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High School Program Launches NASA Career

The challenge of launching rockets in high school helped propel Justin Junell into an engineering career, and now, as an analysis engineer at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, he is helping astronauts launch into space.
As a junior at Fredericksburg High School in Texas, Junell began a two-year Principles of Technology program. He and his classmates designed, built and launched a rocket that was almost five feet tall. During his senior year, the goal was more challenging: a 22-foot-tall rocket they designed to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet. The rocket was launched through the donated use of facilities at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
“Launching rockets at White Sands is not something high school students typically do, but this wasn’t your typical high school class,” Junell says.
While the rocket fell shy of its desired altitude – it reached only 36,000 feet due to a nozzle failure – Junell says launching a rocket that size was exhilarating.
“The rocket on the launch pad is the culmination of months of effort,” he said. “Even getting to that point represents a degree of success.”
Junell recently returned to help another class with a launch at White Sands and saw the same passion and perseverance in those students that he had as a teenager.
“It’s the drive to succeed,” he says. “When they went to launch their rocket, nothing happened. The students were discouraged, but right away, you could hear them trouble-shooting. The students who go into a program like this aren’t the kind that let set backs get them down for long. Failure is definitely part of the learning process.”
Junell had no inkling he would be launching rockets in high school, much less end up as an engineer, until he joined the Principles of Technology Class at Fredericksburg High. He became enticed with the prospect of designing, building and launching rockets, and by graduation he was engineering-bound.
As a result of his involvement with this program, Junell received a scholarship to Kettering University in Michigan. In 2002, he began participating in a NASA cooperative education program that brought him to work in the Test Operations Group at Stennis Space Center. Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in applied physics, Junell has become a full-time employee at Stennis in the Engineering & Science Directorate as an analysis engineer.
As part of the Systems Analysis and Modeling group, Junell has contributed to evaluations of the J-2X power pack that supplies propellants to the J-2X engine that will power the upper stage of the Ares I rocket and the Earth departure stage of the Ares V rocket. Both rockets are key components of NASA’s Constellation Program for going back to the moon. He also has contributed modeling and analysis support for testing of a chemical steam generator for Stennis Space Center’s new A-3 Test Stand – a 300-foot rocket engine test stand under construction that will simulate altitudes of up to 100,000 feet. The generator will be used to create a test environment similar to those the engine will encounter when it must fire in space.
Junell is also providing analysis for propulsion system acceptance testing for the AJ26 engine that will power the Taurus II space launch vehicle being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. The Taurus II will be flown in support of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services cargo demonstration to the International Space Station.
As for the future, Junell is thrilled about NASA’s plans to go back to the moon.
“It’s an excellent time to work for NASA with the new vision to go back to the moon and possibly to Mars,” he says. “As far as human space flight goes, we haven’t traveled beyond low Earth orbit since the Apollo era. It’s time to go beyond that.”
Junell is also proud to be a part of the contributions Stennis will make toward NASA’s future.
“Walking around Stennis one can see old test stands being updated and new ones being constructed that will test the engines to take us back to the moon,” Junell says. “It is exciting to think that I am part of this; that I will be able to look back and say I was here at the beginning.”
Junell lives in Slidell, La., and is working toward a master’s of mechanical engineering through Auburn University in Alabama.
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Paul Foerman, NASA Public Affairs
NASA Public Affairs Office
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000
(228) 688-1880