Today you’re going to learn what it is like to work at NASA as a mechanical engineer in the pressure systems and fracture field.
Specifically I’ll share with you an exclusive interview with the Pressure Systems Fracture technical discipline lead at the NASA Johnson Space Center.
So if you are wondering where a degree in mechanical engineering can take you, you’ll love this interview.
Let’s get started!
Interview with NASA JSC Pressure Engineer
Aida: Hello and welcome! I’m Aida Yoguely and I am a pathways intern here at the NASA Johnson Space Center and today we have with us my mentor Nate Greene who has been working on pressure vessels and some very cool stuff.
He wants to share all about his career and how he got here and to answer some of your burning questions.
Nate: My name is Nate Greene and I am the Pressure Systems Fracture technical discipline lead at Johnson Space Center and so I work with engineering here at Johnson Space Center.
We support all different kinds of programs, from the smallest program all the way to the deep space exploration.
Upbringing Before Engineering
Aida: Tell us, where did you grow up at and what was it like?
Nate: I grew up in Iowa so it was very cold in the winter time and kind of warm in the summer. I grew up on a farm and so we had a large garden and tractors and cars and all the kind of farm stuff that you might have. We had chickens and animals and I had my own little billy goat and stuff so.
Aida: Lots of hands on?
Nate: Lots of hands on stuff. We were always fixing things, and welding, and repairing stuff, and always trying to make stuff better.
Education That Helped Start a NASA Career
Aida: After growing up there, where did you go to school?
Nate: I’ve been to a couple of different schools. I went to Jefferson community college in Louisville, Kentucky.
After that I went to university of J.B. Speed Scientific Engineering school there in Louisville, Kentucky. And then after that I went back to Iowa, finished up bachelor of mechanical engineering there, and then also completed a masters there.
That was when I stopped with my schooling, “formally.”
Why Study Mechanical Engineering?
Aida: What got you interested in mechanical engineering? I am a mechanical engineer as well.
Nate: Well I just always liked to improve things. So, I was always just trying to take things apart. Taking apart everything, so my parents had a nightmare with everything coming apart and putting things together.
But then I really got interested how can I make things better. How could we take something and just get little more out of it, or redesign it all together.
My family members, my uncle’s an engineer. He has several patents and developed the IBM copy machine which was a really big deal to be able to make photocopies back in the day.
So he said “You should go into engineering. It will teach you how to build things, design stuff, how materials behave.” So, I thought that sounded really good.
So I said “Let’s go into engineering!”
Favorite Subject in School
Aida: In school, I’m guessing your favorite subjects were physics and math or was it other things as well?
Nate: Surprisingly, I actually was home educated for a good portion of my schooling. My favorite subject really was the internship aspect.
We had an opportunity to do internships building log cabins, we did internship building regular houses, internship with machining and learning how to work in a machine shop and make stuff.
And then internship in wood chop. Just a lot of different internships. Working on a dairy farm was an internship. I really liked the hands on a whole lot.
Of course, we had the math and English, and science and the history. I liked history a whole lot as well.
But I really liked the hands on. So that really stood out to me probably the most prior to college.
So that was really neat.
Aida: Yeah that sounds like a really great opportunity. Where I grew up, I only had the summers free, but still, summer is a time when you can get some hands-on work experience and see if you really like those things and apply everything you learn from school for the real world.
Nate: Yeah the nice thing about that is we were really motivated because in that type of environment, the motivation is “ok you can do an internship but you have got to get all of your academics done first”.
So you are very driven to try to get our academic work done.
Inspiration to Work at NASA
Aida: What inspired you to work at NASA?
Nate: I really have always liked how NASA is trying to do the impossible. We are trying to basically take something and go further than anyone has ever been able to do that.
And the other thing I really like is we try to apply science and the scientific method to solving the seemingly intractable problems.
An example of that is the cordless drill, we needed to drill holes in the moon and get samples out and we really couldn’t have a cord, and there are no outlets on the moon.
So, we came up with the cordless drill. Now that technology, which is a breakthrough in technology, most people have a cordless drill in their homes, or in the garage or something.
