Meet: Ross Shaw
Wind Tunnel Test Engineer
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
Who I Am?
I am a wind tunnel test engineer. Essentially I am responsible for coordinating,
planning, scheduling activities, and implementing test objectives defined
by the primary investigator. The primary investigators are either NASA
researchers or industry such as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas (before the
merger with Boeing), or Lockheed-Martin testing new commercial airplane
configurations, the next-generation military aircraft, new high-speed
concepts, as well as aircraft engines and automotive studies. A customer
requests time, ranging from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with
some test objectives to be met. It is my job as the test engineer to make
sure the customer is able to meet their objectives through data acquisition
and reduction requirements, instrumentation requirements, and facility
interface requirements. By coordinating with a team of wind tunnel operations
personnel, I make sure the customer obtains the necessary data to make
a rational decision about their design.
Wind tunnel testing is just a small part of the overall
design cycle for an aircraft, whether it is commercial or military. An
aircraft first goes through a conceptual design phase where the general
configuration, i.e., shape, wing geometry, engine size, performance, stability
and control are decided. After the conceptual design phase is the preliminary
design phase where each part of the aircraft goes through more detailed
analyses on the subsystem and integrated system levels. The goal of the
preliminary design phase is to come up with the "best configuration(s)"
that will meet the initial design requirements. Once the preliminary design
phase is complete, scaled models are designed and built to verify the
best configuration(s). Verification, along with additional trade studies
and new concept studies, are done by testing in wind tunnels. By creating
models with many interchangeable parts and having instrumentation at critical
design locations, a user can infer how the aircraft will perform in flight.
Once the customer has determined the optimum configuration, the next phase
of the design cycle, fabrication, is done. Flight tests are then performed
following assembly and systems integration to qualify the aircraft as
well as very the wind tunnel data. Throughout the life of an aircraft,
wind tunnel testing is continued as a means to improve configurations
or to help understand problems encountered during flight operations of
the aircraft. Ultimately, wind tunnel testing plays a key role in the
design cycle of a new or well-understood aircraft.
Over the last year, I had the opportunity to step
out of the aeronautics world and participate in the assembly, integration,
test and launch of the Lunar Prospector, an aerospace project. I was a
systems test engineer working directly with the prime contractor, Lockheed-Martin
Missiles and Space (LMMS), as a NASA employee. As a system test engineer
I was responsible for planning and implementation of systems test on the
spacecraft and the Trans-Lunar Injection Stage. I also played a significant
role in understanding how the spacecraft subsystems functioned on an integrated
level. This required that I understood the "big" picture of how the spacecraft
functioned as well as a general understanding of how each subsystem worked.
When we came to spacecraft processing and launch operations at Cape Canaveral
in Florida, I was responsible for verifying that the spacecraft systems
were "Go for Launch."
Why Aerospace Engineering?
My route to aerospace engineering is not your typical "I knew from the
beginning" journey. I really became an aerospace engineer by accident,
but it is something I would not trade for any other field. When I was
in high school one of our assignments as a junior was to decide what we
wanted to do, where we wanted to go to college, and thus what would be
our major. Being more interested in basketball, I had not really thought
about a college major until this assignment. So I sat back and thought
about what I liked, which was playing basketball, mathematics, science,
and building model airplanes, cars, and boats. I was always told "math
people" were typically engineers, so I decided I would be an engineer.
What kind? I thought the models I liked to build the most were model airplanes.
Thus came about the decision to be an aerospace engineer, not really knowing
what this meant or what was involved except is involved designing airplanes.
This exercise pushed me to pursue higher level math and physics courses
during my senior year in high school.
