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Short Takeoff and Landing
A NASA challenge to design the aircraft of the future launched Stephen Pace's career as an aerospace engineer. As an undergraduate student, Pace was on a team from Virginia Tech that placed first in the 2007-2008 NASA Fundamental Aeronautics University Student Aircraft Design Competition. NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate sponsored the competition. The directorate is sponsoring a new contest this year led by the NASA Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project.

After a successful first run in the program, Pace competed again the next school year, and the following summer he landed an internship at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Stephen Pace in front of a NASA aircraft and hangar

After competing two years in the NASA Fundamental Aeronautics University Student Aircraft Design Competition, Stephen Pace was accepted into the Langley Aerospace Research Space Scholars internship project. Image credit: NASA

In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

I have participated in three NASA student opportunities: the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 NASA Fundamental Aeronautics University Student Aircraft Design Competitions and the 2010 Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars, or LARSS, internship project.

I first became involved with NASA when I was randomly selected to be a part of a six-man design team to compete in the 2007-2008 NASA Aircraft Design Competition as part of my required aerospace engineering capstone senior aircraft design class at Virginia Tech. We earned the first-place prize among 15 university undergraduate team entries from around the world.

Because my experience in 2007-2008 design competition was so rewarding, I decided to compete again during the 2008-2009 academic year and formed a small four-man team to represent Virginia Tech in the contest. Although my team did not place in the competition that year, the educational and design experience was still very rewarding. We received graduate-level credit for our work, and our participation in the competition led to my teammate and friend Raul Telles' earning a LARSS internship at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. Raul worked in the Aeroelasticity Branch studying aircraft flutter-phenomenon in the Transonic Dynamics Wind Tunnel at LaRC.

After hearing of Raul's experience as a NASA LARSS intern, I applied to the LARSS program for the summer of 2010. I was selected to be part of a ten-person team of interns. Our task was to develop an autonomous vehicle laboratory at LaRC and demonstrate the facility's potential to conduct research on the problems associated with unmanned and autonomous vehicles.

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

For the 2007-2008 NASA Aircraft Design Competition, my team researched, designed and engineered many advanced aircraft concepts to create a futuristic, high-efficiency, low-noise, STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft for the year 2058. Our design broadly incorporated researching current modern aircraft and advanced concepts, developing our own advanced concepts, and creating a viable aircraft design to fulfill the requirements.

The heart of the STINGRAE (Short Takeoff Integrated Nacelle-less Geometry for the Reduction of Acoustics and Emissions) design we created revolved around having four small engines blended within the body and wing of the aircraft, instead of two large engines mounted externally in nacelles. At takeoff, all four of the engines would operate at maximum throttle, where turbofan engines are most efficient. Once the vehicle had climbed up to cruise altitude and speed where less thrust is needed, rather than throttling the engines back to inefficient partial-power settings, two of the four engines are shut off and their inlets are sealed. This allows the two engines of the STINGRAE that remain in use to operate more near their local maximum throttle setting, where turbofans are more efficient.

This novel "digital-throttling" concept we created, combined with the other enabling technologies we incorporated into our design, would be on the order of 30 percent more fuel efficient than a modern-day Boeing 737-800, when efficiency is measured in passenger-miles traveled per pound of fuel burned. The alternatively fueled aircraft could also operate on short runways 3,000 feet in length or greater, allowing it to land and take off at many smaller regional airports as opposed to only at major hubs. The STINGRAE would effectively operate outside the modern conventions established by current aircraft to achieve increased performance.

During the 2008-2009 NASA Aircraft Design Competition, my team researched and designed supersonic aircraft concepts. We quickly found out that designing supersonic aircraft is much more difficult than their subsonic counterparts. At the end of two semesters of research and design, we created the Javelin Concept, which was a double-fuselage supersonic transport concept. The main idea of the Javelin Concept was to utilize two slender fuselages to increase vehicle length, decrease wing-bending moment thereby reducing aircraft weight, and harness favorable interference from shockwave interactions. All three of these characteristics were incorporated to decrease the sonic-boom signature of the aircraft while reducing aircraft drag and increasing efficiency.

During my LARSS internship, research was conducted to create and establish an indoor autonomous vehicle laboratory at NASA Langley. My team was led by our mentor and NASA engineer Garry Qualls. During the internship, we utilized a high-precision infrared camera motion tracking system to calculate and record the motion and position data of several vehicles operating within the field of view of the cameras.

