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Lunar Wheel Project Moves College Student Closer to Aerospace Career

By Sam McDonald
NASA Langley Research Center

David Palmer, a college student who works at NASA's Langley Research Center, uses strategy to adapt, make do with less, and wring every drop of value from a dollar.

When Palmer and a team of fellow engineering students from Old Dominion University learned that cuts had claimed nearly 80 percent of the budget for their lunar wheel design project, they didn't give up. They rolled up their sleeves and headed back to the digital drawing board.

As a result, their prototype wheel rolled from computer screen to reality.

"Of course, there were lots of challenges to overcome," Palmer said, looking back on his team's effort. The design project originated through the now-concluded RASC-AL Lunar Wheel Design Competition sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace.

"There were parts of the project that could have gone more smoothly and we could have gotten more accomplished," Palmer said. "But we got it done. It was a nice project."

(Old Dominion University teams have had success at the RASC-AL Lunar Wheel Design Competition previously. See: http://odu.edu/news/2013/7/batten_college_of_en.)

Their low-budget solution was perfectly practical. Instead of working up a full prototype wheel for an envisioned lunar rover, Palmer and his team made a pie-shaped section of it.

With help from machine shops at NASA Langley and ODU, they produced an aluminum alloy and stainless steel wedge that demonstrates their key concepts: a diamond-shaped tread design and an innovative, two-tier spring system allowing the tread to flex over rocks and terrain.

The wheel slice cost $1,800 to build, meaning it came in under budget.

"So, here we have a quarter wheel," Palmer said, presenting the team's prototype to engineers at NASA Langley. Knowing smiles sprouted throughout the conference room. "Welcome to the real world," one of the spectators said, chuckling.

At age 24, Palmer already has a firm grasp on how to navigate in the real world. Thanks to the NASA Pathways Intern Employment Program, he has been able to pursue his education while working full time at the center's 8-Foot High-Temperature Tunnel.

He's close to getting a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at ODU. Along the way, he's earned four associate degrees, secured his Space TEC aerospace technician certification and passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, a first step toward getting a professional engineering license.

He hopes to wrap up his bachelor's degree by summer's end. If all goes as planned, he'll walk away with a diploma and not a penny of student debt. His feat is all the more remarkable considering that Palmer has dyslexia, a condition that causes him to read and write with some difficulty.

"I am not afraid to try anything, no matter how hard it may seem," Palmer said. "My success has come more from my perseverance rather than intelligence."

He compares his method to a game of chess. He plans several steps ahead, thinking carefully about each move. "No matter what you are trying to do in life you have to know the rules to play the game," he said. "You then play by the rules and solve the problems using what you have learned and your creativity."

Palmer arrived at NASA Langley in 2008, fresh out of Gloucester High School, as a co-op in the Mechanical Engineering Technician program.

While still in high school, he had earned 44 hours of college credit by taking advance classes. Learning of the NASA Langley Cooperative Education Program (Co-op) connected with Thomas Nelson Community College, he jumped at the chance to study and work at the same time.

"When he got accepted into the NASA Co-op program, he was so excited," his mother, Maria Palmer, recalled. "He got his dream job right out of high school."

There were practical as well as personal reasons why the NASA Co-op job was a dream come true for Palmer.

"My parents didn't have a lot of money to send us to school," he said. "I knew I was going to have to work and go to school. This was a great opportunity to do both of those things in a field I was interested in. It could not have been a better program."

As a technician co-op, Palmer rotated through 18 technical areas at the center, moving about every three months. Now, as a mechanical engineering Pathways student, he works full time at the wind tunnel.

"David's been an integral part of the operations crew for the tunnel," said the tunnel's test director, Greg Mekkes. Palmer helps prepare for test runs and has installed upgrades such as a recent overhaul of wire systems connecting the test section with the tunnel's control room.

"Everyone's really supportive about my school work," Palmer said. "The fastest way to get kicked out of the program is to not do well in school." Students are required to maintain a 2.9 cumulative GPA to remain with Pathways. "People at NASA want to keep me around so they try to support me in my education."

That support extends to school projects such as the lunar wheel prototype. To that effort, Palmer contributed 3D modeling and drafting, making sure all the pieces fit together well. Early on, he also helped at the conceptual stage, collaborating with ODU teammates Robert York, Seth Hughes, James Taylor, Alicia Najor, Trucmy Nguyen and Shannon Green.

Palmer hopes his work on the lunar wheel offers a glimpse into his future, one that includes a permanent job with NASA.

"Aerospace is a very interesting field," Palmer said. "NASA is a very cool place to be. It's a friendly place to work. And of course my parents are very proud."

This article was originally written by NASA Langley public relations. It is also viewable here: http://www.nasa.gov/larc/lunar-wheel-project-moves-college-student-closer-to-aerospace-career/.

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