Finally Back to School

After more than a year away from school for internships and co-op rotations, I’m finally heading back this August. I figured this would be a good time to sum up the big takeaways from my year away from school and set some goals for my return to academic life.

This year’s biggest takeaways:

  • Asking questions is much easier for me now. After spending a year rotating through different groups and constantly being the new person, I’ve lost my fear of looking stupid when asking questions.
  • There are usually other ways to solve the problem you’re trying to solve. Is the way you’ve picked the simplest and most effective?
  • The engineering process is iterative. Yeah, I knew this already, but I’d never experienced it to such a large extent until I started my co-ops.
  • Caring about people is useful. Obviously you should care about people anyway, but it’s a lot easier to get that thing built by the end of the week when you make friends with the machinist.
  • Engineers design stupid things that can’t be built. I need to learn more about manufacturing so I can be smarter about design.
  • Face time is important in networking. So much better than email.

Goals for the upcoming year:

  • Try not to worry so much about my GPA. Yeah it’s important, but that one exam really isn’t going to make or break me. After 90-something credit hours behind me, my GPA is pretty stable at this point. I want to focus more on mastering content rather than regurgitating for an exam.
  • Go scuba diving at least once in the fall.
  • Go to office hours every week.

Things I’m looking forward to this fall:

  • Seeing friends I haven’t seen in over a year!
  • Helping with the Eminence first-year retreat.
  • Productive days at Thompson (not looking forward to actual studying, but Thompson is my favorite place for it).
  • Game days with friends.
  • Applying what I’ve learned at work to my academics.

Go Bucks!


Spacesuit Summer

After an awesome semester at the NBL, I’m spending the summer in a new branch working on NASA’s new spacesuit. This suit is being designed to go to the Moon. Walking on the Moon has different requirements than “walking” in microgravity. The spacesuits we’re currently using on the International Space Station are almost exactly the same as the suits used for the Space Shuttle program. The current suits are the big, classic white suits you think of when you think “astronaut.” They’re called Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs. They were designed in the 1970’s and have been in use since the beginning of the shuttle days, which started in 1981. The EMU is a versatile suit and a feat of engineering, but it comes with its challenges. It’s bulky, and range of motion in the joints is severely limited, which makes working in the suit difficult. The torso portion of the suit puts a lot of strain on the shoulders, which makes shoulder injuries common. Spacewalks are typically 6 hours long, plus time to get suited up and then get out of the suit when the spacewalk is over. From start to finish, a spacewalk takes up 8-10 hours, and you’re in the suit for most of that, which means that dealing with limited mobility and physical resistance to motion is exhausting. Plus, with our current presence in space limited to low Earth orbit, you’re not actually “walking” when doing a microgravity spacewalk, so there’s no need for your boots to be functional for walking. Basically, you can’t walk in the EMU, only float, because that’s the type of mission it has to accomplish.

The new suit IS intended for walking because we’re getting ready to go back to the moon, which has gravity. Engineers have taken into account a lot of the lessons learned over the decades about human factors, anthropometry, and needs for various ranges of motion in people of different sizes. They’re making big advancements in ease of motion, smart electronic displays and controls, and appearance – current designs include light-up portions of the suit.

With a new suit comes a new life support system, which is what I’m working on. The Portable Life Support System, or PLSS (pronounced “pliss”), is the backpack of the spacesuit. It contains the breathing gas, thermal control equipment, electronics, and more – basically everything a spacecraft would need to support human life, just miniaturized into something that can be worn on your back. The component I’m working on is in the thermal loop, which controls the body temperature of the human in the suit as well as the electronics in the PLSS. During a spacewalk, you’re more likely to overheat than freeze because of the insulation of the suit and the physical exertion required. To keep your body temperature at a comfortable level (and to prevent you from suffering heat exhaustion), you wear a liquid cooling and ventilation garment (LCVG), which is basically long underwear with tubes woven into it. Liquid water flows through the tubes, which are in contact with your skin, and this helps cool you down. All the water gets recycled, so it has to be chilled again after circulating past a warm body. This is what I’m working on. There’s a heat exchanger in the PLSS that takes care of this, and I’m helping to develop the materials processing methods that will be used to manufacture the heat exchanger hardware.

Something I’m working on this summer is going to help us go explore the moon for the first time since 1972. I can’t wait to see it fly!

