NASA engineers talk seriously about their responsibility to inspire the next generation of space leaders and pioneers. This summer at John C. Stennis Space Center, a trio of college students turned the tables on the idea.
"We tend to forget how advanced many students are," said Wendy Holladay, a data systems/instrumentation engineer in the Stennis Engineering & Test Directorate who served as one of several mentors to the two NASA Undergraduate Student Research Program interns and one 2011 Mississippi Space Grant intern who worked at Stennis this summer.
Jason Warren of Olive Branch, Miss., and Ryan Nazaretian of Long Beach, Miss., are students at Mississippi State University in Starkville. Harvest Zhang of Rochester, N.Y., is a student at Princeton University. Warren and Zhang were USRP summer interns; Nazaretian was a Mississippi Space Grant intern.
At Stennis, the students, fondly tagged as "the triplets" by Holladay, were assigned to work on a NASA Data Acquisition System Software upgrade. Mentors from NASA, Lockheed Martin and ASRC Research and Technology Solutions counseled them during their work.
"They completed a lot that we didn't think they would have time to accomplish," agreed Dawn Davis, the electronic instrumentation systems lead in the Engineering & Test Directorate and also a mentor to the interns. "And everything those three did will be in the final product, which hopefully will be used for all rocket propulsion test centers."
NDAS is critical for rocket engine testing work at Stennis, especially as testing of J-2X and RS-25 D/E rocket engines gets under way for NASA's new Space Launch System vehicle.
The software suite reads raw data from test stand sensors during engine tests and converts it into usable information for engineers and operators.
During the summer internship, Nazaretian wrote a lot of new drivers to clean up the raw data and make it easier to understand and interpret. "The focus was to provide really good data instead of having low-resolution data that is difficult to work with," he explained.
Warren completed an easier, more efficient way to put data into a real-time format. "The work was very challenging, and I'm very proud of what I was able to accomplish," he said.
Zhang helped create a flexible instrumentation database that can be used at any NASA testing center without modification. "It's great knowing that even as a college sophomore, it is possible to contribute to an important project like NDAS," he said.
Davis and Holladay praised the internship programs sponsored by the Stennis Education Office and urged other areas to participate. "It's a win-win arrangement," Holladay said. "We get to see what the students can do. They get to see if they want to do this work."
All three students also agreed on the value of the Stennis experience, both short-term in gaining knowledge and learning new skills and long-term in preparing for the workplace and making career choices. "I learned an incredible amount of things," Warren said. "I was able to ask engineers about projects I wasn't even working on, just to learn. That helps a lot."
Zhang voiced his excitement about working on a project with real results and benefits. "In some form or other, the code we wrote is going to show up in the data acquisition systems used by NASA engineers at Stennis and hopefully beyond."
Nazaretian added that he already has seen the benefits of Stennis experience. In high school, Nazaretian participated in the annual FIRST (For Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, which is strongly supported by Stennis educators and engineers. "I developed a lot of skills there that help me out every day."
Those skills definitely were on display in Nazaretian and his colleagues this summer, Davis said. "It's exciting to see how investment in robotics and those sort of programs by NASA pays off," she emphasized.
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/.
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