AIAA Member Spotlight – September 2016 – Connie Liu Written 16 September 2016
AIAA Congratulates Connie Liu
Special "Back to School" Edition
By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008–2017)
16 September 2016
Worn out from projecting its beam to the West Coast in July, the spotlight took the month of August off, but with millions of students returning to school across the nation, it woke from its slumber and pivoted around to fall on Atlanta, Georgia, illuminating Connie Liu, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Liu, the 2016–2017 recipient of the AIAA Foundation’s Neil Armstrong Graduate Award, received a B.S. in Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in June 2015 and joined the High-Power Electric Propulsion Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a graduate student in August 2015. While at MIT, Liu served as the propulsion lead on the MIT Rocket Team, where she “helped design, build, and test a liquid, bi-propellant engine with an aerospike nozzle.” Liu has interned for SpaceX on their “Raptor” project, and for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, where she worked to model and simulate the physics of a multi-coil coilgun. Additionally, she worked at MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory on the development of electrospray thrusters. Among Liu’s research interests are liquid engine development, Hall thrusters, and combining chemical and electric propulsion to create new, high energy propulsion systems.
When asked what motivated her to pursue aerospace as a career, Liu replied, “Growing up, I was highly influenced by my older brother. I had only started kindergarten when he was leaving for college to study aerospace engineering. Whenever he came home, he would leave me small gifts: ultraviolet pictures of stars and small rocket models. By leaving those gifts, my brother cultivated my fascination with science, especially with space. I was also heavily inspired by science fiction writers, including Isaac Asimov, and I would often lose myself in his vivid depictions of the cosmos in the Library of the Universe series. As my curiosity in what lay beyond Earth grew, so did my desire to design vehicles that would allow humanity to travel deep into space, and that kickstarted my desire to study aerospace engineering.”
Liu’s favorite aerospace memory, thus far, as she is at the start of her aerospace career, was “the first time that I saw a rocket launch in person. This was the summer after my sophomore year of college, and while I had seen clips of the Space Shuttle and other rockets launch, nothing prepared me for the exhilaration and awe of being only a few miles away when an Atlas V took off. I can still remember the anticipation of the countdown, the fire streaming from the main engine and boosters, and the roar of the rocket as it ascended into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. I can still remember how, for a minute after launch, I couldn’t separate the pounding of my heart from the rumbling and vibrations in my bones, and I wondered what it would be like to be in the top of one when it launched.”
When asked if she had any advice for students, in high school or college, who are pursuing aerospace as a discipline, Liu responded, “For high school students thinking about a career in aerospace, I would say that aerospace engineering is a difficult and unforgiving field, but it is also a field filled with exciting challenges and very brilliant and passionate people. If you are interested in aerospace engineering, the difficulties inherent in this field should not be a deterrent but instead motivation – motivation to learn as much as you can from your peers, your teachers, and your science/engineering idols. Motivation to engage in hands-on, interdisciplinary projects that will teach you how to apply what you have learned in class, how to communicate in a group, and how to work with different people. Motivation to build up your STEM foundation, to discover your passions, within and outside of engineering, and to chase persistently after your goals.
To my fellow peers, I would say that we are in a very unique time right now in aerospace history where human exploration of the “final frontier” may be within our lifetimes. As the young engineers during the Apollo-era got us to the moon, it is now our responsibility to continue to learn and improve our knowledge and skills so that we may keep moving onward and upward, to Mars and beyond. As most of us have learned, the highs in our field are very high, and the lows very low, so it is important that we remember why we chose aerospace engineering and to hold on to that passion as we advance through our education and careers. When we face failures (and I’m sure we all will), we must learn from them and try to ensure those mistakes and root causes do not happen again.”
When asked how she felt about winning the Neil Armstrong Graduate Award, a $5,000 award that honors the memory and qualities of the late astronaut, Liu replied: “I’m incredibly honored to have won the Neil Armstrong Graduate Award from AIAA. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were the first astronauts I learned about as a child, and they were my heroes for having been a part of something as daring as the first manned lunar landing. I plan on using this award to support my research to improve the next generation of Hall Effect Thruster, a type of electric propulsion device. Advancements in this propulsion technology will ultimately allow us to build highly agile, maneuverable, and efficient satellites that better enable deep-space human exploration, thus hopefully continuing the ‘great leap for mankind’ that started with Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon.“
Liu continued: “To my fellow peers, I would say that we are in a very unique time right now in aerospace history where human exploration of the “final frontier” may be within our lifetimes. As the young engineers during the Apollo-era got us to the moon, it is now our responsibility to continue to learn and improve our knowledge and skills so that we may keep moving onwards and upwards, to Mars and beyond. As most of us have learned, the highs in our field are very high, and the lows very low, so it is important that we remember why we chose aerospace engineering and to hold on to that passion as we advance through our education and careers. When we face failures (and I’m sure we all will), we must learn from them and try to ensure those mistakes and root causes do not happen again.”
When I asked Liu where she saw herself in ten years, she replied, “In ten years, I’ll be finished with graduate school, and I’ll hopefully be working in industry as a propulsion development engineer. I want to directly take the scientific knowledge, technical engineering experience, specialized propulsion skill set, and refined problem-solving skills gained during my graduate studies and apply them to improve existing and create new propulsion systems. These systems would enable humanity to launch deep-space exploration missions and permanently leave the confines of Earth. I imagine a future where humanity will call more than Earth home, and my career will be working on the propulsion systems to make that vision a reality.”
We closed the interview with me asking Liu to predict what advances in aerospace technology we might see over the next ten years. She took out her crystal ball, gazed into it, and said, “The new advances and breakthroughs in aerospace that I see in the next ten years include:
- Better predictions of in-space flight performance of electric propulsion devices from ground, vacuum chamber testing
- Development of high thrust-to-power electric propulsion thrusters
- Creation/development of burn-resistant, oxygen and high temperature compatible materials for rocket engines
- Insight into how to solve the radiation problem for manned space exploration
- Landing and reusing rockets will become much more commonplace
- Development of a bimodal propulsion system capable of switching between a high thrust and a high efficiency mode.”
I then asked her what she really wanted to see emerge in aerospace, and she added, “What I’d really like to see (but I doubt it’ll happen in the next ten years) is the development of an entirely new and higher thrust propulsion system (perhaps a fusion rocket?) that can dramatically cut down on space travel time. That, I believe, would be a huge game-changer in the way we think about space exploration.”
AIAA congratulates Connie Liu for her selection as the AIAA Spotlight subject for the month of September and for winning this year’s Neil Armstrong Graduate Award. We wish her the best on her continued studies.