Alumnus Profile: Dr. Edward Cheung Ph.D. ’90, Building Gadgets from Aruba to NASA

Zoe Kitchel | April 15, 2012

The user of this robotic arm is able to control the arm by handling the smaller arm (pictured at Cheung’s left elbow). Courtesy of Dr. Cheung.

Like many children, five-year-old Edward Cheung wanted to know how everything on Earth worked. He recalls passing a day in his grandfather’s shop when a transistor radio fell to the ground and broke open so that its inner components were exposed. “I felt I was looking at magic,” he recounts. Since then, Cheung has transformed his boyhood curiosity into an extensive career that goes beyond planet Earth. Although Cheung grew up in Aruba, a small island in the Caribbean, he attended college at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. After graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering, he continued his academic career in a microelectronics program at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, where his career-defining interest in robotics took off. Under the guidance of Vladamir Lumelsky, Cheung worked on the development of robotic arms. “Before, a robot’s purpose was to be the object that puts [its components] all together,” he explains, “but Lumelsky had a new take.” Instead of programming specific directions and defined skills into a robot, this team focused on designing robots that could deal with unknown stimuli in novel environments. Cheung developed an array of sensors that essentially served as skin, covering the arm in a thin and flexible circuit board that allowed it to move around. “Initially, I did not see it much of a research area,” Cheung explains, but he would soon change his mind.

Because the intensity of graduate school was much greater than he expected, Cheung made considerable efforts to engage himself outside of his research, particularly by bonding with undergraduates. “You have an active social life [to find fun]. I had to connect with the younger students to find mine at Yale,” he recalls. During his years at Yale, he greatly enjoyed his work as a teaching assistant, as well as his involvement with the residential college system. One of his favorite memories was his Taekwondo classes in the tower of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. “In fact, in 1987, I was Connecticut state champion of my weight and belt division,” he chuckles.

After receiving his doctorate in Electrical Engineering in 1990, Cheung’s career took an exciting leap when he was recruited by the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and eventually offered a permanent position by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he has remained for the duration of his career. Although he has worked at the Center for over 20 years, his research focus has nonetheless changed throughout his time there. When he first began working, the robotic arms on the International Space Station were manufactured by Canada. Concerned about competition, Congress mandated NASA to develop the Flight Telerobotic Servicer, a space telerobot that would serve as a safe replacement of human crew in space. Due to Cheung’s experience with robotic arms, he was assigned to the project for five years until “passing political winds” terminated it. Afterward, Cheung served as principle engineer of the Hubble Space Telescope Service Project, developing “several new components for the telescope, including the cryogenic cooler, the current main instrument (Wide Field Camera 3), and portions of the power control system.”

Cheung worked to construct the cyrogenic cooler, the current main instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3. Courtesy of Dr. Cheung.

Following the culmination of the Space Shuttle Program last summer, Cheung shifted to his current focus on the maintenance of geo-synchronous communication satellites. “These satellites sit in a very special orbit … because it takes these satellites 24 hours to travel to their original spots. It turns out that the Earth also rotates in this way,” he explains, “and as a result, they are stationary in the sky in respect to the Earth.” For each satellite to stay in its unique orbit, a small amount of rocket fuel is required that keeps the satellite in place for five to seven years, at which point it is released out of orbit and destroyed. To Cheung and his team, though, this practice seemed impractical: “Why can’t we fill up the fuel tank with an external satellite in order to prolong the life, saving NASA $500 million per satellite?” he asked. NASA agreed. Now Cheung serves as the electrical lead of his team, designing, constructing, and testing robots to repair and refuel these satellites.

Although content with his current position, Cheung worries about the future of space exploration in the U.S. The end of the Space Shuttle Program leaves the United States dependent on other countries for space travel for at least another decade until the commencement of NASA’s Space Launch System. Nonetheless, he feels fortunate that he has found an area of this field that not only piques his interest in electrical engineering but also sparks his creativity. “There are many ways to solve any problem,” he explains, “but the way in which you choose to solve it is a reflection of you.” Cheung’s achievements have been recognized not only in the United States, but also in his home island of Aruba, the Netherlands, and throughout the world of robotics and space exploration. In 2010, he was knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands and also received NASA’s Medal for Exceptional Engineering Achievement. Even though he has come a long way from his roots, he has never lost his childhood delight for understanding how things work. Today, he collects and refurbishes pinball machines for the joy of taking things apart and putting them back together, “just like in my grandfather’s shop.”