Aida: Yeah I have one myself.
Nate: Take it for granted but that is a NASA technology. And there is a lot of things like that.
NASA Technology Spinoffs
Nate: A myriad of NASA technologies that we get to work on. We are currently working on clothes that you don’t have to change.
They actually have their own special chemistry such that they never get stinky, and they do not get bacteria. That really could change how much you have to wash your clothes, how much detergent you use, water you use, your time.
That is something that we are looking at for deep space. We can’t really just wash our clothes all the time. We are re-engineering our concept of clothing.
Aida: I hear that the Astronauts that are living aboard the ISS, whenever they are done using their clothes, they stink them up as much as possible and then they just throw them out in the vacuum of space. So that would be less cargo we would have to ship from Earth to the ISS, because we can reuse them.
Nate: Some of my colleges are actually part of this test where they actually put on the clothes and then exercise and get stinky as possible and then hang the out and see, are they actually stinking?
Aida: Do they see bacteria growth?
Nate: Yeah exactly.
Career Path to NASA
Aida: We left off on your career story after you got these degrees, after that where did you work at before coming to NASA?
Nate: I worked for quite a few different places. As you might have guessed with being interested in internships, I did internships during college, and I worked during college as well.
I worked different places like for example in the chemical industry. I worked making high density polyethylene and low density polyethylene, which is what you have for your milk jugs. That was very interesting.
I worked also as a construction engineer, which is building houses and utilities for cities and stuff like that.
Then I also had the great opportunity while I was working at NASA, to give back to the community and do adjunct professorship at New Mexico State University.
They worked out a deal where I could teach and take advanced engineering classwork at the same time which was really neat to advance your education and keep current, and then give back to the next generation of scientists and engineers as they are coming along their career path.
Transitioning to a different NASA Center
Aida: When you started working for NASA, did you start off here at JSC or at another NASA center?
Nate: I started out actually working at White Sands Test Facility and then I came to Johnson Space Center. I actually started working for NASA through my graduate research.
So I was actually at Iowa State working in Combustion Science, which is “how do you burn and blow stuff up” Which is, if you are a fire bug, the greatest career path.
So I was doing that and then I had a NASA fellowship.
Aida: That is rare.
Nate: It was pretty neat. So I was able to go in and learn about “how do things burn in microgravity environment”. We were really worried about the ISS and long-term missions where something might be in Space, get free light and burn. We know it’s very different than it is on Earth.
Drop Tower at Glenn Research Center
Nate: I got to work with Glenn Research Center.
Aida: Up in Ohio.
Nate: I worked at the drop tower where we dropped our experiments and that was really fun. Then Johnson Space Center came to our university. I had an interview there, and then they said “We have a place for people who like to burn and blow stuff up, would you be interested in working in hazardous testing?”
So I interviewed, and had the opportunity to go out there, and did an internship there (at NASA). Then I came here, to engineering at Johnson, and worked on the Shuttle leading edge and some other stuff.
Aida: You have been here since the shuttle days?
Nate: Yup! Then finally had the opportunity to choose and I decided to go out and work at White Sands in New Mexico for a while, so that was kind of where I really started at NASA.
White Sands vs Johnson Space Center vs Glenn Research Center
Aida: Cool! You have been around and seen different NASA centers. What is like the main key differences between White Sands and what goes on at Glenn, and what is being worked on here at JSC?
Nate: My experience with Glenn, I really loved my time at Glenn, a lot of their fundamental research was being done at that time to understand, if we are going to build a spacecraft, if we are going to go into deep space, what kind of technologies do we need and what kind of science do we need to understand about propulsion, electrostatic propulsion, we were working on that.
Fire safety, what happens in zero gravity if something ignites. Some of that fundamental science is being done at the Glenn Research Center.
Here at Johnson, all human space flight. Really that aspect, and understanding, you know you got to keep the humans alive, you can’t just open the door if something happens. If there is a fire, you can’t just evacuate.
Aida: Or go home.
Explore Other Planets
Nate: So it is a really harsh environment, so you think about the humans. So here we think about, how to we keep humans alive, how do we make it comfortable for humans and how do we go and explore other planets, with humans.
