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Center Snapshot: Chris Little
Chris Little. Image above: Chris Little is recognized for his work in Langley's Mechanical Systems Branch. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

At a party near White Sands Proving Grounds in May, Chris Little was standing and talking when he heard the shout from Amanda Cutright, a colleague: "Chris, get over here."

On a wall, slow motion video of the Pad Abort-1 launch test was being shown and there, vividly, was evidence that four years of work had produced success.

"You could see the 'T-Zero' doors in their closed position," said Little, who works in NASA Langley's Mechanical Systems branch. "The doors had closed. You couldn't see them on the ground. The crew module was a mile up, but with a high-speed camera, you could see the doors clearly. It was pretty cool."

Normally well-contained, Little was effusive at the memory.

Shortly after coming to Langley in 2006, only two years out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he was tasked with designing the "T-Zero Doors," which block a hole in the heat shield of the crew module and are closed after launch of the Launch Abort System to preserve aerodynamic stability.

"It wouldn't have been a big deal if it hadn't closed and we had holes in there, but we would have had to account for that aerodynamically, so it would have been more work," he said.

It would have been a big deal for Little, 28.

The doors were his first major project. They also offered insight into the way young engineers often are indoctrinated into NASA, with acknowledgement of the resources available and then a push to see how they use those resources.

"It's kind of sink or swim, and most of the time NASA does a good job of picking people who are going to swim," Little said.

The young engineers want that responsibility. It can be a career booster and offers job satisfaction. "As long as you have the resources to track down how to do it, you can pretty much get it done here," Little said.

So the video of the crew module coming down in the New Mexico sky on that May day was evidence that Chris Little had swum in his first project.

It also offered ownership of a sort, and a look into a bigger picture than a door on a crew module could offer.

"Sometimes you get lost in the details," Little said. "Even in PA-1, you could be looking at the same part on your screen, the (computer-aided design model), for days and weeks and months, and you can lose sight of what your ultimate goal is.

"You have to stand back and look at what you're doing: You're trying to put a man on the moon and then beyond."

It's why he's an aerospace engineer. Little grew up in New Jersey but had relatives near Kennedy Space Center. Visits to the facility whet his vocational interest and sent him into a research mode.

"I was thumbing through U.S. News and World Report, college division, and saw Daytona Beach," he said of choosing Embry-Riddle. "They have an excellent aerospace program."

Daytona Beach also offered surfing, a factor in his choice. He likes the out of doors, and he and wife Lena try to see as many of the nation's National Parks as they can. And Little is getting into woodworking with an idea of building furniture for their new home.

Now, with an aerospace engineering degree and a successful project under his belt, he heads into another at Langley. The textbook on his desk in the upstairs office of Building 1232A is entitled "Fundamental Aeronautics." It's being used as a refresher as Little works on the Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, technology that could be important to future space exploration.

"It's basically a system that inflates in front of an entry vehicle to" slow it down, Little said. That inflation comes inside the atmosphere at about Mach 5 and serves to slow the vehicle to a point at which parachutes can be deployed. The system is "geared toward landing on Mars," he added.

The project, which is being done with the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., is aimed at a 2018 Mars mission, but it has a shorter fuse. There is a flight test planned for this fiscal year. He's looking at a December deadline to evaluate the work of three contractors and choose one to continue.

Ask anyone around NASA and you get an idea of a future in exploring Mars, about 2035. Many of the engineers working toward that goal will never see it, at least professionally. It would be easy to see youthful imagination being served in the project.

"But right now, it's a number that's a large number in terms of years," Little said. "It still seems far away, even with the tight schedule we have, and it's something I guess you have to keep reminding yourself of, that there's an actual thing that's going to happen. And that, yes, you're likely to be around for it."

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