Engineer Gets Exclusive Tour of NASA
NADIA M. WHITEHEAD | January 09, 2015 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Graduate metallurgical and materials engineering student Matthew Garcia stands in front of the NASA spacecraft Orion during its homecoming to the Kennedy Space Center in December.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Garcia
While most El Pasoans were busy with last-minute holiday shopping in the days just before Christmas, University of Texas at El Paso graduate student Matthew Garcia had his mind on other matters. He was preparing for the chance of a lifetime.
Only a few weeks earlier, Garcia learned that he had earned one of 50 coveted press credentials to attend a rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center. More than 5,000 people had applied for a chance to witness the event through NASA Social, a program that promotes behind-the-scenes, in-person experiences at the space agency. In addition to witnessing the launch, attendees would have the chance to mingle with NASA scientists and engineers while receiving an exclusive tour of the Florida space center.
The opportunity tied in perfectly with Garcia's background. As a graduate student in metallurgical and materials engineering, Garcia is keenly interested in research that will benefit future spaceflight missions by NASA and other space transport companies. When UTEP established the Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance (CASSMAR) in 2013, Garcia — then an undergraduate — jumped at the chance to get involved.
Today, his research revolves around trying to understand how spacecraft materials react to the unfavorable, extreme conditions found in space.
"Space flight is hard. The environment is costly and inherently dangerous, so one important aspect we need to consider is the safety of the humans on board," Garcia said. "The CASSMAR center is trying to mitigate these inherent risks that come with spaceflight."
Darren Cone, who oversees Garcia's research and serves as the executive director of CASSMAR, was excited that the rising engineer experienced a rare, behind-the-scenes look at NASA.
"I was very pleased Matthew Garcia was accepted to participate in this event," Cone said. "I'm confident he represented all facets of the UTEP aerospace research community with a keen sense of technical curiosity, dedication and excitement — all attributes of a proud UTEP engineering student!"
Garcia's two-day immersion with NASA kicked off Thursday, Dec. 18. But upon his arrival at Cape Canaveral, NASA had called off SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launch — the launch he had been scheduled to view.
Luckily, Garcia arrived in time to witness another momentous event.
Orion, the spacecraft that will eventually carry humans farther into space than they have ever been, was just returning from its first successful test flight. Along with journalists from around the U.S., Garcia attended a press conference led by NASA spokesman Mike Currie.
In addition to attending the homecoming, Garcia learned about multiple research projects that will soon take place onboard the International Space Station.
The most memorable presentation explained that fruit flies are being taken into space to study how microgravity affects their immune systems. Garcia also found a presentation about the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) intriguing. CATS is a remote-sensing instrument that will be placed on the exterior of the ISS. From its position, it will beam down lasers towards Earth to better understand clouds and particles like dust and air pollution.
Garcia said the highlight of his visit with NASA was meeting former astronaut Sam Durance and standing on top of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Used to prepare vehicles for their launch into space, it is the largest single-story building in the world.
Throughout his trip, Garcia live tweeted news and photos about his experience from the Twitter account @CASSMAR_at_UTEP. Participation in social media was required for consideration of the press credentials, which Garcia thought was a great idea.
"Social media is where everybody looks for their news nowadays," he said. "Researchers have to adapt to this new trend in information and media to adopt new audiences. We have a huge opportunity to reach younger generations with this tool by making them aware of what's going on in STEM fields."
While the young engineer has yet to experience a launch firsthand, he said he is grateful for the opportunities NASA Social and UTEP have given him to immerse himself in the aerospace world.
"I never would have imagined I'd be able to experience any of this," he said. "And I want others to know that these big breaks are out there for them, too."