Engineering

A Day in the Life of an Aerospace Engineer

When I started my studies as an engineering student at RIT, I had no idea what engineers did, just that I wanted to be one so that I could score my dream job at NASA. When I speak at outreach events I often get asked by young people, “What does your average day at work look like?” So, as I celebrate my one year work-iversary, what better way to explain than to run through my average day at work as I’ve experienced it over the last year?

I currently work at NASA Johnson Space Center in the Aircraft Operations Division’s Engineering Branch. We provide sustaining engineering support and upgrades to JSC’s fleet of more than 25 aircraft which support astronaut Spaceflight Readiness Training, fly airborne science missions all over the world, and provide direct return services to our astronauts when they land back on Earth from the International Space Station. I wanted to give you a (very) small glimpse into what a typical day might look like for an engineer working in my field.

8:00: I generally arrive at work between 7 and 8 a.m. depending on what’s planned for the day. I start by catching up on e-mails and checking in with the Gulfstream mechanics to see if they have any questions pertaining to ongoing tasks I may have requested them to work on through an Engineering Work Order

9:00: On Wednesday mornings our Gulfstream team of engineers, pilots, maintenance, and the program manager gets together to discuss the status of the program. This is an opportunity to get everyone on the same page with the schedule and status of both our GIII and GV jets.

We use this Gulfstream GV to pick up astronauts when they land in Kazakhstan from the International Space Station. We also fly airborne science all over the world in this aircraft.

Background: Our Gulfstream GV has recently returned from Georgia where it was modified to include two large cutouts in the bottom of the aircraft. Two fused silica optical glass windows will soon be installed in the nadir viewports to better serve our Airborne Science customers.

Practicing window cleaning on an old Space Shuttle window.

I’ve been designated as the GV Window Systems Engineer. In this role I am responsible for ensuring our windows are cleaned, handled, and maintained properly. This is an important task as each of these windows costs upwards of $25,000 and take approximately 8 weeks to manufacture. In this role I am also responsible for using fracture mechanics principles to ensure that the proper time to failure of the window has been calculated to keep our aircrew and customers safe during science flights. If damage is discovered on the windows, I am responsible for providing engineering disposition. I love that I am able to apply some of the concepts I learned in graduate school to my job and doing so has helped to build self-confidence in my technical abilities as they relate to engineering.

One of our fused silica windows-it is 1.5” thick!

10:00: Although we have the option to use other materials (stretched acrylic has recently been found to have fantastic optical quality while being lighter, more cost effective, and easier to maintain), our first customer has chosen to utilize fused silica. This material has great optical clarity but is highly susceptible to damage and static fatigue. After receiving a piece of glass, we perform a “receiving inspection” to ensure no damage is present and to check that the manufacturer has provided us with a piece of glass that meets the specifications we requested on the order.

Background: One of the first projects assigned to me upon starting full-time at NASA was to get both Gulfstream aircraft ready to support the Commercial Crew Program by providing capability to transport up to four astronauts directly from their spacecraft’s landing site back to Houston. It’s important to get them back as quickly as possible so that valuable science data isn’t lost.

The Commercial Crew office coordinates with Commercial Crew partners Boeing and SpaceX who will soon launch astronauts to the International Space Station from the U.S. These upcoming launches are exciting because they will be the first time we have launched Americans to the ISS from U.S. soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.

12:00: I hold a CDR (Critical Design Review) to get buyoff from both the customer (Commercial Crew Program) and important Aircraft Operations Division and Engineering Branch management to ensure they are comfortable moving forward with my designs. If any action items or safety concerns are brought up by attendees at the meeting, it will be my responsibility to make any necessary changes to the design in order to receive final approval to modify the aircraft. These design reviews are reminiscent of the design reviews I was responsible for holding during Senior Design class in undergrad. I must walk management through the customer requirements and how I plan to meet them, my design and what I plan to modify on the aircraft, complete a risk analysis that the safety engineers must sign off on, and my projected budget and schedule as well as maintenance impacts.

1:00: I head out to the hangar to meet the vendor that will be installing carpet in the aircraft for my Commercial Crew aircraft modification project. I pick the carpet color and discuss where they will need to cut the carpet in order to accommodate existing seating as well as equipment I will be adding for my project. I’m a very hands-on person so one of my favorite parts of this job is that I can go out to the hangar, get on the airplane, and check measurements or whatever else I need to see in order to better complete my project.

