WVU Tech chemical engineering student Lindsay McDowall discovered her love for NASA’s space program at the age of 13. Between attending a space camp and reading Homer Hickam’s 1998 memoir “Rocket Boys,” which inspired the film “October Sky,” it wasn’t long before McDowall became fascinated with engineering, rocketry and space exploration.
Now in her early twenties, McDowall is turning that fascination into real career experience. In the spring of 2014, she chased a rare opportunity 1,200 miles from campus to participate in a NASA Education Internship at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas – a hub of astronaut training activity and home to NASA’s Mission Control.
In Houston, McDowall worked on sustainability projects in the Design and Analysis Branch of NASA’s Crew and Thermal Systems Division. The division designs and tests environmental and thermal control systems that allow astronauts to live in space.
“My projects focused on engineering and environmental sustainability. I was tasked with writing a paper on all renewable energy projects JSC had done for the past ten years, and in that I was to include my recommendations for future projects as well as things I thought could have gone better or should have been done differently,” she said. “I presented my work to the JSC Sustainability Partnership Team and the JSC Energy Managers, who will use the recommendations from my paper when working on future projects.”
McDowall created six posters for a Houston area awareness campaign centered on the JSC’s six sustainability focuses: water, air, energy, people, materials/waste and land. She also designed the cover of the JSC 2013 Annual Sustainability Report.
The internship wasn’t all papers and presentations. McDowall repaired an electrolyzer – a machine used to break down water into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen – and helped to prepare a hazard analysis for the equipment.
“I was 21 at the time of my internship and I did something that will help to further NASA’s research on renewable energy systems on Earth and in space. I know that what I did was impactful to the organization and that it was taken seriously,” she said. “There’s no better feeling than that.”
During the program, McDowall met Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz, skyped with “Rocket Boys” author Homer Hickam and met with astronauts Karen Nyberg and Chris Cassidy, who had recently returned from the International Space Station.
Astronaut Serena Auñón took McDowall on a tour of the Ellington Airfield where she saw NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft, known as the “Vomit Comet,” and the “Super Guppy” over-sized cargo transport plane. McDowall also toured Mission Control, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility where astronauts train on actual ISS modules and NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where astronauts train on ISS module mockups while submerged underwater to simulate weightlessness.
McDowall said that seeing everything in action taught her that it takes all kinds of backgrounds to make the space program a success.
“You don’t have to be an engineer to work in spaceflight. NASA needs business men and women, medical professionals and technicians – anything you can think of. You just have to want it bad enough to work for it,” she said.
McDowall plans to graduate in 2015 and apply to the NASA Recent Graduates program. She’s currently deciding whether to pursue a renewable energy engineering graduate degree or a global energy law degree. She was selected to address the incoming freshman class at WVU Tech’s New Student Convocation on Thursday, August 14, 2014.For more on Lindsay’s NASA experience, check out her MyTech blog posts here and here.