key to successful systems engineering lies with understanding the concept of operation (how do you plan to use what you are developing in the field of operation), the rationale requirements needed for the system, the processes you plan to implement to demonstrate that you met all of the requirements and the interfaces that make things work.”
Of all his classes at Stevens, Cobbs labels human spaceflight, applied space systems engineering, and space launch and transportation systems as some of the best.
“I am thankful and grateful for all of the things that I learned while taking these classes. They equipped me to be a technical leader and a part of the next phase in space - developing space hardware for the sake of exploration.”
“Space truly is the final frontier,” he says. Recently, there has been a paradigm shift in the space industry and there is a big demand (commercially, private industry and military) for exploring space. Systems engineering, he emphasizes, is the key to making it work.
NASA Johnson Space Center Director, Dr. Ellen Ochoa, right; and Deputy Director Kirk Shireman, left, congratulate Ronald Cobbs after presenting him with the NASA-JSC Director’s Commendation Award.