A Day in the Life of a Rocket Scientist - Guest Post by Kate Gunderson
My name is Kate Gunderson, and I’m a 27 year old mechanical and aerospace engineer. I currently work at the 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.
In addition to working for NASA, I’m on a mission to empower women to confidently thrive in the world of STEM.
I believe deeply in the importance for women to stay true to who they are and to celebrate their accomplishments and the successes of other women. Meet me over on my personal blog at KatelynGunderson.com to learn more!
8:00: I generally arrive at work between 7 - 8 AM depending on what’s planned for the day. I start by catching up on emails and checking in with the flight 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.
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. 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.
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.
This is a photo of one of our fused silica windows. It is 1.5 inches thick!
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 American 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 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. Head over to my blog at KatelynGunderson.com 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,
This has been a guest post by Kate Gunderson, a mechanical and aerospace engineer over at the NASA Johnson Space Center! Keep in touch by following her Instagram @ndakota_kate.