HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – 27 July 11
South Dakota Student Propelled to NASA Intern Status
By: Heather L. Ogletree
Travis Davis brings new meaning to the phrase “small town kid makes it big.” His journey to NASA began on a ranch outside of Camp Crook, S.D., population 100, where he tinkered with tools and machinery, sparking his curiosity for all things mechanical. Then while at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D., Davis heard about NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) through his friend, USRP Alum Tal Wammen. Yet, Davis was a little intimidated to apply at first. He said, “Coming from a small school in South Dakota, I was worried my application would be skimmed over because my school is not as well-known as some of the larger engineering schools out there.”
Many students may share this concern, but Bryan Dansberry, the NASA Lead for USRP, attests, “It does not matter if you are from a small engineering school, a community college, or a well-known engineering school; what matters is that you have a strong desire to work at NASA, have applied yourself in school, your skills fit the needs of the project at hand, and that you communicate all this clearly through your application and recommendation letter.” In fact, USRP interns represent about 175 different schools around the world, most of which are not brand name engineering schools, and so Davis’s extra effort to perfect his application with solid essay question answers and a strong letter of recommendation from one of his teachers speaking to his technical and professional skills earned him a 15 week internship at MSFC. This spring, Davis joined USRP Mentor Andrew Schnell to work with cryogenic propellant storage technology.
The below interview covers how Davis came to NASA, the challenges he faced, his successes, and his words of advice to future USRP interns.
1. What do you like best about your chosen academic discipline?
Growing up on a ranch I have always worked in the shop with my dad and older brother. I like to work on things, whether it is motorcycles, pickups, cars, farm equipment, etc. In fact, anything mechanical interests me. Now that I am studying to be a mechanical engineer I am able to take my understanding of mechanics and extend it even further. I am now learning to understand the materials analysis, the 3-D modeling, the heat and fluid flows, as well as the in-depth technical basis and design that makes up these mechanisms. Being mechanically inclined helps me to do my job and makes my engineering classes easier to understand, but that coupled with the problem solving that I get to do as a Mechanical Engineer is what I think is the most fun.
2. Did you always desire an opportunity to work for NASA?
I cannot say I have always wanted to work for NASA, mostly because when I was younger I did not think it was within my reach. If you had told me my senior year of high school (2008) that I would be spending my spring 2011 semester working for NASA in Huntsville, AL, I would have told you, you were crazy. I knew I wanted to become a Mechanical Engineer, but in what fields and where were questions I did not think needed to be answered yet. I worked hard and took the chance applying, and now I work for NASA.
3. What have you liked best about your NASA USRP internship?
It sounds very cliché, but I like everything about NASA. One of my favorite things is the continued learning that is offered at NASA. When I see something that interests me, I ask a lot of questions and want to understand how it works. In some instances people find this annoying, when you ask questions and they have to try to explain things to you. But at NASA, everyone tries to explain things the best they can, and if they cannot explain something fully they will get you in contact with someone that can. When most people think about NASA they think about people learning new stuff all the time, and this seems to be very much the truth. If you want to see or understand something, all you have to do is ask. I know from experience, I have stood under the historic test stands at MSFC, I have walked under the belly of the orbiter Atlantis, I have taken pictures behind the orbiter Endeavour and I watched the final launch of the orbiter Discovery, and this was only one week of my internship.
4. What challenges have you faced in regard to your assigned project?
Coming into the project with minimal understanding of cryogenics was a large challenge. Understanding the constraints that are applied to cryogenic propellants that are in the vacuum of space was somewhat daunting the first few weeks. I have read through many technical memorandums and research papers that my group has on file and I was brought up to speed pretty fast.
5. What are you most passionate about in regard to your project? What did you learn?
My project in particular was based on helping with the design of the Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) and the Broad Area Cooling shield (BAC). The studies that I did will help the Cryogenic Fluid Management team to successfully build MLI blankets for their upcoming Liquid Hydrogen testing. This test will gauge the effects of using both MLI and BAC units together in a vacuum.
I have learned an amazing amount about cryogenic propellants and how the rigors of space affect them. Liquid Hydrogen is the main fuel used for the Space Shuttle Main Engines, and to keep it liquid it is kept at 20 K (-423.7°F, -252.87°C). I have always been interested in thermodynamics, so the affects that temperatures and pressures have on these cryogenic propellants was very interesting to me.
The more I learn about cryogenic propellants, the more passionate I become about the research we are doing. I think I am most passionate about the possibilities that could come from this technology. If we can hone this technology and complete the slated tasks for cryogenic propellants, it will change the way we travel into and through space. The affect that this research could have on space travel and the world is astounding.
6. What are your career goals after graduation?
This internship has definitely opened my mind to different possibilities. I will definitely view the aerospace industry as a good possibility when I graduate. My goal is to find a position that allows me to learn new things and solve new problems, then I will be happy.
7. What words of advice do you have for future interns?
Take full advantage of absolutely every tour, class, speech and colleague you work with. If you have questions, ask them. If someone wants to show you something or explain something to you, take the time to listen and ask more questions. If you are awarded an internship, take full advantage of the time that you spend at your NASA center. Don’t be scared or overwhelmed by the fact that you will be working at NASA. Don’t be worried about not understanding everything about your project right away. You are working at NASA; you are not supposed to understand absolutely everything in one day. Speak up when you have questions or recommendations. As interns we come in as a new set of eyes and minds that should be utilized to think outside the box.