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NASA summer internship launches student closer to her dream

Mechanical engineering major is starry-eyed from Endeavour flyover

Photo: Samantha Rawlins in front of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Samantha Rawlins at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Photo: Endeavour space shuttle flying over Los Angeles, followed by two jet fighter escorts.
Endeavour space shuttle flying over Los Angeles, followed by two jet fighter escorts. (The space shuttle will be on display at the California Science Center in Exposition Park starting Tuesday, October 30.)

Photo: (l-r) Academy's Operations Manager Daniel Jones, Samantha Rawlins, and Academy’s Program Manager Tim Duquette.
Samantha Rawlins presented a certificate by Academy's Operations Manager Daniel Jones (l) and Academy’s Program Manager Tim Duquette (r) for completing the NASA summer research program.

Many who witnessed the space shuttle Endeavour soar over Los Angeles while mounted atop the Boeing 747 last month were amazed and delighted. But, it meant a lot more for Cal State L.A.’s mechanical engineering Samantha Rawlins.

Rawlins—who was selected as a research associate for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Propulsion Academy at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama—has recently studied segmented solid rocket motors, which are used to help boost a shuttle into space. The motors are comprised of solid propellants, a movable nozzle, and an ignition system and hardware.

“It was really inspirational to see the space shuttle so close yet still flying around a huge city like ours,” said Rawlins, who was wide-eyed when she gazed up to the sky to catch a glimpse of Endeavour flying over the city, “but what really got me was the sudden interest people seemed to show in the space program afterward.”

Rawlins also pondered on the fact that when she went to the rooftop of the Administration building the University President, James M. Rosser, actually was there with members of the campus community to observe the space shuttle’s historic last flight.

“It made me really happy to know that America still had interest in its space program,” she said.

This summer brought Rawlins closer to her life-long dream of a career working with rockets or in space exploration. For 10 weeks, Rawlins was assigned to the Solid Propulsion Department at Marshall Space Flight Center, where her group analyzed pressure oscillations in segmented solid rocket motors and how they form.

“Some solid rocket motors, including the two attached to the space shuttle orbiter, experience oscillations as the propellant burns inside,” explained Rawlins, whose summer internship is funded through a Merkin Honors Scholarship and a Munitz Scholarship. “These oscillations have been getting close to the resonant frequency of both the motor and of the astronauts. If this resonant frequency is reached, results such as hardware damage or astronaut fatalities can occur and result in a crash.”

In addition to touring NASA facilities and commercial aerospace companies, Rawlins and her team had the opportunity to stand “frighteningly” close to a full, nine-minute, J2-X engine firing.

According to NASA Propulsion Academy, Rawlins is the youngest student ever selected as a research associate through the NASA Propulsion Academy at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Now 16, she was admitted to Cal State L.A. at 14 through the Early Entrance Program, which is housed under the auspices of the Honors College.

At CSULA, Rawlins is currently co-team captain of the University’s Formula SAE team to design, fabricate, and test a single-seat, Formula One prototype race car. She is also a member of Professor William Taylor’s physics research team studying the photoluminescence of Indium-Arsenide quantum dots.

“Samantha is an incredibly well-performing junior whose excitement about mechanical engineering and all her intern and research opportunities is intoxicating. When she returned from her recent NASA internship and talked about the experience, I wished I had been able to go and learn and see what she did,” said faculty adviser Darrell W. Guillaume, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at CSULA.

After completing her B.S. in mechanical engineering, Rawlins indicated that she hopes to continue on to pursue a master’s degree and possibly a Ph.D. in either mechanical or aerospace engineering.

“At this time, I am interested in pursuing a career in rocket propulsion, building on the exposure I had to this field during my NASA internship,” she said.

Through this educational and research experience, Rawlins obtained a better understanding of how what she learns in the classroom can directly apply in the real world.

She noted: “There are too many times to mention when our group encountered a problem only to have the solution be in one of our old fluids or thermodynamics textbooks. Of course, every job is different, but it is safe to say that it would be a good idea to keep your old textbooks around when you start working in the industry—you never know when you will need to refer back to them.”


In 1995, Cal State L.A. alumnus Samuel T. Durrance, astronaut and astrophysicist, took the University President’s Medallion into space on the space shuttle Endeavour. Durrance earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from CSULA.


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Last Update: 10/12/2012