Student Features

Falling for NASA
Dan Torczynski floating inside an airplane during a moment of microgravity

As a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, Dan Torczynski participated in NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program and flew in NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

Experiencing weightlessness during free fall and helping develop a parachute to slow a spacecraft in free fall made Dan Torczynski fall for NASA.

"My internship at NASA has strengthened my conviction that I want to work in the field of space engineering," said the aerospace engineering graduate.

As a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, Torczynski experienced weightlessness as a participant in NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. He and five other students designed, built and tested an experiment on NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. The experiment was a platform to characterize cold gas fluid flow phenomena in microgravity for nano-satellite propulsion systems.

Then, in the summer of 2008, Torczynski worked at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston as a systems engineering intern. He supported the development of the parachute assembly system for the Orion crew exploration vehicle, a part of NASA's Constellation Program to return humans to the moon.

His internship was part of NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Project, or USRP, which offers internship opportunities for undergraduate science and engineering students at NASA centers and facilities. The project supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Torczynski was introduced to USRP through Lisa Guerra from NASA Headquarters when she was a guest lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. Torczynski enrolled in a pilot, systems engineering class Guerra taught. "As an extension of that course, she selected three students from the class for a pilot, systems engineering internship held at JSC," Torczynski said.

During his internship, Torczynski worked on the crew exploration vehicle's Parachute Assembly System, or CPAS. "My research within this group was twofold," he said. "Half of my time was spent shadowing the lead systems engineer of this operation, Tim Fisher. This activity involved attending management meetings, systems engineering meetings and technical meetings, as well as day-to-day activities concerning CPAS.

"The second half of my time was devoted to developing a multibody, six-degrees-of-freedom simulation of the parachute system in order to better predict landing forces upon CEV touchdown."

Being on the inside of such a project offered Torczynski amazing opportunities, including spending a week with the CPAS team in Yuma, Ariz., and observing a parachute deployment test of the Launch Abort Parachute System on a full-scale mock-up of Orion. (During the July 31, 2008, test one of the parachutes failed to inflate properly, which caused the parachute system to fail and resulted in damage to the Orion mock-up.)

Orion mock-up attached to parachutes and falling through the air

During a NASA internship, Dan Torczynski observed the July 31, 2008, parachute deployment test of the Launch Abort Parachute System on a full-scale mock-up of the Orion crew exploration vehicle. Image Credit: NASA

He also observed the real-time, practical application of systems engineering. "One terrific experience was observing the progression of CPAS through the requirements phase of its life cycle, including preparation, execution and debriefing of their system requirements review," Torczynski said.

"Another experience unrelated to CPAS involved the shuttle flight simulator. As part of the USRP program, a number of interns were invited to ride in the simulator, including piloting the shuttle for takeoff and landing. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience."

Torczynski graduated with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering in the summer of 2009. He is currently studying at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship. The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government's flagship international exchange program. It is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

For one year, Torczynski will be working with the nano-satellite program Delfi-n3Xt, developing a simulation for its attitude determination and control subsystem. After that, he plans to return to the U.S. and attend Stanford University on a fellowship to pursue a master's degree in aerospace engineering.

Torczynski chose the field of engineering because he enjoyed math and physics in high school. As a high school student, he participated in Johnson Space Center's Texas High School Aerospace Scholars program. The program is an interactive, online learning experience, highlighted by a six-day internship during which selected students are encouraged to study math, science, engineering or computer science through interaction with NASA engineers.

"I felt like engineering in space was about as cool as it got, and now was an exciting time for this field as many innovative projects are just beginning," Torczynski said.

The young engineer said his NASA experiences gave him new insight into the role of systems engineering and the opportunity to experience the excitement of being part of NASA.

"My internship served as a real-life counterpart in systems engineering education to the classical theory I had learned in lecture," he said. "How exciting it was to be a part of NASA as a whole, where every day you were contributing to the exploration of space. While talking with other interns about their projects, I never ceased to be amazed by the work we were doing."

Related Resources
Undergraduate Student Research Project   →
Texas High School Aerospace Scholars   →
Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program   →
NASA's Johnson Space Center
Constellation Program
Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle
NASA Education Web Site
Fulbright Program   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services