From June to August of 2015, I was a technology development intern at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

Obligatory selfie during my first day.

Obligatory selfie during my first day.

internship

My project concerned the economics of in-space propulsion, which was a very cool application of the majors I am pursuing.

From the Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle to the International Space Station, no spaceflight is possible without a reliable propulsion system. Ultimately, the best propulsion system is the one that will be the most efficient while costing the least amount of money. The largest factor in the aerospace market, above all, is the cost of the space travel.

Chemical propulsion is used to lift off from the Earth. However, once in space, aerospace engineers have a wider selection of technologies to choose from, particularly from electric propulsion.

Courtesy of sealane.org

Courtesy of sealane.org

While chemical propulsion offers high acceleration, it only allows for a certain payload mass. On the other hand, electric propulsion provides high fuel efficiency, but usually comes at the cost of delaying the mission for hours or, sometimes, for years. 

So how do we know what propulsion technology to choose from?

It depends on the mission, but my project was focused on helping the industry and NASA choose.

Optimizers are typically used to establish the trip times for missions. However, performing case-by-case analysis for individual projects is tedious and time-consuming.

We eliminated the need for the outdated optimizer, SEPSPOT, by establishing a tool that can be used to complete cost optimization studies for any given mission, helping people choose what technology they should pursue within electric propulsion.

The analysis was performed on a variety of electric propulsion systems using Matlab and Excel, while variables such as efficiency, launch costs, and power levels were altered.

The tool generated will be used to guide subsequent space transportation architecture assessments.

people

florida and the kennedy space center

michoud and johnson space center

My mom and I were fortunate and got to visit two more centers on our drive back to Oregon. Michoud Director, Bobby Watkins, set a tour for us up when we drove through New Orleans, LA. Astronaut Mike Barratt was gracious enough to give us a tour on our way through Texas.