Education, Engineering

Part I: Intro to Flight Test Engineering

After announcing my big news that I was selected on a full fellowship to attend the National Test Pilot School, I received a lot of interest from readers wanting to know a whole lot more about flight test engineering and the adventure I’ll be embarking on come January 2022!

This is the first of a three part series on flight test engineering.

In part one, I will introduce the field of flight test engineering, the important role Flight Test Engineers play in the field of aerospace, and explain why flight test engineering is crucial to the development and certification of aircraft and spacecraft.

Part two will highlight the special skills required of flight test engineers and some examples of where you can work as a flight test engineer.

Finally, part three will discuss how I snagged a coveted spot to get paid to attend the National Test Pilot School and how you can apply for the same opportunity in the future!

*It’s worth noting that FTE is short for both flight test engineering, the discipline, and Flight Test Engineer, the person who is responsible for managing a flight test campaign.

What is Flight Test Engineering?

Very broadly, flight test engineering is the engineering associated with the in-flight performance evaluation and testing of aircraft, spacecraft, and their systems. It requires the assimilation of data to substantiate design assumptions or demonstrate that the vehicle and/or its equipment achieve specified levels of performance. Further, flight test plays an integral role in the development and certification of new aircraft and spacecraft designs. For example, when NASA and SpaceX flew Demo-2 in 2020, this was the Crewed Dragon spacecraft’s final flight test prior to certification for regular crewed flights to the International Space Station. Astronaut Bob Behnken’s background as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School Flight Test Engineer course was likely a major reason he was one of two NASA astronauts selected for the Demo-2 mission.

What do Flight Test Engineers do?

Flight Test Engineers are responsible for the definition, planning, and execution of flight tests, and the data analysis and presentation of results obtained for the duration of a test program. The FTE plays a monumental role throughout the test campaign, often coordinating and managing the entire test team of test pilots, technical specialists, various engineers across several disciplines, and even maintenance engineers to ensure all objectives of the campaign are met. During the execution of the flight test, the Flight Test Engineer is usually either on board the aircraft or located in a control room, tracking the status of the flight test in real-time.

Why is Flight Test Engineering Important?

In aerospace, the mantra “test like you fly” is repeated often and for good reason. It can be nearly impossible to replicate truly realistic flight conditions on the ground, especially when dealing with spaceflight applications. Some flight conditions are just too complications or not well enough defined or understood to accurately model. At the same time, flight test data is essential to refining the models and simulations that are becoming increasingly integral to the design, development and certification processes. Furthermore, aircraft have a multitude of systems which interact in very complex ways that are often impossible to understand without flight testing the entire vehicle.

Stay tuned for part two and drop a comment here or on Instagram if you liked this article or have any questions!

Kate

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Education, Engineering

3 Tips to Make Your Dreams Come True

I’ve had my eyes set on the sky for as long as I can remember. As a second grader I stood in the driveway in my hometown of West Fargo, North Dakota staring up at the dark night sky. It was that year I started talking about my dream of working for NASA or becoming an astronaut one day, and as any of my friends or former classmates can attest, I haven’t stopped talking about it since. No, I’m still not an astronaut (yet *haha*), but I’d say I’m living out that second grader’s day dreams just about as closely as I possibly can.

Here are 3 tips for making your dreams come true:

  1. My parents were always supportive of anything I set my mind to, even through that phase where I wanted to be a model and they took me to “casting” events. LOL. Surround yourself with those who help cultivate your dreams and kindly let go of those who serve as roadblocks. The road to success is paved with trials and tribulations and you’ll need your support system to help keep you on your feet not if, but when, you stumble.
  2. Make a roadmap of the steps you need to accomplish in order to make your dream reality. Visualize the end goal and put in the sometimes challenging work to truly think in detail about what you can do along your journey to help get you there. For example, after realizing I wanted to play a role in humanity’s journey to discovery and realizing NASA was, at the time, really the only path to getting there, I researched the backgrounds of NASA scientists, engineers, and astronauts to see what they studied in college. I set the starting point of my roadmap there. Be agile and adjust your course when needed.
  3. Be the squeaky wheel and let people know what you want. No one cares more about your career more than you do and if you don’t openly share your goals, no one can help you achieve them. A caveat to this, in the wise words of a fortune cookie, “Keep your goals away from the trolls.”

Ad astra,

Kate

Engineering

My First Project as a NASA Engineer: DReAM

Ever thought that engineers just sit at a desk and crunch numbers all day? Think again! I’m here to share the deets on my first project I managed as a full-time engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. First, I have to mention that any good project has to start with a really cool acronym, thus the birth of the DReAM Team. DReAM is an acronym I made up and stands for Domestic REturn Aircraft Modification.

One of two primary missions that NASA Johnson Space Center’s Gulfstream aircraft fly is the direct return of astronauts back to Houston when they land from the International Space Station. Once the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA began flying its astronauts to the ISS exclusively on the Russian Soyuz. The Soyuz returns to Earth over the steppes of Kazakhstan and as you can imagine, a commercial flight back home isn’t exactly the most practical, especially after having become accustomed to a lack of gravity while in space. Additionally, the sooner that medical testing can be accomplished on astronauts after their return, the more scientific data that can be collected about the implications of human spaceflight on the human body. Because the Soyuz only carries three astronauts and at least one is always a Russian, the maximum number of astronauts that ever need a lift back to Houston from Kazakhstan is two.

As the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) spools up, NASA’s commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing will initially be launching four astronauts at a time in their Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft. Although these spacecraft will drop astronauts much closer to home, the Gulfstream aircraft will still be tasked to pick them up.

My first project upon beginning my full-time job at NASA back in 2018 was to outfit these aircraft with the capability to support the return of up to four astronauts back to Houston for the Commercial Crew Program. This included reconfiguring the cabin of the aircraft to optimize space for both the astronauts and essential personnel like their flight doctors. I used existing passenger seating to create the base for mattresses that are installed so they have a place to lay down, mounted medical oxygen bottles under each bed, ensured access to medical-grade outlets for special equipment, selected the color of new carpeting to be installed, and installed curtains for privacy around each bed. Yes, I somewhat jokingly, yet also seriously now consider myself an amateur aircraft interior designer. If you can believe it, I found space for four beds and six additional passengers plus two pilots, a Flight Science Officer and a maintainer on our GV. Whew, that was tricky! This configuration flew for the first time to return the Crew-1 astronauts to Houston after splashdown off the coast of Florida early May 2nd.

The project was incredibly rewarding for several reasons. Not only was this project incredibly hands-on (which I LOVE) but I also had the chance to work with many different offices at Johnson Space Center to ensure that I was meeting everyone’s requirements; the CCP, the flight docs, the astronaut office, etc. Furthermore, although I definitely didn’t complete the project solo, it was a unique project in that I didn’t have a dedicated team working on it like we often do for payload integration projects where often all hands are on deck. In this case I was able to fully participate in the entire project lifecycle which I think is so important for the professional development of an engineer. I was in charge of requirements definition, design, integration and project management along the way and finally I’ll get to see it installed and more than likely even come along as a Flight Science Officer as we fly the design on a future direct return mission!