Software intern takes flight at SpaceX

Story Posted: 11/4/2011

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When Taj Morton, a senior in computer science, was interviewed for a summer 2011 internship at SpaceX, the company examined his skills and qualifications as if he were applying for a full-time job. As it turned out, his exceptional performance on the flight software development team earned Morton a full-time job offer from the company.

“He’s just exceptional,” said Robert Rose, flight software development manager at SpaceX. “His skill level and ability made me very proud as a fellow OSU alum.” (Rose graduated from Oregon State University in 2002 with a B.S. in computer engineering and computer science and returned to earn a master’s in electrical engineering in 2006. He has been at SpaceX since Jan. 2009.)

During the internship, Morton was responsible for verifying and testing the redundant monitoring systems for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft that is under development to help resupply the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

Morton developed test plans and procedures for Dragon’s fault detection, isolation, and recovery (FDIR) system, which consists of multiple subsystems that monitor various components such as the 18 separate thrusters, navigation systems, global positioning units, thermal control, batteries, and so forth.

“Dragon is a fault-tolerant vehicle, meaning it can experience failures and recover from them, so there are redundancies built into the vehicle,” said Rose. “It’s a very complicated system: there’s hundreds of these fault monitors and fault responses, and Taj put together some very clever automated means to verify that all this is working correctly. On top of that, he co-authored one of the original reports that went to NASA summarizing the performance of the FDIR subsystems. It really was above and beyond what an intern is normally expected to do.”

Morton had completed two internships at an Oregon-based optical underwater sensor company before moving on to SpaceX. During his undergraduate training, he has been active with Oregon State’s Robotics Club and wrote software for the Mars Rover. For his senior capstone project, he is part of a team that is creating a platform for biomedical sensor data storage and analysis. “It's something that will store large amounts of medical sensor data and perform data analysis/processing on it to help monitor patient health,” he said. He probably won’t accept any job offers yet—he plans to continue working toward a master’s degree in computer science. For more information about SpaceX and Dragon, visit: www.spacex.com

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