During the 2012 fall semester, I had an extremely busy schedule. I was making the adjustment from Connecticut to California, pledging a fraternity, and getting used to college-level courses. At the time, I saw several of my friends in Viterbi pursuing research opportunities and was amazed. How did they have time for such a commitment?
Well, I soon realized that USC encourages its freshmen and all undergraduates to take part in research. More often than not, the research professor will be willing to work with the student’s schedule, and the student can make an appreciable time commitment without having to neglect his or her other extracurricular activities. After second semester started, I soon found my niche and joined the Project LEAPFROG research team.
LEAPFROG stands for Lunar Entry and Approach Platform for Research on the Ground. Essentially, the team and I are building a lunar lander! The goal of our project is to build a lightweight, inexpensive lunar lander prototype (see picture on the right). The ideal prototype would be designed so that all of its parts, including the jet engine, cold-gas thrusters, and avionics boxes, are easily replaceable in case of a malfunction or crash landing. The steel truss would encase all the electronic boxes, and, at the center of the structure, a jet engine would propel the lander in the celestial body’s atmosphere. Once near the surface, the cold-gas thrusters on the outside of the rocket would fire to keep the lander level with the ground, allowing for a smooth landing and minimal damage. Once the lander completes its descent, the lander could provide support to a mobile rover, work with other landers to complete a task, or, in the near future, assist colonists with tasks. After the team completes the prototype and testing, we would like to market the idea to NASA, SpaceX, and other aerospace engineering firms who would have the funds to commercialize our product.
At first, my role on the team consisted of mainly technical tasks. While the graduate student members designed the prototype in Solidworks, I attached the lander’s feet to the legs and connected the tubing between the engine and the fuel tanks. But as I slowly picked up on Solidworks and the concept of a converging-diverging rocket nozzle, my responsibilities increased. During the middle of the semester, I was given my first leadership role; I was in charge of designing the rocket nozzle for the cold-gas thruster. After some headaches from Solidworks and small mistakes in measurements, I did it. I had made my first rocket nozzle.
While I felt that designing the rocket nozzle was a huge accomplishment, my personal growth resulted more from just being able to work with students far more knowledgeable and experienced than myself. Instead of playing XBox, I spent my free nights working with Greg Allen, a first-year graduate student at Viterbi. Greg taught me the essentials of Solidworks and Matlab and, when we finished with our research tasks, would give me advice on how to get the most out of my four years at USC. Greg embodies the greatest part of the Project LEAPFROG team. We all learn from each other and look after one another, whether that means a late night meeting at Viterbi to work or a casual Thursday afternoon lunch at Togo’s across the street.
The Project LEAPFROG team helped me realize the amazing benefits of performing research at USC. Not only did I gain valuable hands-on experience and confidence in my abilities, I (and the rest of the team) had my own laboratory and machine shop in Marina Del Rey! In the end, I could continue to be active in my fraternity, work out, and do well in classes. I made the time for research, and it sure was worth every second.