College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences; College of Science

NASA’s chief technologist talks leadership, internships and spaceships in virtual visit to Clemson University


NASA’s chief technologist talks leadership, internships and spaceships in virtual visit to Clemson University

Trina Pham is a first-generation college student living on the rural outskirts of Mauldin, South Carolina, where she dreams of becoming the U.S. president’s chief advisor on science and technology.

By the time she walks into the Oval Office, the big issues for Pham could include intelligent machines, humankind’s outpost on Mars and the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe.

NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier
NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier

Pham, a junior majoring in bioengineering, was among the Clemson University students, faculty and staff who learned about leadership, space exploration and the future of technology from NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier. 

Terrier met with the Clemson University community on Sept. 2 in a series of five meetings spanning about six hours. They covered a galaxy of topics, ranging from students’ research and NASA’s internships to the agency’s plan to return to the moon by 2024.

Terrier said that today’s students are living in one of the most exciting times to work in any technology field.

During their careers, they can fully expect intelligent machines to become a prominent part of their lives, he said. With any luck, humans will also be living on another planet and will find signs of life elsewhere in the universe, Terrier said.

“Those are three things of many I could mention that will fundamentally change human history and culture more than anything before,” Terrier said. “It’s a pretty good time to be where you are.”

Pham asked Terrier two questions during a leadership roundtable, one about solar sails and one about NASA’s plans for increasing diversity.

Trina Pham
Trina Pham

They quickly found common ground. It turned out that Pham worked on a thesis about NASA’s history with one of Terrier’s good friends while she was an intern last summer at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. 

Pham, who has also interned at Space X and Tesla, said in an interview after the roundtable that the chance to talk with Terrier was an example of the networking opportunities that help Clemson students launch their careers.

“I don’t think anyone expects anything amazing from a kid from rural South Carolina,” said Pham, who is president of Clemson’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program. 

“Having opportunities like this puts life into perspective and shows students that we are capable of achieving the extraordinary and the impossible.”

If anyone can relate to a kid from a rural area, it’s Terrier. 

He grew up in rural Jamaica in the 1960s, a time of political and economic upheaval that sometimes turned violent. There wasn’t much opportunity or inspiration to be found, he said. His school building was one room.

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Terrier said he was lucky to have an inspired teacher, Mrs. Simpson, who halted class everyday for about a week to read her students the Apollo mission telemetry from the Reuters news feed published in the local newspaper.

“It was easily the catalyst for the change in my life and many of my schoolmates as well,” Terrier said. “That vision of people actually going to the moon changed our entire perception of what was possible and what reality was and in that moment crystallized my desire to be in this field.”

Anthony Dempsey, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, asked Terrier during the leadership roundtable what he could do to get more leadership experience and what engineering fields he sees as up and coming.

Based on Terrier’s response, Dempsey started researching NASA internship opportunities and solidified his plans to get involved in artificial intelligence. He also took away lessons about the importance of adapting to the world, continuing to learn new things and thinking outside the box. 

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“These things help you become a better person, and they make you a stronger leader,” said Dempsey, the community outreach manager for the Clemson Rocket Engineering Team. 

The day’s centerpiece event was an open forum where Terrier described NASA’s strategic plan for lunar exploration to more than 230 students, faculty and staff.

The first part of the plan, Artemis, calls for the first woman and next man to land on the moon by 2024. Their destination will be the lunar south pole. That trip will be followed by a sustained presence on and around the moon by about 2028, Terrier said. 

NASA is beginning to assemble the first elements of The Gateway, which will become a permanent command post that orbits the moon, he said.

At first, sorties to the surface will be launched from The Gateway, Terrier said. Later, humans will have a long-term sustained presence on the surface, he said.

It will be an opportunity to test pressurized rovers, long-term habitats, power systems and other technologies that could later be applied to living and working on Mars, Terrier said.

“Looking at Mars, it’s a long-term destination,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work in long-duration spaceflight on the International Space Station. We’re now going to do on the moon a lot of the work that we need to understand how to do planetary landings and operations on the surface. And together, those are building all the capabilities that we need to go on to Mars.”

Terrier showed the audience a video summary of the Artemis program that interspersed NASA officials’ quotes with shots of rockets blasting off into the heavens. 

One of the officials in the video is Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, a native of Gaffney, South Carolina, who received her Bachelor of Science in computer engineering from Clemson and went on to become NASA’s first female launch director. 

John Hollowell, a senior computer science major, noticed the Clemson presence in the video. 

“It shows that not only is a Clemson education valuable, it also works,” Hollowell said. “It helps get people those jobs, and it allows them to have a career and do what they love.”

The video also featured NASA’s next-generation human space capsule, Orion, and the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever developed. Less than three hours after Clemson students watched the video, the SLS rocket was test fired at Northrop Grumman facilities in Promontory, Utah.

From morning to afternoon, it was a day packed with cutting-edge engineering and science.

Terrier met for nearly an hour with five Clemson graduate students, who had the chance to pitch their research to him. He said that he was very impressed with the level of work the students are doing.

“If this is any representation of the work that’s going on at Clemson, it’s certainly high caliber,” he said. “Everything you’ve shown today is certainly for me and for NASA very relevant. I’d love to hear how your work continues and when you reach the conclusion, I’d love to hear from you.”

The students were: Alvaro Guerra, Lea Marcotulli and Haonan Wu, all from the Department of Physics and Astronomy; Jianxing Ma from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Michael Spagnuolo from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. 

Terrier’s visit was held online to practice safe social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, invited Terrier to return in person when it’s safe to travel.

For students peering into the wild blue yonder from the place where the Blue Ridge yawns its greatness, it’s certainly an opportunity that would be much appreciated.

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