I ended up at the University of California at Davis
in the aeronautical science and engineering program for five years. (Yes,
five!) Throughout that time I thought my only job opportunities were in
Seattle (Boeing) or in Southern California (Lockheed, Rockwell, Hughes,
McDonnell Douglas), but as I got closer to my senior year I saw there
were many other opportunities across the country. Circumstances allowed
me to continue my education in graduate school with an emphasis in aircraft
structures with the intent to go into aircraft design. At this point I
had an inclination that perhaps I would like to be involved in a project
that started at the conceptual design phase through to the building and
operations phase. I knew graduate school would open a lot of different
opportunities but I didn't fully understand what that meant. NASA was
never on my list of places to work because my narrow perception of NASA
was they did a lot of space "stuff" and the aerospace projects they had
were more geared toward computational fluid dynamics, of which I had very
I interviewed with the Wind Tunnel Facilities Branch
with the intent that this would be an opportunity to "get my foot in the
door" in the aerospace industry. I was pleasantly surprised to find the
wind tunnels at Ames were on the cutting edge of aerospace design systems,
which I knew I wanted to be a part of. Fate was with me and thus began
my career at NASA Ames Research Center as a wind tunnel facilities engineer
and later a test engineer, my current position. From the start I was given
responsibilities I thought only possible after many years of hard work
and proving myself. Many of my assignments involved some level of project
management with hardware interface. I really enjoyed this type of work,
thus this has been the focus of my career path and goals: to become a
program/project manager for a project from "cradle to grave."
At one time I felt my career path would be towards
center management or a CEO because in my mind it was how things were done
to get ahead. As time has gone by and I better understand myself, my wants,
and my desires in a career, I realize that for me to be successful I do
not have to be center management. I get the exposure, the notoriety, and
the satisfaction of knowing I am a part of something special when I can
work with the hardware directly and lead a team of people with the same
goal of mission success.
Pros/Cons of Career
I think aerospace engineering is an exciting career because of all the
neat technologies that come out of the industry, like stronger materials
to make automobiles safer, etc. But most exciting to me is the fact that
the field encompasses a wide spectra of careers from airplanes to spacecraft
to the space shuttle. As a wind tunnel test engineer I got the opportunity
to see firsthand some of the new concepts and configurations for the next
generation airplanes, both commercial and military. As an aerospace engineer
I can work on space projects that try to understand our universe or provide
next generation communication systems or provide a better understanding
of the world we live. To be an important part of such programs is not
only interesting and challenging but most importantly they are FUN. I
truly enjoy going to work everyday!
I would say the biggest negative aspect of my career,
of which there are few, is this industry is very cyclic; it has its ups
and downs. The aerospace industry goes through periods when it is very
slow and many people are laid off from their jobs. There are also times
when there are just not enough aerospace engineers to fill all the needs
as the aerospace industry flourishes. Unfortunately a lot of this cycling
has to do with the economy and how much the government puts into the programs.
Despite this there are always exciting things going on in the aerospace
I would say the biggest influence in my life has been my father. I think
a lot of my drive and dedication to my career stems from my father. I
am the oldest child of four, with a five year span between the oldest
and the youngest. When I was very young my father was going to community
college, working, and raising a family. My father entered medical school
when I was just six years old. Despite have four very young children and
a very dedicated wife, he struggled through those years of medical school.
After about five years he finished medical school and began his internship
and residency. These were the years when I think a child's relationship
with his father is somewhat important because this is a time when they
can "go play ball together." I never felt my father was ever gone long
enough for me to miss him. He worked very hard to finish his medical school
training, but sure enough every Saturday morning and Thursday night when
his children had their basketball games he was there not only as a spectator
but as a coach and/or referee. He was very much dedicated to his career
as well as his family.
After medical school my father decided to go out
on his own. This alone is a tough venture to make when ones family is
just surviving, but that's what makes him so special to me. He knew the
lasting benefits of pursuing his career the way he did. He knew that in
the end his family and he would be better for this career moves he made.
And guess what, he was absolutely right. I think back through my life
and realize my father was always there when we needed him. He always provided
for us. He always pushed us to be the best at what we did and not to doubt
ourselves. He always told us there would be times when it was hard but
those hard times are outweighed by the joys and excitement one receives
when things work out. Patience, he would say, is all you need because
you can do anything you put your mind to. I like to think that my persistence
to ensure I like what I do as well as keep my family strong and well cared
for comes from the strength my father had throughout his life and career.