Diving In

This spring, I’m working at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), where NASA trains astronauts underwater for spacewalks. The NBL is a 6.2 million gallon indoor pool that is 200 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. It houses full-scale mockups of the International Space Station. The NBL is a unique facility, and I feel so lucky to work here this semester. Since I’m studying materials engineering, I’m working on the materials that the mockups are made of. They’ve been in use for 18 years, and will continue to be used as long as the ISS is flying. The pool is chlorine water, which eats away at materials over time. Specifically, I’m looking into the plastics used on the mockups because a lot of time and money is spent on maintenance for plastic components. I’m planning materials testing with another division at JSC that has the lab equipment and expertise needed to tell us exactly what has happened to these plastics.

That information will inform research into new plastics that could replace the current materials. There’s a lot to consider: water absorption, chlorine resistance, temperature range, shelf life, degradation mechanisms, cost, strength, visual appearance, and more. I’m getting a good lesson in the complexities of materials selection.

The coolest thing about my job is getting to dive in the pool. It’s unreal. I got certified this semester specifically so that I could dive at the NBL, and my first NBL dive was last week. I can’t believe I get to do this.

Left: Descending using a down line. I’m not good at controlling my descent yet, and if you descend too fast you can hurt your ears. Top right: Exploring the truss segments of the International Space Station. Bottom right: Swimming by a mockup of a Japanese module.


Back to Back to Back Internships

I finished my fall internship at JSC, and now I’m home for six weeks for the holidays. After my six weeks, I’m not going back to Columbus, but instead, I’m going back to Houston again for another semester-long internship! While I was working with the Habitation Hardware Team this fall, I realized that I want to spend my career at JSC, so I applied for the Pathways Internship Program (aka co-op program), and I got an offer to return to JSC as a Pathways Intern in January for the spring semester. Around here, Pathways Interns are unofficially called co-ops, while the Education Office interns are simply called interns. The difference is that the interns enter into a one-time deal with NASA – they come work for a semester, and at the end of it, they don’t owe JSC anything, and JSC doesn’t owe them anything. They are free to apply again to future internship opportunities at JSC, or they can apply to other centers or leave NASA altogether. It’s a short-term commitment, which is a great way to get your foot in the door and find out if this type of work is for you. Every NASA center has both an intern and co-op program. I was an intern at Goddard Space Flight Center before becoming an intern at JSC. Now, with my offer to become a co-op, I’m entering into a long-term commitment to NASA. I “owe” NASA three co-op rotations (semester or summer) before I graduate. NASA, in return, will let me come back for as many co-op rotations as I can fit in before I graduate without having to reapply, and they will give me preferential consideration in hiring over non co-ops when I graduate. Another part of my commitment is that I am “married” to JSC, so to speak. When you enter into a co-op agreement with any NASA center, you are committed to that specific center and can’t move to another one unless you resign from one and apply to another from scratch. This is where some people prefer to stick with the intern program rather than commit to one center through the co-op program.

Since I know I want to be at JSC, accepting an offer for the co-op program was a no brainer! This spring, I’ll be spending my semester working at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at JSC, which is a 6.2 million gallon indoor pool where NASA trains astronauts for spacewalks. The pool houses full-size mockups of the International Space Station for astronauts to use for training, and these mockups have been in the pool for about 18 years. After sitting for that long in chlorine water, the plastic materials in the mockups are degrading, so I’ll be using my materials background to characterize the degradation and recommend new materials NASA can use in mockups of future spacecraft, like Deep Space Gateway (essentially a future space station orbiting the Moon).

After the spring semester, I’ll stay in Houston for one more rotation in the summer before finally returning to school in August. At the end of all this, I will have been away from school for over a year, which is crazy. I’ll have to do some studying before I go back! The experiences that I will get to have in Houston will be worth the delay in graduation, though. I’m looking forward to a great semester!

My fall semester was full of fun experiences, including meeting some of NASA’s newest class of astronauts, visiting Rocket Park, and getting to work on hardware that will help sustain human life on future space exploration missions.


Houston, We Have an Intern

I started my internship last week at the NASA Johnson Space Center. My first couple of weeks in Houston have been pretty crazy. My first day was the same first day as NASA’s new astronauts, and it was also the same day as the solar eclipse. By the end of my first week, Hurricane Harvey was nearing the Texas coast, and I left for Dallas to stay with relatives until the storm moves through. JSC has been closed this whole week because Houston is flooded – hopefully the roads will clear up soon. We’re all ready for this storm to be over.

