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Sandy Elam - Aerospace Engineer
September 16, 2010

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Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

Tell us about the career path that led you to your present job.

What do you think are the challenges for the future in the field of rocketry?

What was the most interesting class that you have taken to prepare you for your career?

If you could spend an hour with a person who made a significant contribution to science or rocketry, who would that person be?

Were you a participant in any NASA opportunities as a student? If so, please tell us about it.

What advice would you give to students interested in a career in rocketry?


Tell us about the project that you are working on now.

I'm currently developing the use of methane as a fuel for new liquid propulsion engines that may one day be used in space for lunar or Mars applications. Many large liquid propulsion engines that power vehicles like the space shuttle use hydrogen as the fuel propellant. Other large engines might use kerosene. These fuels are very efficient for lifting large vehicles off the ground and into space. Once we are in space, we use smaller engines to maneuver vehicles and satellites around, and those smaller "in-space" engines use a different type of fuel, one that is very toxic and has to be handled very carefully. NASA decided that for new in-space missions, we would see if we could replace that very toxic fuel with methane. Not only is methane easier to handle, but scientists believe that it is actually a fuel that we may be able to make on the surface of the moon and Mars. So, rather than have to carry this fuel from Earth, it may be possible to make this fuel when we need it in space. Although methane is an abundant gas on Earth, NASA has not used it to power rocket engines - yet. In the last few years, I've been designing and testing rockets with methane for fuel. I've had the opportunity to develop lots of new technology and provide good results on this new "rocket" fuel. Eventually, we hope to use this new technology to design the engines that might be used on moon or Mars missions.

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Tell us about the career path that led you to your present job.

Actually, I had always wanted to be an architect, and that's what I started studying when I first entered college. But eventually I changed to pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. Most people think engineering is just a field for people who like math and science, which I do. But I also enjoy being creative, and engineering is a lot about solving problems with creative solutions. When I was finishing college, I interviewed with NASA and was offered a position with the propulsion department's "Combustion Devices" group. It was a natural fit for my background, since I had worked on topics related to combustion in my part-time jobs during college. Since joining NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center, I've always been with the Combustion Devices group, but I've worked on a wide variety of projects, all in the field of rocket science. Prior to my current efforts for developing methane as a rocket fuel, I worked on making rocket components lighter by using new lightweight materials. I've also worked on large engines like the space shuttle's main engines, and engines for a variety of new vehicles.

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What do you think are the challenges for the future in the field of rocketry?

We're always trying to develop and implement new technologies to make our engines more efficient and more powerful in order to reach new destinations. At NASA, we try to take advantage of the latest technologies to create better designs for new and existing engines. For example, we consider new propellants, materials and fabrication techniques. Before we can use new ideas though, we have to take the time to consider what new technologies are available and then demonstrate them with appropriate test programs to make sure they work the way we need them to.

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What was the most interesting class that you have taken to prepare you for your career?

The best classes I took for my career were in college, and they included fluid dynamics, thermodynamics and heat transfer. These classes deal with how fluids behave in different environments, how fluids are used to power different devices, and how heat is transformed into power.

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If you could spend an hour with a person who made a significant contribution to science or rocketry, who would that person be?

If I only had an hour to talk to one person, it would be Robert Goddard, who is considered the father of modern rocketry. He died well before NASA ever came into existence. I would really like to know what Goddard thinks of the progress we've made since he first designed and tested rockets. Would he be impressed at how far we've come, or would he be disappointed that we haven't gone even farther?

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Were you a participant in any NASA opportunities as a student? If so, please tell us about it.

Only in college. As an undergraduate student, I helped with a project funded by NASA to study how fire spreads in space. The objective was to prevent and deal with a fire if it ever broke out in the space station or during a space shuttle mission. It was a great experience, and I believe it helped me pursue the career I have today.

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What advice would you give to students interested in a career in rocketry?

Study it as a hobby and see if it is something you really like. You can even start by making homemade rockets with kits from hobby stores, just for fun. If rocket clubs are available in your area, they will help provide practical experience, too. Then, when you're older, you can choose from a variety of engineering programs at the college of your choice. I got my degrees in mechanical engineering, but many of my coworkers have degrees in chemical, aerospace, materials and even civil engineering.


Related Resources:

> NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
> Biography of Dr. Robert H. Goddard
> NASA Education

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services

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Sandy Elam in front of an engine test stand
Name: Sandra (Sandy) Elam Job Title: Aerospace Engineer Education: Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and Master of Science (M.S.) in Mechanical Engineering, University of Kentucky NASA Center: Marshall Space Flight Center Hometown: Lexington, Ky. Hobby: Hiking, Tennis, Arts and Crafts, Cooking
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NASA
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Page Last Updated: February 25th, 2014
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