Center Thrusts UTEP Students into Aerospace Careers
August 06, 2012
The level of ambition that NASA showed in the planning stages of the International Space Station captivated Christopher Navarro as a youngster who was enthralled with shuttle missions and stellar exploration.
At The University of Texas at El Paso, Navarro rekindled his passion for space travel and focused his graduate studies on propulsion and combustion as part of UTEP's NASA Center for Space Exploration Technology Research (cSETR). He used that knowledge to land internships with NASA and a job with Blue Origin, LLC, a commercial aerospace company started in 2000 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
Navarro, an El Paso native, is one of three former UTEP students working at Blue Origin's space launch complex in Van Horn, Texas, about 150 miles from the El Paso County line. The company is developing concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations.
According to the Blue Origin website, the business wants to keep its team size small so every employee "must be among the most technically gifted in his or her field." They also must have a passion for space, a desire to work for a small company, and get excited by building computer hardware.
Navarro, a test engineer, said he helps ensure that the facility is maintained to conduct the necessary tests of processes and procedures that will help future programs. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
He reacted modestly to the idea of being among the best of the best. "The company is looking for talented individuals," Navarro said. "I work with top-of-the-line guys who know the ins and outs of the industry."
The UTEP alumnus credits the work he did at the cSETR for preparing him and others to work at the likes of Blue Origin, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The cSETR facilities in UTEP's College of Engineering Building have been enhanced during the past 10 years into a state-of-the-art aerospace research program that teaches its students how to design, implement and run propulsion and combustion experiments. The University is among the few in the country with that capability.
The center benefited from funding from NASA's University Research Centers (URC) project, which was designed to advance research in historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions. UTEP received one of the prestigious awards in 2009. Its primary goal has been to provide opportunities and extensive training to underrepresented minority students within the Paso Del Norte region in propulsion systems, aero-structure analysis and energy engineering in addition to establishing key partnerships with companies such as Blue Origin.
Renovated in 2011, the cSETR includes two new high-tech labs. The Goddard Combustion and Propulsion Research Facility boasts a combustion bunker with a 600-square-foot test space. It was designed to be fully automated and to support the development of "green propulsion engines" and their respective propellants for the new era of aerospace technology. The Challenger-Columbia Structures and Materials Research Facility explores the effect of high temperatures on materials and includes experiments with sensors and structural material development with lunar sand, dust, soil and generally broken rock.
"The cSETR helped me get a career in a field that was almost impossible for me to pursue and did that at a level superior to that of most aerospace research universities," said Francisco Piñeda, who earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 2009 and his master's three years later. He is employed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Navarro said much of the center's success starts with Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and founder and director of the cSETR.
Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., is founder and director of UTEP's Center for Space Exploration Technology Research. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service"He pushed us to achieve and demanded a lot from us," Navarro said. "He taught us to set the bar high, which has helped us as professionals."
Choudhuri is pleased that NASA and commercial companies such as Blue Origin recognize the innovative center and its alumni. He said he hopes the availability of capable, high-tech talent for internships, co-ops and full-time employment can serve as a magnet to draw more aerospace companies and defense contractors to the Paso del Norte region.
"Our goal was to be among the pre-eminent aerospace research centers in the country, and we're on our way. We're achieving that," Choudhuri said. "UTEP's research team has emerged as one of the best."
Among the evidence to back up Choudhuri's claim is the planned Sept. 6 visit to campus by Mason Peck, Ph.D., NASA chief technologist. Peck is the scheduled keynote speaker at the grand opening of the renovated cSETR facilities in the College of Engineering.
The recognition is not lost on students who have become more interested in careers in the aerospace field. Their work is among the reasons that the University remains on course to become the first national research (Tier One) institution with a 21st century student demographic.
"There always has been interest, but now it's exploding," Choudhuri said. "We maintain our focus on student success. It's what we do."