Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
Munk, lead systems engineer for Aerocapture.|
engineer Michelle Munk has dedicated her career to the study of
aerocapture -- the use of a planet's atmosphere to slow down a spacecraft.
- For most of her 15 years at NASA, Munk has been working on aerocapture
-- the use of a planet's atmosphere to slow down a spacecraft.
up watching Space Shuttle launches. I was fascinated with flight,"
says Munk, who started working at Johnson Space Center in 1987, while attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va.
She got the idea of working while in school, she says, from her
mother's cousin, a student at Virginia Tech who was working as a
co-operative education intern at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility
in Wallops Island, Va. Munk followed his lead and became a "co-op"
in Houston, shuttling between work and school every few months.
"Co-op" students are jointly enrolled in an undergraduate
program and employed as an intern by a NASA facility, allowing them
to experience hands-on application of their courses of study.
from Virginia Tech in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in aerospace
engineering. She wanted to "do space," so when Johnson Space Center offered her a full-time position, she moved to Houston
and continued working with colleagues from her co-op days. Her primary
focus was aerocapture, a concept that was being considered for demonstration
in Earth's atmosphere.
After 11 years
at the Johnson Center, Munk took a position in the vehicle analysis branch at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The branch,
a sister organization to Munk's group at the Johnson Center, conducts systems and performance analysis for robotic missions. There, Munk
served as coordinator of the aeroassist working group, a mechanism
for keeping NASA's aeroassist specialists, located at NASA centers
across the country, in regular contact with each other in order
to share ideas on concept development and project opportunities.
In 2001, the
aerocapture project became part of the In-Space Propulsion Program,
implemented by the Marshall Center's Advanced Space Transportation
Program for NASA's Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C. In
January 2002, Munk was asked by In-Space Propulsion management to
come to Marshall for a year-long assignment as lead systems engineer
for the aerocapture project. The move was no small consideration
- she had to relocate her family to Huntsville; her husband had
to secure a transfer within his company; and she had to move her
2-year-old daughter away from grandparents and other family.
But for Munk,
the opportunity was too good to pass up. "It was just perfect,"
she says of the chance to work with aerocapture again. "I feel
like I have the perspective to pull all elements of the project
together." With a new budget and several contracts awarded,
aerocapture is gearing up to advance to the next level - flight
a flight mission would incorporate aerocapture, "Munk says.
"But currently it is not scheduled to fly, so we need to spread
the word about aerocapture, its readiness and its benefits."
For Munk, the
challenge is a logical culmination of her career thus far. "It's
very exciting to have a budget," she says. "After working
with concepts on and off for 15 years, we will have some hardware
that I can actually touch."
For more information
about aerocapture, read Aerocapture
is Key for In-Space Travel and the Aerocapture
(48 Kb PDF) fact sheet.
text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight