Mission Control

September 1, 2016 | By More

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When Daniel Bullock applied for the 10-week internship with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), he just had hopes of getting in. While it was a resume builder and a foot in the door for him, it was also a few lesson plans and a connection for the students he mentors and teaches at Arkansas Tech University. Now having completed the internship, he looks forward to hopefully continuing the work he started, eventually to return to the lab housing the inertial measuring unit and sun sensors that bear the marks of his personal craftsmanship invisible to the untrained eye.

This engineer, though, didn’t have a prodigious start. Daniel mentally struggled with basic concepts like algebra at a young age. His success, he reveals, is credited to the people who helped him succeed. It was that treatment that drove him to not only succeed, but mentor others to do the same. “My mother drove me to school an hour early,” Daniel said, reminiscing about his time in eighth grade. A teacher would meet him before school and walk him through math problems he struggled with at the time. After tutoring and dedication, though, Daniel was able to overcome misunderstanding.

“It was empowering,” he said.

From there an interest was born in the halls of Russellville High. “I thought it was really cool when I was a kid in high school, sitting in Mr. Bradley’s physics class or Mr. Peyton’s chemistry class, and they gave me a problem. You could figure out the trajectory of a projectile, or how much chemical you’re going to end up with after a reaction. As a kid who didn’t come from a rich family, that’s pretty empowering to think that, ‘wow, even me. I can know these things about the world around me.’ ”

With time, and graduation looming on the horizon, Daniel gained a better understanding of this potential career field. In the beginning, though, he admits his interest was mostly utilitarian.“I knew that the job prospects for graduates with science and engineering degrees were very good,” he said.

Although he didn’t follow the stereotypical fall-in-love-with-your-field type career path, his understanding, and even love, for his craft grew as he aged. But looking toward a secondary education would prove to be a feat no one in Daniel’s family had yet accomplished. His mother has her high school diploma and his father his general education diploma (GED), but Daniel is a first generation college student. “My mom and dad always told me they wanted me to go to college because that was important to them,” Daniel said. “The only reason I graduated college was because I had a really good faculty who helped me through.”

One of those faculty is Dr. Mostafa Hemmati, current physics professor for Arkansas Tech University. “I have known Dan for over twenty years,” Hemmati said. “He had a wonderful attitude toward learning and he was a joy to have in my classes. I hear wonderful comments from students who have him as a professor now. Dan has a very positive attitude and I believe that will serve him well.”

The deeper understanding that Daniel now has in his craft is something he wishes to foster in students. “Imagine if you have a student who no one in their family ever went to college and you’re able to teach them and mentor them. Then they graduate with an engineering degree. Not only have you changed that student’s life, but you’ve changed the trajectory of the family.”

That kind of impact Daniel accredits back to the professors that once impacted him.

Now, Daniel’s life is mentoring students and partnering with NASA, quite the journey from his struggle with algebra. And while his time at NASA might not be where he wants to end up professionally, it is a bright highlight of his professional career.

The project he worked on is the NEA Scout, or “Near Earth Asteroid.” The capsule containing a solar energy powered sail, various cameras and other tracking equipment will launch with the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018. The NEA Scout will rendezvous with an asteroid coming close to Earth.

“The purpose of the mission is to not only gather reconnaissance data on this asteroid, but to show that solar sails are a practical way to propel a space craft.”

The solar sails are an area of particular interest within the project itself. The square sail is almost the length of a school bus but thin enough to fit into a capsule14 inches long, five inches high, and nine inches wide along with electronic equipment necessary for launch and reconnaissance. The material of the sail, a polyamide substrate coated with a thin layer of aluminum, is lightweight. The entire capsule itself is a test for NASA. “One novel thing about this satellite is it doesn’t have the thrusters like you might think about on a rocket. It uses light. So when light hits the sail and reflects off of it, it actually gives it thrust to move.”

Much of Daniel’s internship was spent testing the internal measuring unit and sun sensors, both of which will be in the capsule with the sail when it launches to rendezvous with the asteroid.

What may seem like high-level science can actually be brought into a classroom on Tech’s campus. Proposal writing, product design and measuring and testing materials are all things that Daniel will be taking with him from his time at NASA and applying it in his teachings this semester. The potential behind those projects, though, are what mean the most to Daniel. “Engaging students, not only on campus, with NASA projects, but also helping them get internships at NASA during the summer, to me that’s probably the biggest thing that came out of this summer.”

Daniel is going on more than 30 years in the classroom, 13 of those as a teacher. And every year, be it at NASA or helping an engineering student through a problem, Daniel is sure of one thing. “No matter what background you have, you can do amazing things.”

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