This semester, I’ll be working with the Heat Melt Compactor (HMC), which is kind of like Wall-E. It heats and compresses trash into tiles. The idea is to use these tiles for radiation shielding. Plastic is a good radiation-shielding material, and since a lot of trash is made up of plastic, NASA is thinking about utilizing the plastic trash and repurposing it into radiation shielding. This would kill a lot of birds with one stone:

  • Trash volume reduction, so that your spacecraft doesn’t fill with trash
  • Water reclamation
  • Sterilization of microbes in trash (from the heat)
  • Radiation shielding
    • If you can make a radiation shield as you go, rather than launching big blocks of plastic at the beginning of your mission, you can save a lot of “upmass,” which is exactly what it sounds like – the mass you have to launch. Each pound can be thousands of dollars to launch, and there’s limited volume in the spacecraft, so the greater the mass of radiation shielding you include at the beginning, the less you can take in other important resources (food, water, medical supplies, science experiments, etc.)

I’ll also be doing a little bit of work exploring properties of some softgoods materials that might someday be used as part of a future space toilet (just call me Wolowitz).

I can’t wait to get back to Houston and get to work – this looks like it will be a great semester!

Goodbye, Huntsville!

I spent the summer in Huntsville (“Rocket City”) learning how to 3D print thrust chambers and fuel injectors for next generation rocket engines. I learned a lot about file processing and the math that goes into it, and I also had the chance to sharpen some of my materials science skills, including sample preparation and image processing. It was a great experience, and I’m thankful to the awesome people at ASRC Federal that welcomed me into their team for the summer.

While I was here, I got to visit the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center a couple of times. My roommate, a Marshall intern, showed me around her lab, and I got to visit some of the incredible facilities at Marshall, including test stands for Space Launch System (SLS) hardware. I also got to see one of the first flight articles for SLS – it was pretty incredible to see something firsthand that will be flying to the moon soon.

Outside of work, I’ve enjoyed exploring Huntsville. Big Spring Park downtown and the Von Braun Astronomical Society on top of Monte Sano were some of my favorites. I’ve had a great time being part of the Rocket City. Now I’m headed to Michigan for a week to visit home before going to Houston for the fall semester.

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.

Micro-g NExT at Johnson Space Center

In May, my Micro-g NExT team went to Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX to test our asteroid anchoring tool. It was designed to be ergonomically friendly for an astronaut wearing a spacesuit, which is bulky with a very limited range of motion. This presented unique design and operational challenges, including sizing of interfaces on the tool and motions required of the operator. For example, a “push and turn” motion, like that used on a steering wheel, is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the range of motion of an astronaut’s shoulders is severely limited in the spacesuit; the likelihood that the crewmember would actually be able to lift their arms into position for this type of motion is low. If they could, it would probably be painful and tiring. In the context of a 6 hour long extravehicular activity (EVA, aka a spacewalk), tiring tasks are not good. We need to limit those so that the person in the suit has enough physical energy and mental capacity to last through the entire 6 hours, no breaks, no food.

Because our tool required the operator to rotate an auger that would drive into a sand/gravel mix (simulating an asteroid surface), we had to come up with a way for the astronaut to convey rotational motion without a push and turn operation. Instead of the steering wheel concept, we used quarter turns of a ratchet, which allowed for one-handed operation instead of two, conformed to the limited range of motion experienced in a spacesuit, and used an easily repeated action, all of which contributed to ergonomics, ease of operation, and minimizing the time required to operate our tool.

After an adventure involving multiple missed connections and cancelled/rebooked flights, all four of us made it to Houston and we reported to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) with our tool. There, we handed our tool off to an NBL diver after passing a test readiness review (TRR). While the divers were underwater operating our tool, we were upstairs in the Test Control (TC) room giving instructions to the divers through underwater speakers placed in the pool.

Our tool performed very well and made it through our 20 minutes of testing – the divers had great feedback for us, and appreciated how easy it was to use. In addition to our test, we also participated in tours of the NBL and other facilities at Johnson Space Center, including a spacesuit lab. To top it all off, we got to take a picture with U.S. astronaut Serena Aunon Chancellor after her 6 hour training run in the NBL! It was a great experience, and though the last two semesters of working on this project have had a few more all-nighters than we care to admit, we had a great time with this and learned a lot!

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.

Image result for columbus winter
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.