As a student at Montana State University, Colin Tilleman never believed that a career in aerospace was an option for him. That changed, however, when he participated in NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate's Space Grant Senior Design Project during his senior year. Tilleman was part of a team that developed small satellites, including one that will be launched with NASA's Glory mission.
In what type of NASA-mentored project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?
There were a number of different projects that I was able to choose from for my senior capstone project, and I chose to work on one that was affiliated with NASA. I worked with a partner, Anthony Thomason, and one of my professors, Dr. Brock LaMeres, provided guidance and put us in contact with our mentors at NASA. In addition to that project, I also spent much of my time working on small satellites at the Space Science and Engineering Lab at MSU. One of these satellites, named Explorer 1-Prime, was selected to be launched by the Taurus XL launch vehicle for NASA's Glory mission.
Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement, and why this topic is important.
My senior design project involved designing a radiation-tolerant computing system. In a space environment, computer hardware is often exposed to radiation that can cause memory corruption. When this happens, a computer may behave unexpectedly or stop working all together. A common way to mitigate a type of memory corruption known as single event upsets is to use redundant hardware. My project implemented a redundant architecture on an FPGA (field-programmable gate array), a type of hardware that can be reprogrammed. An FPGA was used because NASA is interested in using hardware that can be reprogrammed on the fly to be used in a different manner, a field known as reconfigurable computing.
Who was your NASA mentor?
Andrew Keys and Robert Ray of the Marshall Space Flight Center provided guidance and were very helpful in putting the definition of our project into context with NASA's mission objectives.
What has been the most exciting part of your research?
The most exciting part was seeing my research evolve as other student projects expanded upon it.
What is your educational background and what are your future educational plans?
I have a bachelor's (degree) in computer engineering from Montana State University. Graduate school is a possibility for me in the future, but I have no plans at the moment.
What inspired you to choose the education/career field you did?
The unique challenges associated with putting things into space along with the opportunity to advance knowledge of our world and the places beyond it inspired me to work in this field. Because of the challenges and costs associated with exploring space, there seems to be a reluctance lately to pursue these endeavors. But after having the privilege to work with other individuals who are optimistic about our future in space and determined to make an impact on that future, I believe there will be many reasons in the coming decades for people to be excited about space again.
What do you think will be the most important things you’ll take away from your involvement with NASA?
It encouraged me to pursue a career in aerospace. I did not think it was a possibility for me before.
How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?
My involvement in NASA played a big part in my career choice that eventually led me to my current job at SpaceX.
What are your future career plans?
If I have the option to be involved with exciting developments in aerospace, I will most likely stay in the field, especially if those developments promote space exploration.
What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?
There are more opportunities than you think to become involved with NASA. If you are passionate about working with NASA, seek out these opportunities.
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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services