At White Sands Test Facility, that is the agency’s location for doing the most hazardous testing.
Aida: Like you blow things up there?
Nate: You blow things up, you find out, where do things break? What is the limit? Everybody has the analysis, we do the analysis here, there is analysis done at Marshall, and at Kennedy. Then when you really want to find out the answer, you go out in the middle of the desert and you do that hazardous test. You learn so much about failure, and prediction versus what really happens.
Current Pressure Systems Projects at NASA
Aida: Wow, very cool! Right now, what are some of your current projects?
Nate: Ok so, currently, I am working in human spaceflight, all of the different spacecraft, if they have a human involved, they need to be able to have their basic body functions taken care of.
They need to be able to breath, have water and they also need to be able to have some kind of propulsion to get them to and from where they are going. You have to store all of this water, all of this oxygen, and you have to store your rocket propellant. Everything that you store, pretty much, you store pressurized.
So, I am responsible for storing all of your pressurized fluids, gasses… And we are looking at those, from NASA designs as well as from vendors who have designed things to make sure those are going to be working, and that they are safe for human spaceflight. Any kind of pressure vessels from large tanks to very small high-pressure tanks.
That might be 10 thousand psi, so you are talking about a lot of energy stored there so you definitely would not want those to fail, crack, leak, because that would be catastrophic, we would lose the whole spacecraft.
Biggest Challenge as a NASA Engineer
Aida: What has been one of the biggest obstacles that you’ve faced as an engineer?
Nate: I worked with a lot of really brilliant people who are trying to come up with the best, newest, brightest, cutting edge technology. Balancing that, with having something that is reliable enough to go into deep space and not have a backup option.
So it is really challenging because, on the one hand we want to push the envelope. On the other hand we want to have something that is reliable enough that it won’t fail catastrophically and we have loss of life or loss of mission.
There is always this tension between trying to push the envelope and getting something that we know absolutely is going to work. And as you probably have understood with NASA, sometimes we have lost a vehicle, lost part of our family when they are launching.
And that is because, we are really pushing the envelope.
Aida: We work on a lot of very novel things and yet we are also trying to have that factor of safety integrated in our results and our data.
Nate: Yeah and if I could interview you, it would be interesting to see kind of how you felt because you have actually seen first hand and worked on something that is very cutting edge, not even something we would put humans on yet, right but it is pushing the envelope to do cutting edge technology for storing propellants and doing rocket flight.
And there are risks in these types of new technologies that we got to go work out before we absolutely say we are going to go put somebody on top of it.
Failure Is Part of Progress
Aida: Yeah and sometimes failure is part of projects but we want it to fail in a safe way where people aren’t hurt but we still can perform all of this cutting-edge experimental testing.
Nate: Failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You need to fail things to understand where they are going to meet their limit.
What you don’t want to do is have them fail in a way that is going to hurt someone. And we want to make sure we fail them in an experiment, a controlled experiment…
Aida: Where you can find out why it failed, where you can monitor and understand the results.
Nate: I mean, who would really want to have a failure when they are on another planet, living on Mars right?
Coolest Moment at NASA Johnson Space Center
Aida: Wow, this is so interesting!
What was your most memorable moment here at Johnson?
Nate: Something I really take a lot of, was really intense, is when we launched EFT-1 which is Orion’s first flight from here recently. That was really exciting. We all worked so hard on Orion.
Aida: So, backing up a little bit, what’s Orion? Is it what supersedes the shuttle?
Nate: When we retired the shuttle, we basically decided that we wanted to do two things, we wanted to make it so that anybody could go to space. Not just have it be something that is so restricted that to have Astronauts be able to go but we also wanted to be able to make sure that you could go to space.
Orion and Commercial Crew
Nate: And so we’ve been working with commercial companies, like SpaceX, like Boeing, and other commercial companies to be able to make sure that space is a dream that you could actually participate in. The other thing we have been working on is basically rolling out all of those technologies, teaching US companies how to build spacecraft and then taking the next step which is deep space.
