Engineering Major Earns NASA Internship

How far can a George Fox education take you? For junior engineering major Allen McLeod, the sky’s not even the limit.

McLeod, who won a competitive internship in the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is spending his summer vacation working to track and characterize the thousands of pieces of manmade debris orbiting the Earth.

But his time at NASA has encompassed much more than charts, graphs and computer simulations. From assisting in coring impact craters to seeing the prototype Mars rovers being tested, this aspiring mechanical engineer is getting a hands-on experience he won’t soon forget.

Here’s a more technical explanation from Allen of what he’s working on:

Orbital debris is any manmade object in orbit around Earth that no longer serves a useful purpose, and NASA is the international leader in research, analysis and modeling of the subject. I am working with the world’s leading experts in this field, which is an exciting prospect for a young mechanical engineering student.

It is the responsibility of the Orbital Debris department to track and characterize the current debris environment as well as predict what it will become in the future.

The above picture is a graphical representation of objects orbiting Earth that are currently being tracked; approximately 95 percent of the objects in the illustration are orbital debris. According to the Orbital Debris department, “More than 21,000 orbital debris larger than 10 cm are known to exist. The estimated population of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is approximately 500,000. The number of particles smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.”

My part in all of this is contributing to the research and modeling efforts under the guidance of my mentor, Phillip Anz-Meador. Currently I am leading a research project to determine the viability of Mylar and Kapton sheets as large area sensors using piezoelectric transducers as strain gauges. The goal is to detect impacts based on location and allow for quantities such as velocity, projectile size and trajectory to be derived. Later in the summer I will begin modeling rocket body explosions using computer simulation software. These models will allow for analysis of the simulated fragmentation and also show the effects of charge location and placement on the rocket body based on the size and number of fragments produced.

I have only been in Houston for a couple weeks, but I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the inner workings of NASA. Some highlights include assisting in coring impact craters of the radiator of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, watching prototype Mars rovers being tested, seeing mission control circa the 1960s and touring the mock-up rocket facility onsite at JSC.

I would like to thank several individuals who helped me reach this point and land such an exciting internship. Bob Hamilton and Neal Ninteman for writing my letters of recommendation, my advisor Mike Magill for helping me prepare for the summer, Bob Harder for heading a top notch program, and the rest of the engineering, math and science faculty who have taught me along the way. I’m also grateful for all of the faculty and staff at Fox who have helped make my first two years a great experience.

Finally, I would like to thank Diego Rodriguez and the Johnson Space Center Education Office, Heather Cowardin and Phillip Anz-Meador for offering me the opportunity to spend my summer at JSC.

For more information about orbital debris please check out NASA’s orbital debris website.

One thought on “Engineering Major Earns NASA Internship

  1. Hello,
    I am Greg Privette. I’ve developed flight software for NASA probes that have gone to Venus (Magellan) and Jupiter (Galileo). Currently, I am a NASA contractor at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland. I’m working on NPP – a weather satellite that launched last October. My son Kyle starts at George Fox (Comp Sci) next month.

    You might also like to read about the “satellite on a chip” developments. One of the uses for these is the ability to test our debris tracking systems. Each micro satellite sends a radio signal so we can get feedback on how well the ground trackers work. I could track down more about this if you like – saw another college summer hire present something on it at GSFC about 6 or 8 months ago.

    NPP is in a polar orbit and we have to contend with orbital debris left over from a satellite collision:

    Every so often we have to do a burn to move out of the way of debris in our orbit.

    I also recall reading about a paint chip in orbit (from a russian defense test I think) that went through 3.5 of the space shuttle’s 5 window panes.

    It’s dangerous out there!
    Greg Privette

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