Using the motion-tracking cameras, a system architecture was created to interpret the state (position, acceleration and orientation) data of vehicles operating within the control volume of the cameras’ sight. This state information was then fed into ground station computers and used to queue control algorithms we created to autonomously govern and control the operations of the vehicles.

By the end of the 10 weeks, the team was able to demonstrate "sense-and-avoid" capabilities with the system architecture by having the system detect two helicopters flying near each other and autonomously avoiding a potential collision by redirecting the aircraft.

A black-and-white sketch of the STINGRAE aircraft

The Virginia Tech Short Takeoff Integrated Nacelle-less Geometry for the Reduction of Acoustics and Emissions, or STINGRAE, design won first place among 15 undergraduate entries from universities around in the world in the 2007-2008 NASA Fundamental Aeronautics University Student Aircraft Design Competition. Image credit: NASA

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

Regarding my experience participating in the NASA design contests, the most exciting part of the research was competing against other top-ranked schools from around the world and being acknowledged and rewarded by NASA for our novel designs. For my team's STINGRAE design, we were awarded a $5,000 cash prize, a first-place trophy, and three $1,200 travel stipends to attend the annual NASA Fundamental Aeronautics Conference in Atlanta, Ga. At the conference, we attended a formal awards ceremony, met other design teams, and presented our aircraft solutions to NASA personnel. It was exciting to see so many different solutions/approaches to the same design challenge from different schools and share our novel ideas/designs.

Regarding my experience as a LARSS intern, the most exciting part of the research was actually working at a NASA research center to develop and demonstrate a facility that NASA engineers and scientists would use for future research. During our 10-week internship, my diverse team got to interact with each other as well as (with) the brilliant engineers and scientists of NASA Langley. We especially learned a lot from Garry Qualls, our experienced mentor. It is also exciting to see the facility we helped establish be used for a variety of unmanned aerial system and vehicle research by NASA.

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

I earned my Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering (with a minor in astronomy) from Virginia Tech in 2008. I earned my Master of Science in aerospace engineering from Virginia Tech in 2010.

My short-term educational plan is to earn my pilot's certification and a graduate certificate in nuclear engineering. My long-term educational goal is to earn a degree in intellectual property law.

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

I have always had a fascination with flying machines. When I was a young child, I would spend my summer vacations with my grandmother who lived in Cocoa Beach, Fla., about 20 miles from the Kennedy Space Center. My grandmother, Alice Cockrell, would take me on tours of the Kennedy Space Center and various air and space museums. One summer, I even spent several days at space camp. This early exposure to the aerospace field definitely got me interested in the math and science behind the art of flight.

One year as a Boy Scout at summer camp, I was working towards earning the Space Exploration merit badge. One of the requirements of the merit badge was to build, launch and recover a model rocket. To fulfill this requirement, I built a model rocket. It was very exciting launching and watching the rocket fly after I had built it. This experience influenced me to become involved in model rocketry as a hobby. When I returned to Florida to visit my grandmother, I spent the majority of my future vacations building and launching model rockets. I still launch model rockets to this day.

When it was time to visit colleges with my parents, the first and only trip I made was to Virginia Tech. I knew I wanted to become an engineer, so Tech was the logical choice of school in Virginia. When I found out Virginia Tech had an aerospace engineering program, I changed my major from mechanical engineering to aerospace.

Although I was an A student in high school, I was primarily a C+ college student, as reflected by my GPA. This can be attributed to the difficulty of engineering classes at Virginia Tech coupled with a lack of focus on my part. It was during the last class I took as an undergraduate, my capstone senior aircraft design class in which I got to lead a group of my peers in creating an aircraft solution for the NASA design contest, that I discovered I wanted to design aircraft and continue my education in graduate school. Unfortunately, my GPA was below the requisite score for acceptance into graduate school at Virginia Tech, and I was declined admission into the graduate school.

Though disappointed by the rejection letter I received in February 2008, I still worked hard in my senior design class to create a design solution for the NASA challenge. After hearing the good news (that the team placed first in the NASA contest), I went back to the head of the Aerospace and Ocean Engineering Department at Virginia Tech and explained to him that I recognized the importance of GPA, but I did not have the award from NASA to put on my application for graduate school at the time I had applied. Later, I went to the graduate program coordinator and explained my desire to continue my education in graduate school and asked if my application could be reconsidered. To which he replied, "This [your senior design project] is great, but this just shows that you are a good engineer and does not mean that you will be successful in graduate school. The main predictor of success in graduate school is undergraduate GPA, and your GPA is very poor," and refused to reconsider my application.

