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Meet: Ross Shaw

a photo of Ross

Wind Tunnel Test Engineer
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California

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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 little interest.

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 arena.

Influence
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!!

Advice
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 happy.

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 mid-July.

 
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