Pathway to the Stars

Nate Olson
Nate Olson/Photo Credit: NASA 

The wonders of space exploration and discovery captured Nate Olson’s imagination from a young age.

“Growing up, I was always inspired by NASA and what they had achieved, both in terms of exploring and in terms of developing new technologies that impact life here on Earth,” Olson said. Now a Ph.D. candidate in materials science and engineering at UIUC, Olson is on the way to achieving his lifelong dream of working at the space agency, thanks in part to the Pathways Program – an initiative that offers budding engineers hands-on experience at NASA’s leading research and spaceflight centers.

Olson’s current work as a Pathways intern involves crafting new materials that can make spaceflight safer and more efficient. But his path to NASA began as an undergraduate. Inspired by undergraduate research that explored materials design, Olson applied to and was awarded a summer internship at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland between his junior and senior years. 

It was “a really impactful experience,” the Ohio native recalled. At Glenn, Olson worked with leading materials scientist Dr. Frances Hurwitz on developing new, lightweight materials for use as insulation for spacecraft. 

Olson explained, “Just about every type of extreme you can think of is experienced somewhere in spaceflight: extremes of temperature, extremes of pressure, extremes of radiation.”

Olson had the opportunity to aid in Dr. Hurwitz’s work on a broad category of materials called aerogels. Generally composed of more than 90 percent air, aerogels are extraordinarily porous and light, making them an almost ideal insulator.

“There are enormous costs associated with launching something into space – every ounce really matters,” Olson said. “If you can make insulation that can protect the spacecraft more effectively on a per-mass basis, you can save a lot of money and increase the payload.”

“What underpins all of this is the enormous challenge that space exploration involves, and materials are a big part of that.”

– Nate Olson

But there is one issue: when exposed to high temperatures, the empty space within aerogels collapses and densifies, undermining its insulating properties.

“The objective of my work is to understand how we can preserve that highly porous structure at higher and higher temperatures, so that it can serve as insulation in very extreme environments.”

Though his first internship lasted for only one summer, Olson has been able to continue his work at NASA thanks to support from two other programs: the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (now called the NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity), which he received just before beginning his doctoral studies at UIUC; and his Pathways internship, which provides hands-on experience at multiple NASA sites around the country. 

Nate Olson stands in front of the NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland
Nate Olson in front of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

The most valuable aspect of the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship has been the unparalleled access it provides to equipment and expertise. Glenn Research Center houses specialized technology needed for the synthesis and production of aerogels and experts in material characterization for aerospace applications.

Through the Pathways Program, Olson has also been able to work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and travel to the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, to test materials in their world-class arc jet facility.

At JSC, Olson is studying how to make heat shields that more effectively protect capsules and probes for atmospheric entry. 

“Ablative heat shields cover the capsules that re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere [after spaceflight], protecting the underlying structure by vaporizing solids and carrying away the heat that way,” he explained. While heat shields and aerogels are tied to thermal protection, the materials and challenges involved differ.

“At JSC, I got to do a lot of 3-D printing, which I had no previous experience with,” Olson said. “But it’s a neat technique – we printed a lot of test articles and were able to do extensive materials characterization of the thermal, mechanical and chemical properties of these 3-D-printed materials.”

Another way working at JSC is different is that it is “a bit less involved in the science side and more in the engineering, ‘let’s build something and test it’ side.”

But beyond a doubt, the best part of Olson’s experience at NASA has been the ability to collaborate with some of the nation’s leading scientists and researchers.

“The people that are there are extraordinarily passionate about what they do. It’s what led almost everyone there to NASA,” he said. “I have had the benefit of having so many different mentors and people I’ve been able to learn from, and that’s really been great.”

Nate Olsen at the Johnson Space Center
Nate Olson in front of a Saturn V rocket at the Johnson Space Center. 

There are other benefits, too; on his daily drive to work, Olson passes one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets stored at JSC. And he got to meet iconic flight director Gene Kranz, who oversaw the Mercury and Apollo missions and was immortalized by the actor Ed Harris in Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13. According to Olson, Kranz was “an incredible individual who had a lot to say about leadership and team building.”

Access to NASA’s cutting-edge technology has been invaluable, too. Each NASA center has helped Olson “learn a lot about how to evaluate material performance, structure and properties and how to tune that for given applications.” 

And perhaps unsurprisingly, he hopes to find himself at JSC in a professional capacity eventually. 

“I really want to focus on solving challenges related to materials design – how to scale them up, manufacture them and integrate them at a systems level to make them work with the other components of a spacecraft.”

And what advice would Olson give other budding engineers or materials buffs?

First, be open to new experiences.

“Every time I’ve started something new, I’ve not really known anything about what’s going on, but I would still show up and be enthusiastic about what I was doing and pour myself into it,” Olson recalled. Secondly, and just as importantly, “is having that passion for learning. It can really drive you and push your career advancement forward.”

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This story was published October 4, 2022.