Student Features

Learning By Doing
Adam Greenbaum's career as a mechanical engineering student ran the gamut from doing environmental research with NASA, to designing a launch vehicle through the NASA Space Grant Consortium, to building small single-person race cars as part of a student design competition. Greenbaum recently embarked on his professional career as a mechanical engineer with the Space Systems Engineering group at Draper Laboratory. The laboratory is a long-time NASA contractor and is currently supporting the Constellation Program and the development of the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle.
In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

A team of students with a small race car

As a student at Brown University, Adam Greenbaum (second from left) competed in the Formula SAE student challenge to build, design and race a single-person race car. Image Credit: Greg Crawford

I've been involved in several NASA student programs. I started working at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City during my high school summers at their Institute for Climate and Planets. I first started on a volunteer basis helping a NASA GISS scientist compare the ability of several ocean transport models to model mesoscale eddies. I came back to GISS the following summers through the ICP, NASA SHARP and New York City Research Initiative, or NYCRI, programs working on several projects. I helped evaluate the performance of two ocean models one summer, and later looked at the impacts of sea level change on the New York City region.

Once in college, I continued working at GISS as a NYCRI undergraduate mentor for two summers looking at the urban heat island effect and modeling the cooling effect that green roofs and other urban vegetation have on cities.

Most recently, my master's thesis research was funded by the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant. For my thesis, I designed a low-cost launch vehicle for small satellites.

Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement and why this topic is important.

My earlier research involved prediction and modeling, determination of economic impacts, and mitigation of various aspects of climate change. For my work on sea level change, I analyzed tide and weather data from the last 100 years and attempted to correlate flooding events with meteorological conditions. In addition, I helped assess the risk of flooding events in several neighborhoods in New York City.

My work with green roofs first started as a modeling project, during which I helped build a computerized model of all the heat fluxes into and out of the roof surface. The model was then compared to a fully instrumented set of green roofs at Penn State and adjusted until a good correlation between the two datasets was found. This allowed us to calculate some thermal properties of green roofs, which are not easily measured in a laboratory. The following summer we expanded our study into the effects of other types of urban vegetation on the urban heat island effect.

Adam Greenbaum welding

Adam Greenbaum is welding the chassis of a race car. Image Credit: Greg Crawford

More recently, I did a systems-level design of a low-cost launch vehicle for small satellites as part of my master's thesis. Electronics and other components have undergone drastic miniaturization in recent years, and as a result small satellites have become more capable. The biggest barrier facing small satellites now is actually getting them into orbit, as launch vehicles are quite expensive -- the cheapest vehicle to low Earth orbit is the SpaceX Falcon, available for approximately $9 million. Currently, small satellites have two options. They can launch as a secondary payload in any extra space available on a launch vehicle for a larger satellite; with this option they are at the mercy of the primary payload's schedule. The other option is for a group of small satellites to pool their resources and purchase a launch vehicle, but coordinating the schedules and requirements of 30-plus small satellites can be difficult.

My solution was to design an inexpensive (in the aerospace world, inexpensive is a relative term; my design would most likely cost around $2 million) launch vehicle to place a single 10-kilogram satellite in low Earth orbit. Since there is only one payload, scheduling issues are simplified, and because of its small size, many aspects of the manufacture are easier.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

During high school and college I was very excited to work with scientists on real, publishable projects. In graduate school, I would say the most exciting part was presenting my thesis work at a conference to professionals from the aerospace industry. I was the only one working on the launch vehicle design, and the conference was the first time anyone other than my advisor had seen what I was doing. So I was a little nervous that someone would notice some critical design flaw that I had not thought of. In the end, my presentation was well received, and I had a very positive experience talking about my work and getting suggestions from industry professionals.

What is your educational background and what are your future educational plans?

I went to Brown University and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2008. I stayed another year to get a master's degree, also in mechanical engineering. I currently have no plans to return to school anytime soon, but a Ph.D. in a few years isn’t out of the question.

What inspired you to choose the education/career field you did?

Adam Greenbaum sitting in a small race car

Adam Greenbaum decided to continue down a career path in engineering after becoming involved in a student project designing and building single-seat race cars. Image Credit: Caitlin Ashley-Rollman

I came to college unsure of what I wanted to study. I had always been interested in science, and my father suggested engineering to me. I thought about changing my course of study several times. But I got involved in a student project designing and building single-seat race cars for a program called Formula SAE, and that's what made me stay in the engineering program. (Formula SAE is an event sponsored by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.) The hands-on work was very exciting to me, and the opportunity to participate in the entire engineering process -- from concept to building the final product and testing it -- was probably the single most valuable part of my engineering education.

What do you think will be the most important things you'll take away from your involvement with NASA?

The most important things I took away from my NASA experience were technical writing and presentation skills. Science and engineering are collaborative efforts, and often the ability to communicate your work effectively is just as important as being able to do the work itself.

Many of the skills I learned working with NASA I still use on a daily basis, and I imagine they will continue to help me in the future.

What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?

My advice would be to go out and do hands-on work and to try and find opportunities to apply what you're learning in the classroom. Doing well in coursework and understanding theory is still important, but in my experience, learning by doing is the best way to develop skills and is much more rewarding. In my recent job search, no interviewer I spoke with gave more than a cursory glance to the courses I had listed on my resume or my GPA, but each and every one of them wanted to hear about the hands-on design work that I had done and the extracurricular projects I had worked on.
NASA's New York City Research Initiative and the NASA Space Grant Consortium support the agency's goals of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, and of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

Related Resources
New York City Research Initiative   →
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Goddard Institute for Space Studies   →
Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium   →
NASA Education Web Site
Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services