So Orion was our first big step to go into and take humans into deep space exploration. And we did our first test flight EFT-1. That was our first test flight of our first deep space spacecraft.
Yea check it out on YouTube, it’s great, very proud of the team in getting that test flight on YouTube and more to come. We are getting ready for EM-1 which is going to be our first full architecture flight for human deep space exploration.
Aida: That’s going to be in 2 or 3 years?
Nate: Yeah, it’s coming up, it’s in the works, that’s about the right time frame for when it will be coming out and yeah stay tuned on that one.
Personal Goals of a NASA Engineer
Aida: Are there some personal goals that you would like to accomplish or I guess we are at the end of the year, usually my NASA internships are in the summer, and now we are wrapping up in December. Any goals you’ve had this year?
Nate: I really like inspiring the next generation of explorers, people who are interested in science and seeing what could they do. What is your potential? What you think you could do?
Only your dreams really limit what you can do. I’d like to see the next brightest idea, those innovators who are going to take us into deep space, living in deep space.
NASA’s New Warp Drive Technology
Nate: In the future I’d like to also possibly been interested in working in NASA’s new warp drive technology that we are working on.
Aida: What’s that all about?
Nate: So we are working on some warp drive technology here at Johnson Space Center, it’s really in the early scientific stages. We are talking about interplanetary travel, we need to totally more advanced propulsion technology.
And so just like you see on Star Trek when they talk about warp drive, it’s that kind of technology that we are working on. Now that is way far in the future and maybe you know not practical that I would even see that in my life time. We are working on it.
Aida: You’d get to be a part of that contribution. Yeah we are taking that science fiction and we are making it a reality.
Nate: That’s right, and that is the exciting thing about NASA and being involved with that advanced technology is we have the opportunity to bring it into reality.
Hobbies in Houston
Aida: Outside of work, do you have any hobbies or favorite things to do, maybe even around the Houston area?
Nate: Yeah I love Houston, it is a lot of fun. I love to sail so this is a great place. There is a lot of water to go out sailing. I love to camp.
I like to go to the museum district, there’s great museums here. It is a really neat place to live. It’s a pretty large city so there is always something going on.
Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?
Aida: What would you like to be doing 5 years from now or maybe 10?
Nate: I kind of alluded to it a little bit. I like what I’m doing. This is a great fit for me. I really like working with storing your fuel and your oxygen and working with rocket systems, propulsion systems.
I might like to contribute a little bit more on the really cutting-edge physics area to help contribute to the warp drive technology. That would be interesting.
But I probably want to continue what I’m doing now and maybe do that on the side. I would also kind of maybe teach again. I really like giving back to students who are maybe trying to figure out what am I interested in.
Am I interested in chemistry? Am I interested in science? so I really enjoyed teaching so I might do that.
Aida: Yeah and you are a great teacher, in my experience having you as a mentor, you really have that drive for passing along the knowledge and the experience.
Advice for High School Students Interested in Pressure Systems
Aida: What advice would you have for a high school student that is interested in your career?
Nate: I would definitely say find a good mentor. They don’t have to be anywhere specific. But someone who is passionate about science. Maybe they are a little bit further along than you are and they are interested in science.
The person who really inspired me worked at Xerox. Worked and developed the first photocopier. So find a good mentor who is interested in science that can push you and challenge you to stretch a little bit and to innovate and be creative.
Definitely you need to be focused on your math and science. That’s important because we do use that to understand and evaluate the next cutting-edge design. So, you need that math and science.
And then just follow your passion. If you are really interested in an area and you invest your time and your heart to it, that is a big thing. That will take you a long way.
NASA Intern Program
Nate: And then of course check out our pathways program.
Aida: Yeah if you are interested in a career at NASA, I’ll put the link where you can find NASA internship opportunities and also the NASA pathways program. There are 10 NASA centers around the US, so you have many areas to explore career-wise.
Thank you very much for your time. I’ve appreciated all of the help that you have given me and I look forward to next summer. Next summer, I’m actually coming back to Houston. Thank you for everything.
Nate: Thanks Aida, and we can’t wait to have you back. We’ll miss you while you are gone.
Watch the full video interview: