As a freshman in college, Elizabeth Muller toured the model shop at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The mechanical engineering student put her hands on her hips and said, "I could work here someday."
Someday came pretty soon. Muller just completed a three-year internship at Langley on a project involving model aircraft made in the same shop that she toured.
"Working for NASA is a dream come true, and I count my blessings every day I pass through the gate," Muller said.
Muller's aspiration to work for NASA goes back much further than her college years. Like others at NASA, Muller was attracted to the nation's space program by the Apollo missions that took humans to the moon in the 1960s.
Image to left: Liz Muller worked with remotely piloted vehicles during her internship at Langley Research Center. Credit: Liz Muller
"I saw the Apollo missions, and I pointed to the screen, and I said, 'I want to do that,'" she said.
She fulfilled her dream of working for NASA as a participant in the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars project. LARSS is a summer internship for undergraduate juniors and seniors, and graduate students pursuing degrees in engineering, science or aerospace disciplines. The project encourages high-caliber college students to pursue and earn graduate degrees and involves interns in hands-on aerospace research.
"I believe in learning from the bottom up, and when you're an intern you're at the bottom," Muller said. "I didn't know anything about aeronautics. Learning from that level on up was what I felt I needed to do."
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Muller had always been interested in the sciences. After high school, she attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., as a student athlete majoring in geology. She left college for a while but decided years later to go back and finish what she had started.
She enrolled in a two-year engineering program at Tidewater Community College and planned to return to Old Dominion to study mechanical engineering. "I had made a promise to myself to go back to ODU and finish ... and there was a certain point that I said, 'It's time,'" Muller recalled.
While taking classes at the community college, Muller met Langley engineers Celeste and Christine Belcastro at the restaurant where Muller worked. She said the sisters were regulars at the restaurant and often sat in her section and chatted with her. During one such visit, the conversation revealed that Muller was going back to school. The sisters talked to Muller about their work at NASA and encouraged her to pursue Langley's intern project.
Muller worked for the Belcastros as a LARSS intern in the summer of 2004. She was allowed to extend her internship and work at the center year-round. She earned good grades and scholarships. These funds allowed her to attend school full-time, and work at Langley part-time during the fall and spring semesters and full-time in the summers.
Muller was assigned to the Airborne Subscale Transport Aircraft Research, or AirSTAR, testbed development activity under the Single Aircraft Accident Prevention project within NASA's Aviation Safety Program. The AirSTAR testbed uses remotely piloted vehicles and a mobile operations station to research and evaluate ways to make commercial aircraft safer.
Image to right: A member of the AirSTAR testbed operations team controls a subscale transport airplane using a remote control device. Credit: Liz Muller
The remote-controlled transport models are turbine-powered and weigh approximately 55 pounds with an 82-inch wingspan. The Generic Transport Model is built to 5.5 percent scale of NASA's Airborne Research Integrated Experiments System, or ARIES, aircraft and is dynamically scaled so that, at certain altitudes, speeds and weights, the model performs like the full-scale aircraft.
Muller said the project aims to learn more about preventing airplane crashes by simulating hazardous flying conditions, called upsets, and developing mathematical models to characterize these conditions for use in upset recovery training. It also supports the development and evaluation of an onboard 'refuse-to-crash' system. The 'refuse-to-crash' algorithms and software are being developed for upset prevention and recovery as well as for failure and damage mitigation.
"The software is going to be on board (commercial aircraft), and will prevent airliners from going into a steep dive, or other extreme flight conditions or upsets," Muller said.
"NASA seems to have an opposition to us crashing full-size aircraft, so we have these models that we put in an upset, and then we recover from them. We collect the data, and we compare that to the algorithms that have been developed to make a robust software system that can be put onto any aircraft, so that it will refuse to crash."
Muller supported the AirSTAR testbed in many ways, including stress analysis on the aircraft, model production and model repair after "hard landings." She was also the lead on a project to extend the base of an antenna on top of the mobile operations station vehicle.
Image to left: Liz Muller stands next to an antenna on top of the mobile operations station. Muller designed a base extension for the antenna as part of her internship at Langley. Credit: Liz Muller
"I had to design a base that was better suited for us and build it, then install it," Muller said.
The experience at Langley showed Muller what it's like to be an engineer and work for NASA. "What I was taught in school was the absolute correct way of doing it," she said. "There were a lot of the real-life things that go on in this office that you're not taught in school."
Muller's position within NASA also afforded her the opportunity to meet some of the Apollo astronauts who inspired her. In 2004, she attended a reception celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. "Every astronaut I could possibly have named was there," Muller said. "I was just wide-eyed."
At the reception, she talked with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The second man to walk on the moon told Muller that one of the many intangible benefits of the Apollo program is the increased interest in mathematics and science by people like Muller, who witnessed the accomplishments of the program.
To achieve her dream, Muller had to overcome a lack of support from her family. "I was told a lot that I couldn't do it," she said. "My parents weren't really into seeing or knowing that women could be engineers, or work for NASA. For a while there, that's one of the reasons why I didn't pursue my dreams, but I said, 'What's the worst that could happen? Not become an engineer? That would be the worst. Why not go for it?'"
Muller graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and finished her NASA internship in May 2007. She plans to continue her education in a year or so and pursue a master's degree and doctorate. She is working in private industry -- for now. She plans to gain a little more work experience out in the field and return to NASA as soon as possible to continue living her dream.
"Most of the dreams that people have are not achieved, not because they're not possible, but because they either give up on them, or they don't believe they can happen," she said. "What you have to do is stay with the dream, no matter how hard it gets. Never give up. Keep pushing forward. It doesn't matter how small the step is, as long as it's a forward step. You'll get to your goal eventually. It took me a little bit longer to get there than most, and it was tough, but I look back on it now and I don't remember the tough stuff. I remember the good stuff."
Through the LARSS intern project, in which Muller participated, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. The project is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of strengthening NASA's and the nation's future workforce. Through this and the agency's other college and university efforts, NASA will identify and develop the critical skills and capabilities needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services