Here at TIP, we work hard to create summer programs where you can study new things in new ways that most students don’t have access to—things like astronomy with research-grade telescopes or aerospace engineering. Recently, we caught up with a TIP alum who turned her studies into internships at NASA.
I’m Lacey Littleton and I’m a sophomore at Georgia Tech. I’m studying aerospace engineering and working in a couple labs on space systems design. Here at Georgia Tech, I’m working on the Cubesat mission. We’re hoping to launch a satellite in 2020, before I graduate. I also worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory last summer on the Europa mission, and will return this summer to work on the Mars 2020 mission.
What are you doing on those projects?
Last summer at NASA, I was working as a systems engineer, focusing on flight systems communications. It was a high level design approach, so I was reading lots of documents and research to find the best design for the mission. I also worked on the power subsystem a little bit. That was lots of flow charts and diagrams to figure out what to send to the craft at what times— power start-up sequences, different communications patterns depending on where in the mission we were (in orbit, travelling to Jupiter, etc.). So I was researching different stages of the mission, various protocols and commands, and how to execute those commands.
Mars 2020 is essentially a second Curiosity Rover with more interesting instruments. It’s basically the same as the first Rover. I’ll be working on motor verification and validation, so I’ll be taking hardware that’s already been constructed and running tests to make sure it meets our specifications before it’s attached to the Rover.
The Cubesat mission here at Georgia Tech will be testing a LIDAR imaging processor. It’s a laser radar that will scan an object and send it back to Earth to verify its measurements. We’re sending a target with the satellite so we can test it. The target is a deployable inflatable that will site about ten meters away. The satellite will scan it and send the measurements back, and since we know what the measurements are, we can tell if it’s correct. The target must be tethered with a cable to the main satellite or the drag will make it float away too quickly to be scanned. I’m working on the mechanism that releases the cable, holds it in a certain position, and allows us to reel it in and out.
You took related classes at TIP’s Field Studies and Summer Studies. How did that impact what you’re doing now?
It had a huge impact.
I did Field Studies in 2013 at PARI, studying astrophysics. Before then, I was certain I wanted to study astronomy or astrophysics. The class was dead on for my interests. I really enjoyed the course and loved playing with the telescopes and talking to the people who operated them. I loved the project we worked on, too. But I came out of the program realizing it’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It didn’t fit.
So the next summer I studied aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech. I wanted to find a different section of space that was a better fit. And I absolutely loved it. I really appreciated the opportunity to try both subjects and figure out what I wanted to do. It also shaped the colleges I looked at, since I started looking for those with the best aerospace engineering programs.
What makes space so interesting to you? What compels you to learn about it?
I’ve always been interested in science, but I wasn’t interested in space until I saw Star Trek. I loved it. I watched every single episode. There are some specific characters—Spock and Janeway—who I adored and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I wanted to make that universe a reality. When I was a kid I thought we were one generation away from having star ships like them. That’s not a possibility, of course, but I still want to help us work towards it.
I also loved NOVA on galaxies and astronomy. That’s why I originally wanted to study astronomy.
Do you think studying space helps society in general?
I definitely think that. It’s important to study space because there’s nowhere else to go on Earth. We have to explore our universe and learn as much about it as possible. And even if a rocket doesn’t advance society as a whole, the innovations in it do. There’s a lag, but a lot of the things NASA has built have improved our day-to-day lives—computers, airplanes, all those things. Even when they’re not directly space related, the things we discover while trying to get to space greatly impact us.