When I grow up, I want to be a rocket scientist

Some kids dream of one day becoming a doctor, veterinarian or perhaps a lawyer. But each dream is fueled by different things. There is an aspiring group of students and professors at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) whose childhood aspirations were to become rocket scientists. Now, they no longer have to imagine the possibilities—rocket science is their reality. They are contributing vital research to NASA’s Constellation Program, which is working to build America’s next spacecraft to return humans to the moon.

The students and professors are participants in the Constellation University Institutes Project (CUIP). The project comprises 24 universities in association with the Constellation Program. The teams work to address some of the technical issues of space access and exploration, including rocket stability and high performance, inexpensive solid propellants. Such issues are critical to the development of Constellation’s spacecraft, and these aspiring students rise to the challenge.

Dr. Robert Frederick, professor and director of the Propulsion Research Center at UAH, leads two of the university’s three CUIP teams. With his current role, Frederick is able to build upon his own aspirations for the next generation.

“When I was a child, people were going to the moon,” he said. “Now, I can help other young people achieve their childhood dreams of working on rockets and being in the propulsion industry.”

 Students research new rocket engine technology at a test stand at UA Huntsville's Propulsion Research Center.
Students research new rocket engine technology at a test stand at UA Huntsville's Propulsion Research Center.
Frederick’s teams are focusing on thrust chamber assembly and solid propellant research. Their tasks include evaluating and improving a laboratory-scale injector test facility and developing solid propellant characterization techniques.

Ashley Penton, a master’s candidate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, works on one of Frederick’s teams. In addition to realizing her dream of becoming a true rocket scientist, Penton is excited about the real-world application of her work.

“We are looking at burn rates for solid propellants,” Penton said. ”This work is helping NASA because they are looking at using solid propellants for future rockets.”

These future rockets include the Ares I and Ares V. Ares I will launch the Orion crew exploration vehicle to the International Space Station and on to the moon, while Ares V provides heavy lift capabilities for large payloads. The first stages of both Ares rockets rely on reusable solid rocket boosters derived from the space shuttle technology. The team’s work is related to developing these new systems.

For teammate Tony Marshall, his childhood dream of working for NASA started in elementary school.

“My class took a field trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center to space camp and I said to a friend of mine that I wanted to do that some day,” Marshall said.

Marshall’s work on the CUIP program has paid off and his dream is now a reality.

“Since I have been on the team I have accepted a job that is located at the Marshall Space Flight Center,” he said.

As the space shuttle program nears retirement in 2010, the Constellation Program will advance future space exploration, and students like these at UAH are getting to work first-hand on America’s next space program. Along this journey, aspiring students such as these may become NASA’s next generation of rocket scientists.

To view the UAH CUIP team’s video “Childhood dreams” visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/constellation/stars/profiles/cuip.html

Sean Wilson
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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Updated: 02/13/2009