Research Experiences

A typical day in the NASA Propulsion Academy


I expected the first week to be slow–a day to move in, a day for introductions and maybe some food shopping, a pit-stop at work to meet my boss for the summer.. it was all of this, plus much, much more. After a day of getting settled and meeting everyone else in the Propulsion Academy, Robotics Academy, and the regular academy (for individual research projects) ..about 35 of us in total from around the country.. we had a meeting with our mentor, who comes up with a summer project or two for a group of four. My project involves mass gauging for a propellant tank in zero-gravity using an optical interferometer. To sum it up, there are few ways of determining how much fuel is left in a propellant tank in space. Current methods work well when the tank is nearly full but not so well when the tank is nearly empty, which is when that measurement is most important. Because of this inaccuracy, excess fuel is added as a precaution, but as all of us aerospace lovers know, more weight is never a good thing. So my group, which includes students from the University of Maine, University of Texas at El Paso, and MIT, is working on using an Michelson interferometer setup, to help solve this issue. We are working closely with the Propulsion Systems Branch at Marshall Space Flight Center, which has about 20-30 members, to push this idea forward, and we regularly meet with experts in other departments in MSFC or on the army side of Redstone Arsenal base to learn more about this technology and for questions on our project specifically as well.

One great thing about working here is that everyone’s door is open, whether I have a question related to our project or a general topic, like applying to graduate school. We are in constant learning mode –morning, afternoon, and evening. During the workday, we have our main project to work on—working with the mechanics in the shop to build all of the hardware completely from scratch, with optical experts to better understand interferometry, and with project managers who help us recognize the assumptions and uncertainties in the validity of our data. Being a part of a government agency, this becomes a huge challenge, and fully understanding your experiment, your results, and how to conduct it safely can usually be the biggest hurdle. Twice a week, we have seminars held just for us that are taught by propulsion experts in the department and range from topics like “So you want to be a rocket scientist?” 101 to “the softer side of engineering.”. After a day of hard work, we head back to the cozy, air-conditioned University of Alabama dorms but don’t have time to get too comfortable before we are on our next learning adventure. In the evenings, we have speakers and events. We’ve had speakers on electric propulsion, solar sails, orbital tethers, nuclear propulsion, hybrid rockets, and many other interesting topics that I had not learned about before. (I would recommend researching the solar sails and tethers. It took my idea of propulsion to an entirely different level!) On other evenings, we’ll have space appreciation nights and watch documentaries related to the NASA missions. (“When we left Earth” is a great documentary if you can find any clips of it!) After all of this, we have about an hour or two to do some food shopping, play some music, or chat with our friends before we all pass out from exhaustion, but for a summer experience like this, it is worth it.

And the weekends? They’ll need a post for themselves..will right more soon!


Research Experiences Blog


Introducing the HCES Research Experiences Blog. This blog provides HCES members with a venue to write about research you’ve done and to inform other members about opportunities in labs at Harvard. Talk to the webmaster or another exec if you want to post.

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