Harry Ryan, of Mandeville, La., never considered becoming anything other than a mechanical engineer. For the past eight years, he has answered his calling by playing a critical role in rocket engine testing at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss.
"People tend to do what they're best at," Ryan said. Ryan excelled at science, math and computers throughout school. Originally from Hampstead, Md., he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is also an alumnus of Pennsylvania State University, earning a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering.
Upon his 1995 graduation from Penn State, Ryan went to work for Praxair Inc., an industrial gas supply company, in New York City. There, he designed burners for steel furnaces and spent much time traveling across the United States.
Five years later, in 2000, Ryan saw an opportunity to work as a mechanical engineer with the Engineering & Test Directorate at Stennis. At Penn State, Ryan had been a NASA fellow working on projects such as injector studies in the university's rocket facility, which focused on the insertion of combustibles into rocket engine chambers. While an engine designed for space flight might have hundreds of these injectors, Ryan said his studies at Penn State would focus on just one injector. Coming to NASA to work on large engines was a unique opportunity, but one for which he was well-prepared.
In addition to working as a mechanical engineer, for nearly three years, Ryan was project manager for the Integrated Powerhead Demonstration – a series of projects aimed at testing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen pumps.
Last April, Ryan was involved with another large project at Stennis when the test site concluded work on the J-2X power pack 1A assembly.
The J-2X engine will power the upper stages of the Ares I and Ares V rockets, which will be used in the Constellation Program – NASA's program aimed at sending astronauts back to the moon and possibly beyond. The power pack consists of the main power-generating and pumping components of an engine. Powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the J-2X is an evolved variation of two historic predecessors: the powerful J-2 upper stage engine that propelled the Apollo-era Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s, and the J-2S, a simplified version of the J-2 developed and tested in the early 1970s but never flown.
The next stage of testing is scheduled for 2010, when Stennis engineers will test actual J-2X hardware. Testing will be done on the new A-3 Test Stand, which will allow engineers to simulate altitudes of up to 100,000 feet. The simulation is critical because the J-2X must be able to restart at such altitudes.
Working at NASA, Ryan has found communication is the key to accomplishing goals.
"You can't work in a vacuum," he said. "You have to work with the customer, and you need help from other departments for multidisciplinary skills to get the job done well."
Today, Ryan analyzes data for all of the test stands at Stennis' test complexes. A typical day might include measuring the stress put on pipes during rocket engine testing or finding a way to increase the flow of liquids and thereby make a rocket engine firing more efficient. Ryan said the job is both challenging and satisfying.
"The most challenging aspect of the job is trying to complete an analysis on a tight schedule, especially when [being able to conduct a test on schedule] may depend on our answers," he said. "It's very exciting to work on the projects. Any test we complete here, whether it's a space shuttle main engine or a developing test project, brings a great deal of satisfaction."
NASA's Space Shuttle Program is scheduled to end in 2010, but Stennis is already preparing to test the engines that will be used in the Constellation Program. Ryan is optimistic about the transition and the future of space flight.
"It will be great to contribute in going back to the moon," Ryan said. "I think we can stay focused and complete our mission to go on to Mars, but no matter what, it's always interesting working here."
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/.
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