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!

Education, STEM Resources

Professional Courses to Boost Your Resume

Are you an aerospace engineering professional looking to boost your resume? I have compiled a brief list of some short courses to help give you an edge in your career.

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AIAA On-Site Courses: Check out the website for a myriad of courses which your employer can bring right to your office from computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to model-based systems engineering to tactical and strategic missile guidance and so many more.

AIAA Online Education: Here you’ll find a long list of courses (of varying lengths) taught by industry experts. All courses are taught online, offering great flexibility.

The University of Kansas: KU Aerospace Short Courses

KU offers a wide variety of options for many disciplines within the aerospace profession. Check out the course catalog for the full list of 50+ classes with many options taught several times throughout the year and in multiple locations. Some examples are “Flight Test Principles and Practices”, “Structural Composites”, “Advanced Avionics” and “Project Management Fundamentals for Aerospace Professionals”. They also offer Certificates of Specialization with many specialties to choose from.

Southwest Research Institute: NASGRO Training

NASGRO is the most widely used fracture mechanics and fatigue crack growth software program in the world. It was developed under a Space Act Agreement between SwRI and NASA. I have personally attended this training program and found it invaluable. It is a 3-day course which takes students through the very basic background of fracture mechanics, which is the basis for the program, as well as through each of the program’s modules with hands-on practice examples. Many industry leaders utilize NASGRO to ensure safe operation of structural components.

Dassault Systemes: Introduction to Abaqus

This course is currently offered online and teaches students not just how to model, submit jobs and view simulation results in the software program, but also teaches the technical basis the program utilizes to solve problems. Abaqus is the Finite Element Analysis (FEA) tool I utilized for my graduate school research.

Codecademy: Learn Python 2

Python has quickly become a favorite language due to its versatility and straightforward syntax. Because Python is open source, meaning it is freely available to the public and thus encourages open collaboration, there are many free resources available online. If you’re looking for something a little more structured, this course takes about 25 hours to complete, requires no prerequisites and promises to leave you comfortable enough with the basics to be coding your own script by the end. You can download Python for free here.

If there’s a class you’ve taken and highly recommend, drop a comment!

Education, Engineering

Top U.S. Aerospace/Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering Programs

I wanted to compile a short list of the top aerospace engineering programs in the United States. I’ve listed the top 5 here with their respective tuitions. Remember that this is not a comprehensive list and there are many great schools not listed here. Click the “full article” links on each category to see more options. Additionally, professionals working in the aerospace field can hold degrees in many other specializations like mechanical, chemical, electrical and software engineering, business, etc. Don’t let the dollar signs scare you as there are a multitude of scholarships, grants and other opportunities to help at least partially pay for school.

Further, as graduate school application season approaches, I’ve added the top aerospace graduate programs. I added a separate list for top online Master’s programs as many choose to pursue graduate programs while working a part or full-time job, and let’s not forget the unique challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this year.

I also suggest checking out my other grad school related blog posts: 1) Is Grad School “Worth It”? and 2) Graduate School Application Tips.

Undergraduate Programs [full article]

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
    • $53,818/year (private)
    • enrollment: 4,530
  2. Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA)
    • $33,794/year (out-of-state), $12,682/year (in-state)
    • enrollment: 15,964
  3. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA)
    • $56,862/year (private)
  4. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)
    • $52,266/year (out-of-state), $15,948/year (in-state)
    • enrollment: 31,266
  5. Purdue University-West Lafayette (West Lafayette, IN)
    • $28,794/year (out-of-state), $9,992/year (in-state)
    • enrollment: 33,646

Graduate Programs [full article]

Cost of enrollment for full-time graduate programs is highly dependent on whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student and whether or not you obtain funding through a grant, scholarship, graduate research assistantship (GRA), graduate teaching assistantship (GTA), or other similar funding source. If you are interested in external funding for your graduate degree, apply early!

  1. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA)
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
  3. Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
  4. Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA)
  5. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)

Online Master’s Programs [full article]

If you choose to pursue your advanced degree while working, check with your employer and see if they’ll fully or at least partially reimburse you for courses or degrees related to your job. This is a great added benefit many companies offer.

  1. University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)
    • $1,000/credit (out-of-state)
  2. Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN)
    • $1,348/credit (out-of-state)
  3. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
    • $2,075/credit (private)
  4. North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC)
    • $1,295/credit (out-of-state)
  5. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (Urbana, IL)
    • $670/credit (out-of-state)
Photo Credit: Kyle Sudu Photography

Wishing you fair winds and following seas wherever your journey takes you.

Kate