A Passion for NASA
LaTasha Taylor has already participated in a half-dozen NASA projects, and the 26-year-old's career as a space systems engineer is just beginning.
Taylor has held internships at two NASA centers, flown with an experiment on NASA's "Weightless Wonder" aircraft, participated in the engineering design process on NASA rovers and robots, and conducted research for NASA in a simulated Mars environment. Involving students in NASA missions through internships at NASA centers supports the agency’s goal of strengthening NASA's and the nation's future workforce.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., Taylor was wrapping up her sophomore year at Tennessee State University in 2001 when she was introduced to the field of astrobiology as a way of combining her interests in aeronautics and biology. She was mentored by Todd Gary, a professor at Tennessee State and the university's Center for Excellence, a research program funded in part by NASA.
Her first NASA research project in 2002 investigated the use of inflatable solar arrays on spacecraft. She presented her research at the NASA Astrobiology Institute meeting in 2003 and won first place among projects by undergraduates. The NAI is a group of competitively selected university teams that promote, conduct and lead integrated astrobiology research.
"That got it started," Taylor said of the inflatable solar arrays project. "My interest just flourished after that. It became this real passion for me, just by one opportunity from NASA."
The NAI meeting was key for Taylor in another way, too. She was introduced to two astrobiology researchers who would play important roles in her future.
The first was Woodruff Sullivan, an astrobiology professor at the University of Washington. Taylor would later work with Sullivan as a graduate student. She also met Juan Perez-Mercader, director of the Centro de Astrobiologia, an NAI partner in Madrid, Spain. Perez-Mercader invited Taylor to intern at the center that summer.
In Madrid, Taylor participated in the final design phase of the Mars Astrobiology and Research Technology Experiment, or MARTE, project. Taylor assisted with the engineering design and computer-aided drawings for the main base of a large drill used to drill into rock around Spain’s Rio Tinto river. Taylor then helped analyze rock samples for bacteria and other signs of life. The project was used as a learning experience for the development of technology to be used in the search for subsurface life on Mars.
The project gave Taylor the opportunity to be involved in both the engineering design process and biological research. "It was really interesting to do the designing on the front end and do the bio analysis on the other end," she said.
After a month in Spain, Taylor finished her summer internship at NASA's Ames Research Center, where NASA engineers were working on a more detailed design of the MARTE drill.
As if the summer of 2003 wasn’t busy enough for Taylor, in the middle of her Ames internship she spent two weeks at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and flew on NASA's "Weightless Wonder" aircraft.
Taylor was part of a team of four engineering students from Tennessee State who received a grant through NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity program at Johnson Space Center to design, build and fly a microgravity experiment. The students designed a device to reduce vibration on spacecraft. "On a spacecraft there is a lot of turbulence when you enter and exit the atmosphere," Taylor said. "You don't want data collected in space damaged by vibration."
The team designed an experiment to suspend a test plate using springs and dampers that would absorb the vibration so that the test plate would experience no or minimal vibration. "The results were amazing," Taylor said. "The vibrations were reduced by 80 percent. It was just a really good achievement and accomplishment."
She said 2003 was the best summer of her life because she got to be involved in successful projects both as an individual with her research into inflatable solar arrays and as part of a team with the vibration reduction research.
Taylor graduated from Tennessee State in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in aeronautics and industry technology and a minor in biology. With plans to go to graduate school that fall, Taylor squeezed in one more NASA internship before getting serious about her graduate studies. She returned to Ames, this time to the human factors group. She worked on the Cockpit Displays of Traffic Information project, which researched ways to improve cockpit displays in aircraft and spacecraft. Taylor was involved in the engineering design of cockpits, but also worked with a psychologist to design a cockpit that was more user-friendly for pilots.
"That was really neat because I got to see how NASA was focused on how people interact with space technology," Taylor said.
In the fall of 2004, Taylor entered graduate school at the University of Washington, studying technical communication with a concentration in user interface design in the College of Engineering. That area of study allowed her to apply some of the human factors and usability experience she gained at NASA Ames to her graduate studies. She described her focus in graduate school as "engineering design with the human in mind."
After her first year in graduate school, in the summer of 2005, Taylor worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the Mechanical and Robotics Technology Group. Taylor developed validation requirements and testing procedures for the next-generation rover SuperBot and analyzed its mobility, maneuverability and endurance in lunar and Martian environments. SuperBot is a modular, multifunctional and reconfigurable robotic platform that can change shape, size and functionality based on its mission.
"All day I got to watch the rovers play and follow the commands, test to make sure the rovers were meeting the requirements and take the feedback back to design," she said. Taylor said the project gave her a first-hand look on where NASA is going with rovers and how rovers can assist in building permanent structures on Mars.
Taylor pursued one other NASA project as a graduate student. In 2006, she applied for NASA's Spaceward Bound project. The project, organized by NASA Ames, takes students and teachers to explore the extreme environments on Earth as analogs for human exploration of the moon and Mars.
In December 2006, Taylor participated in the project's third expedition, which sent undergraduate and graduate students and teachers to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah for two-week-long simulations of living and working conditions on the moon and Mars.
Taylor was again able to combine engineering and biology by going out into the extreme desert conditions and collecting samples and then bringing them to the lab and analyzing them.
"They needed someone to look at how we, as astronauts, were using the equipment and using the suits to maneuver around the research station," Taylor explained. "When we were on our rovers were our suits comfortable? Was there good visibility in helmets? ... We were the guinea pigs to see if we did send astronauts to Mars would these suits be something they could use?
"I got to kind of be the astronaut and experience things the astronauts would do in the environment they could be in."
Taylor finished the master's degree program in June 2007. She is now a space systems engineer at Lockheed Martin's Advance Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., in the Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, supporting the design of solar telescopes used to monitor the sun’s activity.
She said the thread that ties all of her research projects together is the opportunity to share her experiences with students at inner city schools, community centers and special events. She tells young people about the importance of studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and shares how she did it and how they can do it too.
Taylor said the multiple NASA experiences and the variety of the projects have made her a more well-rounded engineer. And she's not done yet. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree in a field that will bring together space exploration, astrobiology and engineering and to apply to join the Astronaut Corps at the next opportunity.
NASA Ames Research Center
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA Johnson Space Center
Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities →
Spaceward Bound →
Mars Astrobiology and Research Technology Experiment
NASA Astrobiology Institute →
NASA Education Web Site →
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services