Tom Jones's family has a history in the aerospace industry. His grandfather worked for Bell Aerospace in Wheatfield, New York. Family folklore says he had a hand in producing the X-1, the craft in which Col. Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947. A couple of uncles have also worked in aerospace production.
Jones wanted to continue the family tradition, so he enrolled in the aerospace engineering program at Syracuse University. In order to get hands-on experience, he applied to become a co-op student. His first choice for a co-op position was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. "I knew NASA Dryden was the premier flight research facility in the world," the Grand Island, New York, resident says. "And I knew this could be my only chance of getting in there."
Jones was surprised when, less than 24 hours after his application had been faxed to Dryden in the fall of 1996, he got a call from an official at the facility. A few hours later, the head of Dryden's aerostructures branch called to offer Jones a co-op position. "It was kind of frightening," Jones recalls. "It was a dream job, and here I was a sophomore in college." But Jones wasn't intimidated enough to turn down the opportunity. He started work at NASA Dryden during the spring 1997 semester.
The L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science co-op program allows students to alternate semesters of coursework with semesters of full-time employment directly related to their field of study. Each student spends at least 52 weeks in industry, business, or government, with each assignment of increasing difficulty and responsibility. Students are paid a competitive salary.
Jones spent his first semester at Dryden in the aerostructures branch, working primarily on the Eclipse project. Eclipse is a program in which a mid-size aircraft is towed by a bigger plane up to 40,000 feet, where it is released via a hook-release mechanism. Rocket engines then fire to put the smaller craft into orbit. The towing method reduces the cost of putting aircraft into orbit, which, according to Jones, now runs about $10,000 per craft-pound to accomplish. Eclipse may reduce that cost to $1,000 per pound.
Jones worked on developing a frangible link, a metal part designed to give way if the cable towing the aircraft experiences unsafe loading. The frangible link allows the cable to come apart at a known location and load limit, thus reducing risk to the crews of both aircraft. He spent the semester moving through the stages of that project.
Jones took courses on campus during the summer of 1997, then returned in the fall to NASA Dryden, where he was assigned to the aerodynamics branch. Instead of working on just one project, he pitched in on several, including development of the X-33, a subscale, fully functional model for replacement of the space shuttle; the Sonic Boom, a study on propagation of shock waves through the atmosphere; and LASRE (Linear Aerospace Research Experiment), a platform for testing new rocket engines in flight. He also worked with an SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest production aircraft. This past summer he worked in the propulsion branch.
courtesy of nasa and tom jones |
Tom Jones, a student in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science co-op program, inspects the thrust vectoring nozzles of an F-15 aircraft.
Along with the experience students gain, co-op programs give them a head start in the job market. Many co-op employers eventually hire their students after graduation because they've already been trained and can often jump right into the job, says co-op program director Mary Jo Fairbanks. NASA Dryden has a history of hiring from among its co-op students, but Jones knows he is at the mercy of the whims of government funding.
Even if he doesn't get hired at NASA Dryden, he has a valuable line for his resume and experience that cannot be replicated in the classroom. "It was a great hands-on opportunity," Jones says. "This is the cutting edge of aerospace flight research."