It IS Rocket Science

I’m about to finish my second internship, this time at ASRC Federal in Huntsville, AL. I’ve spent the summer in the Rocket City, contributing a small part to the development of additive manufacturing technologies for rocket engines. Additive manufacturing is a type of 3D printing. The 3D printing familiar to most people is the desktop-sized machine that melts a thin filament of plastic and builds a part layer by layer by depositing a melted plastic bead. The type of 3D printing we’re doing is different. It’s called selective laser melting (SLM), where a laser fires at a bed of metal powder, melting the metal and fusing it together into a solid product. The process is complex and has its challenges, but with additive manufacturing, we can make products with complicated geometry that is impossible to create with conventional manufacturing methods like casting, forging, and subtractive manufacturing. This video from Siemens gives a good general overview of how SLM works (starting around 0:25).

My project this summer has focused on the pre-processing of the files we send to the machines. First, someone uses CAD software to design the part to be printed. Then, the file is converted to STL format. This is because the original CAD file formats use smooth geometries (circles, curves, etc.), and the SLM machines can’t handle that. The curves need to be broken down into many flat surfaces, created by triangles. This is what the STL format does – it uses thousands of small triangles to create a mesh that represents the smooth geometry “close enough” to the original. This is usually fine, but it isn’t perfect. The computer-automated process of converting file formats makes mistakes sometimes, especially when the geometry is especially complex. The parts we’re making are complex with a lot of small, important details that can be difficult for the STL file to accurately represent. Rocket engine parts are complicated and require extremely accurate manufacturing, so this is a problem for us. Fortunately, we have software that helps clean up the STL files before sending them to the machine to be printed. This software has a toolbox of options for us to fix the errors that are introduced during the file conversion. The trouble is that each file is unique and requires a specialized combination of tools to get the fixes right (some “fixes” can actually make the problems worse in some files but work great in others).

I’ve spent the summer experimenting with different fixing procedures on different files, communicating with engineers at the software company, and identifying weaknesses in our current fixing procedures. We’re having some quality issues that are suspected to be a result of problems with the STL files. My work has confirmed that STL errors are contributing to quality issues, and I’ve also developed procedures to address the many types of problems encountered in the file pre-processing required for additive manufacturing.

In the process, I’ve developed a number of new skills. I learned how to identify and assess problems in a pre-existing system, develop solutions to those problems, and document the process. I also learned a little bit about comparative analysis with CAD models, how to adjust the course of a project according to new information, and how to maintain motivation throughout an individual project. Though I had the support of multiple mentors, I was the only intern on this project, and this was the first time I’d had a large project all to myself. It was a little intimidating, but I’ve learned a lot from it.

When I wasn’t working on that project, I was doing tensile testing on GRCop-84 (an alloy invented at NASA Glenn Research Center), helping out with hardness testing for a graduate student intern’s project to develop a heat treatment for Monel K500 (a nickel-copper alloy), and helping with density measurements using image analysis. I was able to use procedures I learned in my MSE 2331 Structures and Characterization lab course to improve ASRC Federal’s image analysis methods.

This has been a productive summer. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve enjoyed my time in Huntsville. I got the chance to volunteer at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center on a couple of weekends, and I also went on my second tandem skydive this summer! It inspired me to get working on an A license for skydiving so that I can jump by myself someday. I don’t quite feel ready to leave Huntsville yet, but I’m excited to be heading to Houston in a few weeks to start a semester-long internship at the NASA Johnson Space Center. I’m looking forward to applying the skills I’ve learned here to my projects at NASA. For now, though, I still have one week left to say I’m doing rocket science (maybe a bit of a stretch) at ASRC Federal – or at least I’m surrounded by rocket scientists.

Searching for Something Missing

Today was the third annual Eminence Symposium. We were fortunate to have many inspiring speakers dedicated to social entrepreneurship and change. I attended two sessions this morning – one about human trafficking in central Ohio and the other about healthcare in Columbus. Halfway through the second session, I was struck with a troubling realization. While surrounded by people not only dedicated to social change, but building careers out of it, I discovered that something very important was missing from my education as an engineer: a focus on people, and a humanitarian purpose to bridge my career and personal goals.

I did not choose engineering because I’m good at it. In fact, I spend exorbitant amounts of time hunched over my desk, squinting at my textbooks in confusion. I enjoy many parts of engineering, like problem solving, critical thinking, and the “epiphany moments”, when I suddenly realize a simple solution to a tenacious problem. Those moments make me feel like Ellie Arroway, the brilliant astronomer who deciphers a message from space in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. These are the victories, when the hours of frustration pay off. The coursework itself, however,  usually makes me feel more like Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys in October Sky.