A color drawing of the Javelin Concept aircraft in flight

Stephen Pace led a team from Virginia Tech in designing this supersonic aircraft concept, which the team dubbed the Javelin Concept, for the 2008-2009 NASA Fundamental Aeronautics University Student Aircraft Design Competition. Image credit: NASA

This decision was very disappointing to me, yet I remained determined. Virginia Tech offers the Commonwealth Campus program, which allows anyone who is a citizen of Virginia and possesses a bachelor's degree to take graduate-level courses in a non-degree granting program, regardless of undergraduate GPA. I applied to the Commonwealth Campus program and was accepted. I took the same graduate-level courses I would have taken as if I had been accepted into the master's aerospace engineering program. After a year of graduate study, my graduate-level GPA was sufficient for acceptance into the graduate school and I was admitted. After another year of graduate study, I had completed all of the courses and requirements and earned my master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2010.

If I had never gotten involved in the NASA-sponsored aircraft design competition, I most likely would not have found my focus in aircraft design and (been) inspired to go on to graduate school.

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

My involvement with NASA has provided me with many beneficial life experiences. Particularly, this includes putting my education to work to solve real-world problems, the inspiration to achieve my educational and life goals, and the gratification of representing the Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

However, the most important things that I will take away from my involvement with NASA are the connections I've made with the people I've worked with. Through my involvement with NASA, I've made acquaintances and friends with the brilliant engineers and scientists that are at the heart of NASA. I've also made great friends with my fellow interns with whom I lived during my NASA internship. I will also never forget my senior and graduate aircraft design teammates with whom I've had the pleasure of countless long nights of working and arguing with. In my case the cliché is certainly true: "What you know means little; who you know means everything."

How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?

My NASA involvement has definitely had an impact on my past accomplishments and will continue to affect my future. Because of the NASA programs in which I have participated, I have found my focus in aircraft systems design, persevered in pursuing an advanced degree, and expanded my professional and social networks of colleagues and friends. My experience as a LARSS intern has definitely enhanced my aerospace resume and provided me with real-world experience in designing aerospace systems.

What are your future career plans?

Currently, my future career plans include landing full-time employment within NASA, the Department of Defense, and/or the aerospace industry. Specifically, I want to design advanced aircraft concepts and systems. Later in life, I want to become an intellectual property consultant and help inventors patent novel systems, tools and devices.

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

For high school students: Recognize the importance of grades, apply for multiple scholarships, have the overall goal of going to college. I know that not everyone can afford to go to college right after high school, so also consider attending a community college for two years and transferring to four-year school. It will be significantly cheaper, and you will end up with the same degree. There are many NASA programs, internships, and contests for high school students; find some that appeal to you and try to take part in them. When you do take part in them, meet and network with as many people who already work for NASA as possible, and show your enthusiasm.

For college students: Recognize the importance of GPA in being selected for internships and accepted into graduate school early on; the easier classes you take as a freshman are weighted exactly the same as the more challenging classes you will take later in your academic career. Get the GPA up early, and keep it up. Stand out as a good student to your professors, and asking for their letters of recommendation for internships will be a lot easier. Apply to NASA internships early in your academic career; don't be like me and wait until you are a graduate student to get some real-world experience. Also, apply to be a co-op student researcher; the majority of current civil servants I have met at NASA were co-op students back when they were in school. If you are interested in graduate school, realize that many graduate schools will actually PAY their graduate students to get their advanced degrees (master's and Ph.D.) in addition to covering a significant portion of their graduate students' tuitions and fees; they won’t do this for everyone though, only those, unlike me, with stellar undergraduate careers. This is primarily the case for graduate student teaching assistants and researchers. Visit the new site and apply to as many programs as you can.

On the Web:
› NASA Aeronautics News and Features
› NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate Student Competition   →
› NASA's Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project   →
› NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate   →
› Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars Project
› Designing a Faster Future
› Envisioning Future Flight
› The Future of Flight
› NASA's Langley Research Center
› NASA Education

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services