Blazing a New Trail
After retiring from the Orlando police force, Dolores Petropulos aimed for a new career in computer science. An internship with NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Project, or USRP, helped her advance her passion for computer programming and spark a new dream of working in robotics and artificial intelligence.
In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?
I was offered a USRP internship by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I applied on SOLAR (Student Online Application for Recruiting Interns, Fellows and Scholars).
Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement and why this topic is important.
I developed, tested and used simulation software for Project Morpheus, the second prototype (version 1.5) of an autonomous rocket/moon lander. In classical mythology, Morpheus is a god of dreams. He appeared in the dreams of mortals and had the ability to take any male human form.
In the NASA Johnson Space Center research project Morpheus, the next moon lander/rocket is designed for autonomous flight or many different types of flight. It is portable and could be used to send a robotic or manned mission to a distant planet. Morpheus has an onboard navigation and guidance system and a precision landing and hazard avoidance system (ALHAT). These systems will allow Morpheus to fly autonomously, or with limited interaction from mission control. The ALHAT project stands for Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology and involves active sensors for terrain-relative navigation and hazard avoidance. Morpheus' propulsion system consists of an oxygen/methane fuel-type system, which also can be derived from space and terrestrial atmospheres, providing potential in situ resource use opportunities.
My work on this project involved developing, testing and using simulation and flight software. In particular, I have been incorporating portions of the capabilities of the Autonomous Flight Manager into the NASA Goddard Core Flight Software, which was obtained at the beginning of the Morpheus project. Reuse of the proven Core Flight Software with new software components specific to Morpheus is an experiment in affordable extensibility of a vehicle's capability. The software components specifically involved in my project are the Autonomous Flight Manager, the Sequencer and the Limit Checker.
What has been the most exciting part of your research?
It was all exciting! I love to program, and knowing I contributed to an important project like Morpheus got me to understand how and why the dedicated men and women on the Morpheus team are so devoted to this program. It started as an exciting project, and as time went on, it entered my heart and became a part of my soul. Seeing the test launches and how the Morpheus team works together before, during and after the launches was impressive. Being in Morpheus' mission control center during the launches was an awesome and breathtaking experience.
What inspired you to choose your education/career field?
I am a retired police officer. Since I had my first computer as an officer in 1990, I fell in love with the computer science field and always had an interest in how computer programs were structured. After I retired, I decided to go back to school to fulfill this dream. I went back to school to study programming. I originally thought I would program for some small company. I never thought in my wildest dream that I would end up a rocket scientist!
In the summer of 2010, I took a NASA NCAS (National Community College Aerospace Scholars) online course. I scored high enough that NASA offered me an all-expenses-paid trip to Johnson Space Center. While I was there, I saw the Space Exploration Vehicle and Robonaut 2, which is now up on the space station. I then knew that the direction I wanted to go was robotics or artificial intelligence. Why? I have dyslexia, and to get by in my courses, I have to understand how my brain functions, to find ways to get around my disability. Computers mimic the brain’s functions. I believe I can use this understanding in the future to write algorithms to use in a robotic vehicle or robot.
My experiences led me to apply on SOLAR, which resulted in the offer to intern in the Morpheus Project. Interning at NASA JSC directed me toward a career in software engineering. I enjoyed the work and how the Morpheus team worked together to accomplish the great task of developing this awesome spacecraft of the future.
What are your future career plans, and how do you think your time with NASA will affect your future?
My NASA experience has given me an idea of where I need to go to shape my future and the direction of my dreams. I originally planned on just earning my four-year degree. Because of my experience with the Morpheus Project, I have decided to go on for my master's and doctorate. I am looking at getting into robotics or artificial intelligence. My internship gave me a greater understanding of robotics and how autonomous flight can be encompassed in a rocket like Morpheus. I want to return to work for NASA when I graduate.
I learned at NASA that speaking is a very important part of the job for a software engineer. With this is mind, while I was an intern I became involved in TEDx (an international forum for ideas). I volunteered for the TEDxWomen Dec. 1 conference committee and was asked to speak at the worldwide conference by Ted Kenny. It was an honor and a great learning experience. It was exciting to know I spoke at the same conference with the likes of Barbara Walters; singer-songwriter/producer Morley; scientist Keiko Nakamura-Messenger; astronauts Ellen Ochoa, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and Cady Coleman; and NASA educator Cindy McArthur.
My time at NASA was a wonderful and exciting experience. I pinched myself every day I was there, as it was an unbelievable dream come true.
What advice would you have for other students who are interested in working with or for NASA?
Learn and practice what you learn until it's perfected. Take advantage of the programs that are offered. NASA's NCAS project, internships and co-operative education programs are very important stepping stones of a future NASA scientist/engineer.
› USRP (Undergraduate Student Research Project)
› SOLAR (Student Online Application for Recruiting Interns, Fellow and Scholars) →
› National Community College Aerospace Scholars
› Project Morpheus →
› NASA’s Johnson Space Center
Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services