NASA Engineer Speaks with Future Engineers at Mount Union

November 25, 2015

By Jaime Eyssen

ALLIANCE, Ohio –Dr. Roy M. Sullivan, a materials research engineer at NASA, shared his experiences with future engineers at the University of Mount Union recently.

Sullivan received a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from the Pennsylvania State University, a Master of Science degree in civil engineering from the University of Virginia and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in engineering science and mechanics from the Pennsylvania State University. Since then, he has had more than 30 years of experience as a NASA engineer. He began his NASA career working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama as an aerospace engineer and currently works at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio as a materials research engineer.   

In his presentation to students, Sullivan gave an overview of some of the projects he has worked on in his time with NASA. His presentation was accompanied with visuals, blueprints and props to give engineering students a full picture of what his different jobs entailed.

One notable project that Sullivan had at NASA was in the years following the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Sullivan was one of a team of engineers charged with redesigning the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs). A flaw in the SRB design is believed to be the cause of the Challenger disaster. Sullivan was part of a group of engineers assigned to redesign the nozzle of the SRBs.

“My colleagues and I were working long hours and over weekends trying to get this thing redesigned,” Sullivan said. “The question was, how can we make this safer, what design changes could we make?” 

Another project that Sullivan worked on was the FASTRAC Liquid Rocket Engine. This project was part of a push by NASA to develop technologies for low-cost access to space.

“We designed, analyzed and tested it,” Sullivan said. “We were making mistakes as we went but the nice thing is we learned from it.”

Even though this particular project was discontinued, Sullivan attributes the project to the development of some technologies that are still used today.

Sullivan also worked on the space shuttle program after the Columbia disaster. The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it attempted to reenter earth’s atmosphere in February of 2003. It is believed that the Columbia disaster was caused by damage to the thermal protection. The thermal protection on the wing leading edge was damaged during launch by a piece of foam insulation that broke away from the external tank. Sullivan was part of a team of scientists and engineers who performed studies to reduce the amount of foam shedding from the external tank during launch.

“Over the course of few years, we learned a whole lot about foam,” Sullivan said.

In addition to sharing his projects and experiences with students, Sullivan gave them general advice and career tips for when they enter the job market.

“There is no substitute for hard work,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes you have to work hard without instant reward but you can’t let that stop you, you have to keep working hard.”

Hard work isn’t the only thing that can get you where you want to be, according to Sullivan, who told students that passion is another thing that cannot be replaced in their careers. 

“If you don’t love what you are doing, then don’t do it,” Sullivan said.




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