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Meet: Fernando Zumbado

Cooperative Education Student - Mechanical Engineer
Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory
Johnson Space Center

Who I am and What I do

I work at the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory (ASPL). The ASPL is focusing on developing technology that will render faster space travel. The main research project is geared towards a variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket. This plasma rocket will give spacecraft greater speed than conventional rockets. For example, the duration of space flight in traveling from the Earth to Mars is 3 times faster than when using chemical rockets.

There are many subsystems to the rocket and I work with a superconducting ceramic that is used to create an electromagnet. When current is run through this material, a magnetic field is created. The magnetic field is used to make a "container" for the plasma before it is expelled through the rocket's nozzle. Since the plasma can reach temperature of 4000 degrees Celsius, the only way to contain it is by surrounding it with a magnetic field.

I have to perform stress analysis, thermal analysis and other important investigations to allow this superconductor to be operational. Skills needed for this job include knowledge of mathematics, stress analysis, heat transfer and other mechanical engineering courses. However, a strong foundation of mathematics, chemistry and a lot of patience are required.

Working for NASA allows me to do things that I would not be able to do anywhere else in the world. The fact that I can do research and design innovative concepts is what fascinates me the most. What I like least about my job is that sometimes I do not realize that for success, patience is a virtue. I am learning that nothing happens overnight and most of the great advances in technology come after years of hard work. Hopefully, in the future this will erode and I will love being at work just as much as I like playing soccer with my friends.

At first, a desire to understand how things work made me interested in the field of engineering. As I learned more about the different kinds of engineering, I began to be interested in the way machines work, how they were designed and how they could be improved. Mechanical engineering proved to be the best fit for my desire to understand the machines that surround us. Not only can I understand how a car engine works, I can study the way that heat affects the materials, how to prevent the surrounding components from overheating, how the air-fuel mixture ignites inside the piston, the friction wear inside the piston head, and many things that I never thought a mechanical engineer does. It is a career that allows a lot of freedom because I can work with other disciplines and understand what is being said. One of my college professors said that behind anything that moves, there must be a mechanical engineer. After four years of studying, I can finally agree with her.

Education and Career Path

I am finishing my bachelor's degree at Northwestern University. Most of the previous studying I did was focused on science and mathematics. After my sophomore year in college, I applied to the Co-op program at Johnson Space Center.

However, I believe that my curiosity and desire to learn was what prepared me the most to be an engineer. As a professional, engineers must not only be prepared in their respective fields, they must also be creative and always ask themselves if they learn something from the work they are doing.

For engineering, the best foundation is a good mathematical and science background. Learning these concepts well can help you through your college years.

Looking back on it, I wish in high school I had really learned what was being taught. I memorized formulas and concepts for tests but I do not think that I learned the material for knowledge's sake. I am surprised of how much I needed to restudy because I had not applied myself in earlier years.

The most important thing is to enjoy what you are doing. Being creative is a big part of engineering, and I find that without the passion for your profession, you tend to lack the creative spark that drives technological advances.

Growing Up

I grew up in Costa Rica, a small country in Central America. I attended a bilingual high school, Lincoln High School, and graduated in 1997. I came to the USA in September of 1998, when I began to study at Northwestern University.

I always knew that I wanted to be some type of engineer. I did not narrow down my option until my junior year in high school. It was more of an elimination process in which I decided that I didn't like electricity (so I wouldn't be an electrical engineer), I didn't like to program and I didn't want to build bridges or houses. So, sort of by default, I chose to be a mechanical engineer.

When I was about six years old, my parents bought me a LEGO® set. After a few years, I had more LEGO® sets than all of my friends combined. But the original sets were all mixed together and the fun that I had from them was building new cars or helicopters. I wanted to design my own contraptions and not stick to the original ones. I think that from that age on, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer so that I could design and build new machines.


I live in Houston for about six months out of the year. During this time I work at Johnson Space Center in several areas. The other half of the year, I return to Northwestern University where I am finishing my senior year. I have a Dachshund dog named Joey.

I am part of an amateur soccer team. I play about twice a week and there is nothing more fun than being on the field playing with your teammates. I also like to read about artists and painters. The most recent book I've read is about M.C. Escher, the artist who drew Relativity and The Waterfall.

Future plans and goals

Once I complete my bachelor's degree, I want to pursue a master's degree in robotics.

View my webcast:

National Engineers Week Co-op Webcast Archive -- February 26, 2002




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