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Meet: Christine Szalai

Research Engineer
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

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Who I Am
I am a Research Engineer in the Thermal Protection Materials and Systems Branch at NASA Ames Research Center. Thermal Protection Systems (TPS) are materials that protect spacecraft from the intense heat when the spacecraft enters an atmosphere. For example, our branch developed the ceramic tile material that protects the Space Shuttle each time it comes back to earth. Spacecraft that enter other planet's atmospheres, like Mars, also need TPS materials to protect the spacecraft from burning up. That is primarily where I spend my time - developing new TPS materials that can be used for planetary exploration spacecraft and spacecraft that gather samples from space and return them to earth.

One important aspect about TPS material development is testing. NASA Ames Research Center has arc jet facilities that can simulate the intensely hot environment that the material will experience. We build test models of the materials and test them in these facilities to see if they survive and if they will adequately protect the spacecraft from getting too hot. For one of the Ames-developed materials, we typically see surface temperatures of around 5000°F at the surface, and a sufficient thickness of the material will still keep the structure behind it under 500°F!

I work on developing new TPS materials, testing the materials in the arc jet facilities, and supporting real missions that need our TPS materials. One of our materials flew on Mars Pathfinder and another is on a spacecraft called STARDUST, which is on its way to collecting comet dust and bringing it back to earth for analysis. It is very exciting to work on these real missions and to know something I worked on is on another planet or is out in space. It is exciting when I remember that our TPS helped protect the Mars Pathfinder land on the surface so that we all could see those amazing pictures of Mars!

Personal Information/Advice
I've always been interested in math and science and liked those subjects in school. I grew up near Edwards Air Force Base and NASA Dryden Flight Research Facility, where on a daily basis you see the latest jets and bombers, like the SR-71 and the B-2 stealth bomber, fly overhead. I had the opportunity to work as a SHARP (Student High school Apprenticeship Research Program) student at NASA Dryden the summer before my senior year in high school. This was a great way to actually work on exciting projects at NASA while learning exactly what engineers worked on. I continued to have an interest in this field and attended UCLA where I received a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I thought Mechanical Engineering was a versatile major because you could do a lot of different engineering jobs with that degree. I found that there is still a lot of on-the-job training once you start a career, but going to college and obtaining a degree is the KEY to your future. You can go into so many different areas and do so many different things to find what you like best. And this is where you'll be the happiest - when you are doing something that really interests you and that you think is fun!

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