3:00: At CDR, 90% of the design must be complete. I have two aircraft installation drawings to complete so that it is clear for the mechanics where the beds and oxygen tanks I have included in my design should be installed in the aircraft. I work on these drawings using Creo which is a 3D modeling software. Most mechanical engineers learn some sort of CAD software as a part of their undergraduate curriculum. Don’t worry if your employer utilizes a different software from the one you learned in school. Many jobs will either provide or send you to training, or give you the time to learn how to use it on the job.

This is a T-38. Astronauts train in these jets to learn how to react quickly in an environment where your decisions could have dire consequences. These are the same jets they trained in for the Apollo missions!

This is just a snapshot of a typical day at work for me. I love that I have the freedom to work on different tasks within a day so that I am never bored or stuck doing one thing. I thoroughly enjoy the hands-on nature of my work and the fact that I am surrounded by aircraft on a daily basis. This is just one example of the many exciting career paths available to engineers today. Keep checking back to connect and learn more about me as I update the site with more stories,  resources, and support to help you confidently thrive in the world of STEM.

Ad Astra and Godspeed,

Kate

Education, Engineering

Is Grad School “Worth It”?

I often get asked if you need a Master’s degree to XYZ (i.e. become an astronaut, work for NASA, be a respected, successful engineer, you name it). My answer is generally no, you do not NEED it but I always follow it with an important caveat. I think getting an advanced degree can be incredibly beneficial for several reasons. Here are my top four:

  1.  It’s an investment. Grad school was an incredible investment I made in myself. There was not a single day that passed during those two years where I didn’t question my decision because the process was extremely challenging. When I start to feel discouraged I remind myself that the things most worth having in life seldom come easy. Life’s biggest struggles often produce the best results-stick with it!
  2. You’ll grow your self-confidence. Although I learned many important lessons throughout grad school, most importantly I would argue, is that I learned an invaluable lesson in self-confidence both as a woman and an engineer. Yes there were days where I experienced imposter syndrome (more on that in a separate blog post), but the amount of pride I felt in knowing that I succeeded through the struggle is one of my life’s proudest moments. I emerged with the knowledge that I had learned to think critically and developed an ability to solve problems independently.
  3. It allows you to focus your interests. Although I had taken a couple of aerospace classes over the course of my undergraduate education, I chose to focus my efforts on the general field of mechanical engineering for my bachelor’s degree. I had my sights set on a career in aviation/space from the beginning but kept in mind that my interests may shift down the road. Grad school gave me the opportunity to finally narrow in on the aerospace field in a more specialized way with the security that I could market myself to businesses in aviation, oil and gas, automotive, robotics, healthcare, etc if my interests or career opportunities shifted.
  4. It sets you apart from your peers. According to the 2015 U.S. Census*, only 12% of the population over the age of 25 holds an advanced degree. Due to the pretty widely understood rigor of graduate school, you’ll likely emerge an “expert” in at least one specialized area and can use that to better market yourself to an employer. Not to mention that individuals with an advanced degree can often negotiate a higher starting salary and will earn more in their lifetime.

Have questions about graduate school? Leave me a message and I’ll do my best to answer it!

*Source: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf

Engineering

Every Great Adventure Begins with a Single Step

Welcome to my very first blog post! I’m so excited to get to know each other better as I share my story with you. As you can imagine, there’s a fairly large amount of vulnerability associated with starting a blog and sharing some of my most intimate thoughts and life highlights with you. Please bear with me as I newly navigate the blogging world!

I’d like to start with a little background on where my adventure begins, because I think the beginning is key to understanding who we are. I was born and raised in Fargo, North Dakota where I learned the values of working hard (I’ve had a job since I was 14, hellllo Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!) and being kind to everyone you meet (“North Dakota nice” is a real thing). I am incredibly proud of my hometown, however, I didn’t always feel that way. Growing up I always had a nagging sense that there was more for me somewhere else. I daydreamed of a future living in Hollywood as some glamourous movie star or spending my days in Houston training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (aka, the NBL-this is the giant pool astronauts train in for spacewalks) as a NASA astronaut. While these don’t exactly seem like unique aspirations for an 8 year old, I was lucky because I grew up with parents who believed in my dreams as much as I did.

