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Learning On The Job
November 19, 2009

Emily Sayles made contributions to a launch assist concept as a summer intern at Dryden.Emily Sayles made contributions to a launch assist concept as a summer intern at Dryden. (NASA Photo / Tom Tschida) Student Contributes To Design Of Launch System

As a girl, Emily Sayles pretended to be an astronaut in a refrigerator box she made into a space shuttle. As a summer intern at Dryden in the NASA's Motivating Undergraduates in Science and Technology, or MUST program, the Bakersfield, Calif., woman assisted with work that might one day lead to a new launch-assist system that takes astronauts to space.

Sayles was a senior at the University of California, Irvine, and has since graduated with an aerospace engineering degree and begun her studies in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University graduate school. The MUST program is open to U.S. citizens pursuing undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The summer research job also came with a paycheck.

"Spending last summer at Dryden was one of the most influential academic experience I've had so far," Sayles said. "Before that internship, my plans after college were not well defined and I didn't have a very good idea of what I would want to study in graduate school, if that opportunity presented itself to me. I finally had a chance to see what engineers do on a day-to-day basis and how NASA contributes to cutting-edge aeronautics and space research. A career at NASA is still definitely something I want to pursue."

She assisted Dryden engineer Kurt Kloesel with validation of software that will be used for preliminary design of a second-stage ramjet for use in a NASA ground-based launch-assist system. This work is associated with one of the agency's Innovative Partnerships Program Seed Fund initiatives.

"The ramjet will provide a lot of savings in fuel because it is air-breathing," Sayles explained. "I used engine simulation software and data gathered from past ramjets like the D-21, a French ramjet and some missiles that have ramjets on them, and took that data and input it into the engine performance software."

The D-21 was a drone launched from a Blackbird aircraft variant in a 1960s-era joint project by the U.S. Air Force and the CIA.

Once the data obtained from actual engines and from software simulation are compared, that software can be used in the preliminary design of a ramjet for the launch-assist system. The software can provide engine dimensions, an idea of what the ramjet engine might look like, its size and its thrust capabilities, she said.

An air-breathing engine uses oxygen from the atmosphere as an oxidizer and as a result, oxidizer does not have to be carried on board the way it must be to fuel a rocket engine.

Sayles applied for the MUST program through an e-mail she received from the UCI school of engineering. The e-mail listed an opportunity to work at NASA - her dream job. Sayles decided to write the required essays and profile, ask for a letter of recommendation from a research professor and send her transcripts and resume.

She learned she was chosen in another e-mail.

"I had to read it over several times to make sure that I was reading it correctly. I wanted to make sure I did indeed get [the MUST position] before I called my parents," she said.

The excitement only intensified once she began her work at Dryden.

"I've really enjoyed working with Kurt. He's a great mentor," she said. "He allowed for a lot of freedom in my work, but he also gave me very clear direction as to where he's going and where the project is going. I've also enjoyed watching how he spreads his excitement about his work and his project to other people, getting them involved and fired up about what he's doing.

"It's exciting to see how much he enjoys his work. Someday I want to have that same experience where I'm motivated to go to work everyday to contribute."

Sayles' work at Dryden also presented frequent reminders about the importance of her college coursework.

"I had the most motivation and encouragement from seeing the correlation between [the job and] what I'm learning, and applying it to engineering work," she said. "Lecture halls and theory have real work applications. I used all my textbooks and course notes, and that is a huge motivation to do well in my classes."

A U.S. Space Camp based at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field Calif., first ignited Sayles' interest in aerospace. As her entry in a competition for a scholarship to the camp she wrote an essay, which was influenced by Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, about getting to go space camp. Her essay was chosen and she won the scholarship. At the camp, Sayles tried her hand at several activities, including a moon gravity simulator and playing the role of a mission specialist on a space shuttle mission that involved "lots on buttons to push."

She also participated in a simulated space journey to a Mars-like planet.

"It was very influential in my decision to pursue aerospace engineering. I came back wanting to be an astronaut."

Since then, she has worked toward her goal of becoming an astronaut by launching model rockets, solidifying her grasp of math and science, earning the MUST internship and, of course, there were those early rides in the cardboard space shuttle.

Sayles was valedictorian of the 2005 Bakersfield High School Class of 2005. That year, she was a member of the school's award-winning academic decathlon team. She was selected for California All-State Honor band each year during high school and received the John Philip Sousa Band Award in 2005.

While she knows it's a long shot to becoming an astronaut, she said her summer experience at Dryden helps keeps her goals on track and keeps her dream alive.

Beth Hagenauer contributed to this article.

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