NASA People

Center Snapshot: Danielle Jackson
Danielle Jackson. Image above: Danielle Jackson learned that art and engineering not only CAN be compatible, but sometimes HAVE TO BE compatible. Photo Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

It began with a picture of a space shuttle launch at the moment the assembly left the pad at Kennedy Space Center.

"I love the billowing clouds and wanted to capture at least some of that," said Danielle Jackson, a Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars intern who has spent two summers creating a metal sculpture she calls "Langley Ascent." Work is scheduled to be complete during her winter vacation from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Langley Ascent" is planned for a spot in front of the center administration building in New Town.

The sculpture combines the look of the shuttle launch with four other Langley-involved technologies, including a Mars Rover, the International Space Station and the blended-wing body airplane.

There is a space element that began as Ares I-X, a launch that Langley supported heavily.

"I talked with a researcher, and he told me that the main focus of space exploration was interplanetary space travel," she said. "So I'm including a futuristic interplanetary space vehicle."

The project is a compilation of the center's past and future, and creating the sculpture has provided an education for Jackson. She chose to attend Washington University after winnowing down a list of schools that offered a dual major in sculpture and engineering. After a time, she realized that she needed to concentrate on one or the other, and she chose sculpture.

An internship at Langley taught her that separating the two was sometimes impossible.

"The first engineer I worked with said, 'You need to figure in a wind factor,' " she said. "So there was a computation for me."

More engineers were involved. Scientists. Technicians. A clay model was one thing, but a hollow metal sculpture was something completely different. Anchoring? Bracing? Support?

"The first summer was eye opening, going through emails, sending them out to try and make everyone understand what I was doing, then getting back 'I don't understand it,' " Jackson said. "I had to go back to the drawing board so many times, bring in clay models, bring in sketches, bring in dimensions. Some people needed facts, numbers, thicknesses, everything before they said, 'I understand what you're doing.' "

In essence, she also had to sell her work in answering the oft-repeated question: "Why and how is this important?"

It's something that isn't taught in art classrooms.

"In college, you have academics, but there is also a real world of dealing with people and with output," Jackson said. "The idea of being able to get your project over to people is not something you learn in a classroom."

Going from idea to sculpture was an involved process. For one thing, she is using metal gleaned from scrap yards, dumpsters and shop junk. For another, that metal is thin, shaped by pounding with a hammer against a sand-filled leather bag.

But all that metal needed to be attached to something.

"After talking to welders … I realized that it needed an internal structure, so I had to create a design that was structurally sound," she said.

Here, her engineering education took over. Computer-Aided Design drawings aren't often used by artists.

"My first summer, I was set back five weeks," she said of working with three directorates and seven engineers. "I was really upset. And I was set back five weeks this summer" by technical issues.

She made up the time by working days and nights.

"This is my baby," Jackson said. "I need to put as many hours in it as possible. I needed to get here earlier and stay as late as I could. Work at night, 15 hours a day."

It wasn't something she had anticipated in the summer of '09, when all of this started.

"I was going to make a sculpture," she said simply. "But then I met so many people. I got input from scientists, engineers, communications people. It's been even more special because I'm seeing more opportunities in the sculpture world."

She's finding that art can be visual communication.

"It can resonate with people," Jackson said. "People from Atmospheric Science, people who worked on the rover, they can see their work represented here. The welders have a part in it."

She has learned from it all.

"When I told people I was making a sculpture for NASA, they said 'that's like the basis for your whole world,' " said Jackson, who emphasized science and math courses in high school and still enjoys science.

Her world involves art. And it involves science and engineering. And she has found a way to marry the two in "Langley Ascends."