To this day I try to understand how my father survived
with four young children and still get through medical school, all without
me feeling like I was deprived of anything. Amazing to me!!
The first thing I like to tell young people who wish to pursue engineering
in general is that engineering is HARD. It requires a lot of time and
energy that is well worth it, but don't be discouraged by what you cannot
do. Be encouraged by what you can do. The key to engineering is to remember
it teaches you how to solve problems, engineering or non-engineering.
It teaches you a methodology by which you generate rational solutions,
either mathematically or experimentally, because often there is more than
one solution to a problem. And the process of solving problems becomes
something you will use in all aspects of your life.
Engineering is such a broad field within each of
the disciplines that there is no way you can know everything about everything.
Find out what you like about the field and pursue that avenue. Keep an
open mind however, because opportunities come up in the strangest places,
and your interests could change. You should choose what makes YOU most
For those seeking to pursue aerospace engineering,
I would suggest try to stay on top of what are the new concepts and technologies
in aircraft and space systems. Don't let the market decide for you what
you want to do. Sure, you can get the basics of fluid mechanics from mechanical
engineering but you can't design an airplane or spacecraft with just a
mechanical engineering degree. Have confidence in the field you have chosen
and stick with it if it truly makes you happy. Again, find what makes
you want to go to work because it will be something you do for the rest
of your life. Lastly, don't let anybody tell you engineering is not for
you. The individual does not know you or what drives you. You are the
only one that can decide if engineering is for you. I believe being a
part of a field with so many exciting technological advances will speak
for itself. Once you get through the basics and get into the "real engineering"
I know you will be hooked to engineering, especially aerospace engineering.
Early in the junior year of high school one should
start thinking about a college major. Start thinking about what you like
and what does that profession do. Ask questions so you can make a more
informed decision. I would say the way to prepare for any engineering
field is to be sure to take the most mathematics and physical sciences
you can early in school.
When in college don't fill your semester with just
engineering courses. Take perhaps two, no more than three, engineering
courses per day and fill the rest of the time with general education courses
or general interest courses. There is no need to burn yourself out on
engineering courses and besides there is more to life than engineering.
There is still basketball and eating and sleeping. Don't be afraid to
ask questions. Don't be afraid to work with other engineering students
or professors. You cannot know everything and input from others will enlighten
you about things you did not know. Your success will depend greatly on
how you network and how you perform in a team environment. In the corporate
world, the project is only as good as the teams performance. When you
are looking for a job, remember your first job does not necessarily have
to be something directly related to your career goal. Keep an open mind
about what paths you might take to get to that career goal. Be always
looking for opportunities that might lead to you achieving that goal,
and it is okay for your goals to change and career paths to change. Your
education does not stop when you graduate. Always keep yourself on the
cutting edge. Keep your mind sharp by continuing the learning process
through outside courses and your on the job experiences.
More About Me
I am a California native, born and raised. The only times I have been
out of California is for short trips for work or pleasure. I grew up in
Los Angeles until I went to school in Northern California; talking about
a culture shock! I have been living in Northern California every since
. I received my bachelor of science in aeronautical science and engineering
from UC Davis in 1989 and my master of science in engineering from UC
Davis in 1991 as well. Right after graduate school I obtained a job at
NASA Ames Research Center.
I am involved in many community activities both at
Ames and in the Silicon Valley. I am the Vice Chair of the National Society
of Black Engineers-Alumni Extension- Silicon Valley Chapter. I am also
the Chair of the Ames African American Advisory Group. As a participant
in these organizations, I have been able to keep in touch with the community
as well as transfer my knowledge and experiences to other students and
peers in the community.
I have been married for five years this April and
have two beautiful sons, 4 years old and 2 years, with a third due in