I do experimental and computational aeronautics and space research. Here
at NASA Ames several of our projects involve work with our ballistic ranges.
In the ballistic ranges, one of the jobs we do is to shoot models out of
guns to see how they fly. For example, at the moment, we are shooting models
of Mars landing capsules out of our guns to see if they will be flying smoothly
when the parachute opens. If the model is tumbling end-over-end when the
parachute opens, the parachute could be ripped off and the capsule would
crash on Mars, probably destroying it.
Another of our jobs was for the space station which is now being built
in orbit. On the space station, the outer shell has a shield to protect
the astronauts against flying space debris and meteors. We have tested
the space station shield here by shooting simulated space debris at it
to see what is the best shield construction to protect the astronauts
as much as possible.
Another type or ballistic range work is to shoot simulated meteors into
blocks of rock and sand to try to understand how meteor craters are made
on the moon, Mars, the Earth and other planets. Our meteors are very small,
only about 1/8" or 1/4" across. Our guns aren't big enough to shoot large
I also work with very high speed wind tunnels, called shock tubes and
shock tunnels. We have one tunnel about 3 feet wide which can run as fast
as 7,500 miles per hour. We did tests on possible jet engines for future
airplanes which could fly up to 7,000 miles per hour. The time that we
can run this very fast wind tunnel is very short, only about 3/1000 of
one second. But, we have instruments that can measure pressures and forces
more than one million times a second, so that we can get information even
though the tunnel only runs for a short time.
We also have a tunnel about 4 inches wide which can run as fast as 90,000
miles per hour. This is about the speed that the NASA Galileo probe was
going when it hit Jupiter's atmosphere in 1994. Since Jupiter is much
bigger than the Earth, its gravity is very strong and any probe to Jupiter
will be going about this fast when it enters Jupiter's atmosphere. The
Jupiter atmosphere around the Galileo probe becomes very hot and glows
very brightly, because the probe acts like a meteor entering Jupiter's
atmosphere. We did tests (using Jupiter atmosphere) to see if the glow
was bright enough to make the surface of the probe start melting away.
It turned out that the surface of the probe does start melting away, but
there is enough material left for the probe to safely slow down and open
My Career Path
We have lots of engineers in my family. My grandfather and my uncle were
mechanical engineers and my father was an aeronautics and space engineer.
Also, I have always liked to watch air or water moving. I used to be able
to watch clouds or waves on the beach for hours. When I first went to university
(in Montreal, Quebec, Canada), I was studying geology. After two years,
I decided to change to mechanical engineering, so then I was following the
family tradition. (The university in Montreal didn't have an aeronautics
department.) I went to graduate school at Princeton University in the Aeronautics
and Space department. After that, I worked for 2 years at the Princeton
Plasma Physics Laboratory and two years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
in Pasadena, California. Then, I worked for the UCLA and the University
of Southern California in Los Angeles for four years. Next, I worked for
12 years in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department of the University
of Washington in Seattle. Finally, I came to the NASA Ames Research Center
at Moffett Field, California, where I've been working for nearly 13 years.
Why I like my Job
Positive aspects of my career choice include working on very interesting
problems, working with people from many coutries and seeing some of the
results of your work being used in aeronautics and space projects, such
as Mars probes and the space station. Also, you get to work with exciting,
interesting pieces of equipment, such as the guns used to launch models,
very high speed wind tunnels and lasers. Negative aspects include a lot
of paper work and regulations which must be followed when you work for the
government. Sometimes, you have to wait a long time - like 10 years - to
see the results of your work being used. Also, sometimes, projects are cancelled
because of tight budgets and your work doesn't get finished.
As a Child
As I said before, I always liked to watch air and water moving, like clouds
and waves and snow drifting. (When I was young, I lived in Canada, where
there was about 5 months of winter.) I liked to read science fiction - from
Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to stories published in the
"Galaxy" science fiction magazine. I also watched early science fiction
television programs such as "Captain Video." I flew "JETEX" model rockets
with some of my friends. These were rockets that were available for kids
in the 1950's.
I would advise a young person interesting in aeronautics or space to be
sure to check out the positive and negative aspects of this type of career
- for sure, it's not for everybody. If you really want to continue in aeronautics
or space, you certainly need to get a good education, go to good schools
and universities. If you can manage it, it's good to get summer or part-time
work in aerospace industries or laboratories.
My grandfather, uncle and father were all mechanical or aerospace engineers,
so I always had that example in the family. I wasn't really pushed to become
an engineer, but it sort of followed naturally from the family tradition.
My first technical summer job was on a ballistic range near Quebec City,
north of Montreal in 1960. I was kind of inspired by the folks that I worked
with on that job. Lots of them were French Canadians. (Before that, for
summer work, I dug ditches 50 hours a week for $1.00 an hour.)
I would like to continue working in aerospace engineering, since there are
so many exciting projects under way, such as the space station, more probes
to Mars and Jupiter. Later on, we might try to investigate the possible
oceans under the ice on Jupiter's moon Europa. It is also very important
for an older researcher like myself (59 years old) to work at mentoring
younger folks so we can pass on the skills that we have to future generations.
To have a change of pace from work, my wife and I play in several folk
music groups. We play Latin American music in one group ("Grupo Germinal")
and we play for folk dances in another group ("Vecernica").