My sixth grade time capsule for the year 2010 along with a photo of me dressed as my biggest role model at the time, Sally Ride.

One summer night as a second grader, I stood in the driveway with my dad staring up at the night sky. I remember feeling awestruck, recognizing how small I was in relation to the rest of the universe. I was one human being living my very simple life as the rest of the universe ticked along. I wanted to understand how it all fit together. From that very moment I decided that I wanted a front row seat on mankind’s journey to discovery and I set my sights on a career at NASA. It became no secret throughout middle and high school that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up and my zealous response to the question was always met with skepticism. How could a girl from North Dakota achieve something so unimaginable? I started to believe the doubters, but I didn’t give up.

DigiGirlz Camp at Microsoft Fargo, ~2007 (I’m on the right)

While growing up I never really had much exposure to engineering specific classes or career fields. (I did however attend DigiGirlz at the Microsoft campus in my hometown where my dad was a Software Engineer for many years. More info about the camp which is still being held in many cities all over the world, here.) So, how did I become a NASA engineer? As I mentioned, my parents always encouraged me to pursue what I was passionate about but I didn’t have any idea what it took to work at NASA.
I knew that becoming an astronaut might be a long-shot but I didn’t have any reservations about my ability to score what I believed to be the next best gig-a job as a NASA Mission Control Specialist (I must have been a very optimistic teenager!). As the time neared to apply to college, I began to investigate what it was Mission Control Specialists at NASA actually held degrees in. Most of the information I found pointed to an engineering degree. I wondered what engineers even did, but applied to a variety of engineering programs all over the country nonetheless.

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Graduation Day at the Rochester Institute of Technology, May 2015

I had never lived anywhere but my relatively small hometown in North Dakota and although I was slightly terrified about the prospect of leaving behind everyone and everything I knew, I also saw an opportunity to push myself far beyond my comfort zone. I knew that moving far away would present many challenges but in order to grow as an individual and a student it was what I needed to do to make my dreams reality. I decided on the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) having never been to the East Coast. RIT has a highly renowned co-op program which allowed me to gain exposure and experience to the engineering field while developing my sense of self and confidence as a female engineer. It was here, in my second year that I interviewed for a co-op position with NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Throughout college, I was incredibly fortunate to also intern twice with GE Aviation, including a tour at their Flight Test Operation in the California desert and a summer as a congressional intern with the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology. I have always believed in the importance of diversifying your experiences. Not only will this allow you the chance to discover what you truly love to do and make you more well-rounded personally and professionally, I believe the process of discovering what you do not want to do is of equal value. My response when asked how I scored my dream job working for NASA so early on? I always had the end goal in sight and I never stopped long to listen to negativity from those who didn’t believe in me as strongly as I believed in myself. I knew I was in control of my destiny and I refused to listen to those who thought that somehow I would allow their beliefs about me to become my truth.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

“The Man in the Arena”, Theodore Roosevelt

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY) in 2015. When it came time to decide if I would begin my career with NASA or continue on with an advanced degree, I really struggled with what the “right” decision was. I knew that I wanted to pursue either a Master’s degree or Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and that it would be incredibly difficult to go back to school once I began working and earning a stable income. However, I couldn’t help but worry that if I turned down a job offer from NASA that I would forever miss my shot at what I had worked so hard for. Once again I was asking myself to face my fears and break out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t deny my gut instinct that kept nagging at me to continue on with school. Luckily, the group I wanted to continue working with at NASA was supportive of this personal goal and agreed to take me on as a graduate co-op student so that I knew there would likely be a place for me in the group once I returned from grad school. This experience taught me, in particular, to ask for the things you want. The answer will be “no” 100% of the times you are too afraid to ask the question.

Graduation Day at Georgia Tech, May 2018

I went on to earn a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering specializing in structures from Georgia Tech (Atlanta, GA). The experience tested me in many ways, but was the single best investment I have ever made in myself (more info on graduate school in an upcoming blog post). Through all this I have grown into a person who believes in the ability to make the unimaginable a reality and I believe you can too. Life is about taking chances and understanding that every great adventure begins with a single step. Ad astra and Godspeed on wherever your journey takes you.

Photo Credit: Kyle Sudu Photography