Aeropropulsion Intership at NASA's Glenn Research Center

An interview with Sean Currey '11

Describe your research project and responsibilities.

I owe my summer position at Glenn Research Center as an Aeronautical Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) intern to the generous auspices of NASA’s Aeronautical Scholarship Program and the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).  I am currently 6 weeks into my 10 week stay at Glenn, and so far it has been a great experience.

I currently work in the Aeropropulsion Combustion Branch under Dr. Martin Rabinowitz.  We are studying the minimum ignition energy of isooctane in an inerted environment.  In 2000, it was decided that the TWA Flight 800 crash from four years prior was most likely caused by an explosion in the center wing fuel tank, although the ignition source is still a mystery (most likely culprit: a short circuit).  My goal is to observe how inerting the fuel tank – or lowering the oxygen concentration in the tank by adding nitrogen – affects how much energy from an electric spark is needed to ignite the mixture.  Is the ignition energy affected solely by the fuel/air equivalence ratio or are there other factors at play?  Does the temperature and oxygen concentration also have other affects?  That remains to be seen.

I run and operate the test rig we constructed essentially by myself.  I learned how to program Wonderware to control the various elements of the apparatus, such as the gas systems and high voltage lines.  It has been a great experience learning about the research process, as well as learnin how to turn failures into success.

Do you get to tour the other research facilities on base?

All the time.  The University Programs Office did an excellent job of setting up tours of the various facilities at Glenn.  There were also many optional tours of nearly every building available only in the summer.  My mentor was also kind enough to introduce me to researchers working on other buildings who took me on private tours.  My favorites so far are the 10 x 10 supersonic wind tunnel , the icing research tunnel, and the 5.18 second drop tower.

Who else is involved in your project? Did you have the opportunity to work with other students?

I am working very hard under my mentor and with the guidance of two very knowledgeable technicians: Gregg Calhoun and Bob Bickford.  I did not have the opportunity to work directly with other interns, but they are always close by.  On several occasions we attend presentations about the work other students were doing.  They serve as great introductions to the kinds of ongoing research at Glenn.

What kinds of social events are there?

In addition to the tours, the University Programs Office also organizes special lectures for the interns on a variety of topics, including the 2003 Columbia Accident and NASA’s new “flexible path” plan.  There was also a picnic, a relay race, and several other smaller events.

Describe your living situation.

I live with two other interns in Cleveland about 2.5 miles away from Glenn.  One of my housemates found this three person house on Craigslist, and I connected with him on Facebook.  I’ve a great time getting to know my roommates and I highly recommend finding a house for the summer rather than an apartment.  We’ve enjoyed meeting new interns by hosting bbq’s and dinners in our backyard.

Glenn is a great place to work.  There is a very new fitness center that is free to use and staffed with personal trainers willing to design programs for you (also free!).  Cleveland has some exciting places to visit, such as Cedar Point and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and a variety of ethnic foods to sample.

What is your favorite part about working at Glenn?

Meeting all the brilliant minds that work here.  I meet someone interesting daily, and watching presentations on subjects such as retrorocket ignition at Mach 5 for Martian entry vehicles is so cool!

What was your most memorable experience?

Aside from performing valuable research, I got to see and listen to Administrator Charlie Bolden, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Senator Sherrod Brown, and five of the astronauts of STS-132.

What are your plans for the future?

After working at Glenn, I’m very excited for my senior year at Dartmouth.  I have a lot of fun and rewarding activities planned for the club.  After Dartmouth, I hope to go to graduate school and get a master’s or PhD in Aerospace Engineering.  I hope I can take what I learned here at Glenn and apply it in the future.



From top to bottom: (1) looking down the 5.18 second drop tower, which simulates microgravity conditions. (2) The exterior of one of Glenn's wind tunners. (3) Interns and visiting faculty examine the control room of the Propulsion Systems Laboratory.