If I had chosen what I was good at in high school, it would be music or something in the humanities. I chose engineering because I believe in its power to change our perspectives, to push the envelope of possibility, and to improve our lives. Nearly everything we touch was engineered for a purpose, often mundanely practical, like the ability to press a button on our car keys to unlock the car. But I don’t want to engineer the next great convenience; I want to engineer the next great expedition to rewrite the rules of what is possible for mankind. Should I ever have the chance to fly in space, I don’t want to go just as an engineer, I want to go as a representative from Earth. I want to take with me the stories of as many people as possible. I want to look at the Earth out the window and see not only a beautiful, fragile planet, but its people and their stories and history. I want to be an engineer so I can help make spaceflight possible, but what’s the point of spaceflight, anyway? What’s the point of exploration? The answer lies somewhere deep in our DNA. Exploration was a survival tactic to get us to peer out of our caves and look for food. Guided by the stars, we found our way across the globe. Now, flying among those same stars, we find our way through the universe because that exploration instinct is still in us. It reminds us who we are.

During that session this morning, I started to see so clearly that my goals and faith in exploration, so connected to who I am and who I want to be, sometimes feel disconnected from what I’ve chosen to study. I love materials science and I love the path I’ve chosen, but there’s something missing. I need a bridge between the engineer who loves labels and certainty and the human who loves the intangible, imprecise connections and stories.

I’m not entirely sure what I should build that bridge out of, but I’m glad I had that realization this morning. It made me recognize that my purpose should be more than simply advancing the space program. It reminded me that there is something deeper than my interest in space that drives me. There’s something that makes me want to be part of the effort to explore, not because it looks good on a resume, but because there’s a deeper human need for exploration and answers. I want to be an astronaut for many reasons, but the session this morning made me realize that, most of all, I want to set sail from Earth for the people that are here. I want to go, and take their stories with me – their struggles and victories, their reasons for getting out of bed in the morning, their dreams, their doubts, and their disagreements. Because if there’s one thing that connects all of us, beyond our DNA, it’s that every one of us has, at least once, looked up and wondered, just as our ancestors did when they first peered out of their caves and began to follow the stars.

White Gloves

Columbus has a growing focus on social entrepreneurship, the basis for the service portion of Eminence. In our part of this wave of social enterprise, each class of Eminence Fellows develops a long-term, innovative service initiative to address an unmet need in the Columbus community. The goal is not only meaningful service, but building the organizational infrastructure necessary for the endeavor to continue without us after we graduate. It’s hard, slow work with barriers everywhere, but its purpose is humbling – to bring long-term, positive change to the lives of others, often strangers, by capitalizing on untapped resources.

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Columbus, Ohio skyline in winter. Image from

Best Food Forward (BFF) is the service initiative built by the Eminence Class of 2019. The idea is to reduce food insecurity on Ohio State’s campus by increasing students’ access to affordable, fresh produce. Food insecurity is a messy issue, and there’s no single way to solve it. Someday we’ll become OSU’s first student-run food co-op, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, so we’re starting small, as a bulk buying club. BFF is open to anyone interested in joining. This part is important to the way we operate – at first, when brainstorming solutions to food insecurity in Columbus, we assumed we had to “target” people struggling with food insecurity and work only with them. There were several problems with this approach, including, as one advisor pointed out, our “white gloved” attitude of wanting to solve people’s problems without actually connecting with the people we wanted to help (thanks, Leo). In our effort to avoid further stigmatizing food insecurity, we had forgotten the most important part of service – the people.

The food co-op wasn’t our first idea, or our second, or third. We had several other ideas for alleviating food insecurity, all of which had fatal flaws. One idea didn’t do much to help anything, but would require a lot of volunteer time – inefficient and unhelpful. Another idea had some potential to help but demanded too much time of the people we wanted to serve, defeating the purpose. Why would we ask people to spend their time participating in this project to try and help them, when they could get the same (or probably better) benefit by spending that time grocery shopping? We’d gone from service to hindrance. Until one day, when our current BFF President, Corey, was struck with the idea of a food co-op. The idea was quickly adopted for its incorporation of service, social enterprise, and innovation. A co-op is like a business, which doesn’t sound like a service project until you realize that this (not-for-profit) business fits perfectly with our focus on food. Co-op members would have access to fresh, affordable food in exchange for their labor to support the co-op. Additionally, because they’d be utilizing and contributing to the co-op, they’d have a voice in its operation. The model gives members the chance to decide exactly where their food comes from, then experience the work that goes into making it ready to take home. In this way, we can not only address food insecurity, but also provide a means of food education.

By looking at this as a service initiative rather than a business, we see it through the lens of social entrepreneurship so prevalent in Columbus. We are here to build something that will have a lasting, positive effect on our peers, food insecure or not. Because of BFF’s inclusiveness, we’ll bring together people who are interested in food for many reasons, not just for lack of access. We’ll learn the stories of the people we serve, and make the human connections that were so lacking from our previous attempts at service. We’ll get our hands dirty from the beginning. No more white gloves.