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Hutchins Pursuing Dream Job with NASA

Student Hoping to One Day Work with Drones at Langley Research Center

Liam Hutchins snaps a photo with his cell phone while touring NASA's historic Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, as part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program. (NASA Photo)


VIDEO: NCAS Fall 2017 Testimonials

VIDEO: NCAS Fall 2017

VIDEO: NCAS Fall 2017 Team Presentations and Closing Ceremony

WINTERVILLE—For four days in September, Pitt Community College student Liam Hutchins got a firsthand look at the daily life of a NASA engineer and what he hopes will one day be his future.

Hutchins, who is on track to graduate from the Electronics Engineering Technology program in December, visited Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., through the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program. From Sept. 25-28, the 21-year-old Greenville resident took part in a team project monitored by NASA engineers, attended briefings by agency personnel, and toured the historic Langley facility.

“From beginning to end, it was a really interesting and very fun experience,” Hutchins said. “I gained insight about NASA and what they are trying to achieve.”

Hutchins said the most important thing he learned from his visit is how to acquire a job with NASA.

“I have always dreamed of working with drones, and the program at NASA would fulfill that dream,” he said. “The process to acquire a position is rigorous, but knowing what they are looking for is a key component for acquiring a job at NASA.”

A total of 43 students from across the country participated in the NCAS program at Langley this fall. They were divided into four groups for the team project in which they were challenged to design a mini rover to collect rocks in one competition and retrieve rovers in another.

Hutchins said he and his fellow Green Team members didn’t fare particularly well in the first event, explaining that the initial design of their vehicle’s collection system was flawed. He said they redesigned the system in time for round two and were able to retrieve a rover from a debris field set up to simulate the surface of Mars.

Testing and improvising has been a hallmark of Langley Research Center since it was established in 1917. As NASA's oldest field center, it has witnessed everything from astronauts preparing to walk on the moon and pilots testing experimental aircraft to wind tunnel research and countless flight innovations.

Hutchins was able to get an up-close look at each area of the historic facility, including the Impact and Landing Research Center that is used for various testing, including the impact that landing has on aircraft and helicopters. He also toured the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, where a robot named ISAAC (Integral Structural Assembly of Advanced Composites) has been producing model aircraft out of various materials for testing purposes since 2014.

Modeling, Hutchins says, has an important role at Langley, because it allows engineers to conduct research on cheaper, small-scale versions of aircraft before more costly full-scale planes are eventually built. He explained that the models, including more than four variations of an F-18 Hornet fighter jet, are put through wind tunnels capable of producing 235 mph-winds to evaluate designs and the effects different materials used to build planes, such as carbon fiber, have on performance.

“I would have to say the 14-by-22 subsonic wind tunnel was the most enjoyable [part of my visit], because while I was there for the NCAS program, our group got to see the wind tunnel in action when they were testing a model for a client,” Hutchins said. “Unfortunately, we did not get to go inside the wind tunnel, but seeing people testing is really neat and shows that testing is a vital part of research.”

Hutchins, who plans to transfer to N.C. State University for mechatronics upon completion of his studies at Pitt, said his Langley visit has helped him fine-tune his career plans. He still wants to work for NASA developing drone and related technologies but no longer wants to do so at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

“They are doing drone research at Langley, and since it is closer to home, I would like to do it there. Plus, once I do get my future job at NASA, I would like to help out future NCAS students and give them advice on how to end up at NASA one day,” he explained.

Hutchins encouraged his fellow STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students to apply for NCAS participation. He said he learned of the program from Tony Gallardo, his hydraulics and pneumatics instructor at Pitt, and Megan Carter, administrative assistant for the college’s Academic Advising and Career Services Department.

“The overall program is like a short college class, but it's from an organization that knows that what you are learning is important for yourself and the future of STEM fields,” Hutchins said.

Designed for community college STEM students, NCAS is part of NASA’s effort to better serve groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. The program provides an authentic NASA experience to participants in order to encourage them to finish a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university to pursue a NASA-related field or career.

After applying for NCAS earlier this year, Hutchins completed the online portion of the program from June 7 to July 12. He was selected to visit Langley after successfully completing the five-week course.