UB engineering PhD candidate Aldonis Pimienta-Penalver helped
work on NASA's HELIOS project, an advanced solar sail
Published August 20, 2015
Editor’s note: This first person account appeared online Aug. 14 in the Student Story section of NASA Langley Research Center’s website. A former Cuban refugee, the author received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from UB. He is pursuing a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering from UB and working this summer for NASA.
Growing up a block away from the busiest airport in Cuba, devouring Jules Verne adventure books, and having a natural aptitude for sports, it isn’t much of a surprise that, at different instances, I wanted to grow up to be an explorer, a pilot, and, for the longest time, a professional soccer player. I could have thought about many things before thinking that I’d ever become a researcher.
I had my first experience with research as an undergraduate junior, when I had the opportunity to work with John Crassidis, who would later become my graduate advisor, on a new method to approximate the solution of Kepler’s orbital equation. After I completed my master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University at Buffalo, I went on to pursue a Ph.D. at the same institution. For all the theoretical knowledge I had accrued, never having the chance to apply it and see it work with my own eyes made me think of myself as more of a scientist than an engineer.
In the last couple of years, my research has taken me, quite literally, halfway across the world. I have met incredibly talented people and listened to their ideas, whether they were on the streets of a busy Southeast Asian city, or on the podium of a technical talk. I found it exciting, and quite humbling, that no matter what how long I spend solving a specific problem, there is always somebody else that does it differently and, perhaps, better than me. My growth as a person has gone, in many ways, hand in hand with my growth as an engineer, as I learned to love my work, not only because of its intellectual stimulation, but also because of what it means to me.
I find it, in some way, poetic to be able to make a contribution to science. I say this not only because of the significance of divulging an intellectual achievement like the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, but because ideas are the most intimate of human possessions, because it foments a global community by reminding us of how similar we all are, and how far we can reach with something as intangible as our thoughts. Once the researcher understands this, his work becomes a labor of love.
This summer, I was lucky to be chosen to work on an incredibly challenging and significant project, the HELIOS heliogyro solar sail project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F97NdwvmUM), which is currently being developed at the Structural Dynamics Branch at NASA's Langley Research Center. This very large solar sail concept requires active control in order to maintain structural integrity and be able to realize maneuvers in space. This project has been the focus of my doctoral research for over a year; and as I look to complete my dissertation, having the opportunity to perform experimental work will only increase the quality of my work. My goal this summer, working under Matthew Chamberlain, is to investigate and implement an algorithm to impose control on the theoretical heliogyro blades as well as a physical model housed in the building’s high bay.
I have been fortunate to work alongside a very talented intern, Arik Jenkins, without whom my work would have been meaningless. As we struggled and learned our limitations as engineers, both from each other, and from the sheer complexity of this project, I believe we both gained respect for our work, and for the work of others. Upon reaching a productive end to our intern experience this summer, it would be conceited to not mention the invaluable assistance of everyone inside, and even outside, the branch, who happily listened to our questions and provided insight into our problems. My work experience at NASA Langley has highlighted how important it is to collaborate, to be open, and to always make some good friends.
Being here has been a tribute to the many wonderful people who support me and my ambitions. Given all of this institution’s accomplishments and for what it represents to mankind, being able to contribute my knowledge to anything being done at NASA is a privilege, and a great achievement in my fledgling engineering career. As a former refugee, being part of this organization, even if it is for a few weeks, is a small piece of my own American Dream.