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Interview with Glenn Research Center’s Justin Niehaus

Justin Niehaus may be an early-career professional at Glenn Research Center, but thanks to their pilot Rocket University program, he’s already experiencing what it’s like to be a project manager.

In November 2013, Glenn Research Center (GRC) launched its pilot Rocket University (“Rocket U”) program. Designed to give early-career Glenn employees hands-on project experience throughout the full lifecycle of a flight project, the program seeks to develop the next-generation workforce as they transition into higher-profile projects. APPEL News recently spoke with Justin Niehaus, a member of GRC’s Combustion Physics and Reacting Processes Branch, to learn more about his experiences at NASA and with Rocket U.

APPEL News:  Tell us about how you got to Glenn Research Center. Did you always want to work at NASA?

Justin Niehaus: Absolutely. Ever since I knew what space was—probably around the time I was three years old. Most people [at NASA] grew up idolizing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they wanted to be astronauts. I still want to be an astronaut at some point. I went to the University of Cincinnati and did a 5-year dual Bachelor’s-Master’s program. I chose the University of Cincinnati because they had a mandatory co-op program, so I knew they would help me connect with NASA.

APPEL News: Did you do a co-op with NASA?

Niehaus:  Yes. My first co-op was at Edwards Air Force Base at the Air Force Research Lab, where I got to be a real rocket scientist, working with rocket fuel. That was a really good experience. But I knew that if I wanted to work at NASA, I’d have to get in at the co-op level. That’s the way a lot of people do it. So my last two co-ops were with NASA. My first NASA internship was at Johnson Space Center. Then, when my Bachelor’s was complete, Glenn got back to me. By that time I had a lot more experience through my internships at the Air Force Research Lab and at Johnson. So I did a co-op at Glenn for about six months and now I’ve been full time for three years.

APPEL News: What do you do at NASA?

Niehaus: I work in Code LTX, which is the Combustion Physics and Reacting Processes Branch. So what I’ve been doing is focusing on spaceflight fire safety. One of the first projects I worked on was a portable fire extinguisher that should be going up to the International Space Station soon. The big project that I’m working on now is the Saffire project, which is a large flame spread project. We do a little bit of combustion on the ISS but nothing really big. So with Saffire we’re going to try to set something a lot bigger on fire. So far we have three flights in the works. Two will be a large sample, and the third will be separate small samples. There are a lot of variables that control flame spread, such as the thickness of the material and the amount of oxygen and pressure. We’re going to have several samples to try and compare flammability limits in normal gravity, or 1-g, versus zero gravity, or 0-g. The experiment will be done on an Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus vehicle, a cargo vehicle that will dock with the ISS. When the Cygnus undocks with the ISS, that’s when we’ll perform our experiment. So while it’s still orbiting, before it reenters the atmosphere, we’ll perform the experiment, then download the data.

APPEL News: You’ve been at Glenn for nearly four years now. What helped you shift successfully from co-op to full time work?

Niehaus: The people around me at NASA. These people are experts in their field. The people I work with now have basically written the books about microgravity combustion, so they’re highly skilled. And they want to teach. They want their work to carry on through the next generation; they want other people to know their craft as well. So I’ve been the beneficiary of that.

APPEL News: How did you get involved with Rocket U?

Niehaus: I’m always looking for new training. I want to develop and hone my technical skills and broaden my horizons. So I heard about Rocket University, it was posted on a professional development site, and it sounded like something I wanted to try. Taking something from a concept to building it to taking it through reviews—I wanted to understand that process. It looked like Rocket U would provide an opportunity to work on the concept from the perspective of a scientist as well as participate in the actual design, build, and project review phases. So I’d get to see all the aspects of a project lifecycle.

APPEL News: What is your role on the Rocket U team?

Niehaus: I’m one of the three project managers on the team. It’s definitely been a learning curve. Right now, I’m the youngest member of my branch; everyone around me has more expertise. So I’m usually a follower—I’m looking for work to do, someone to tell me what to do. But [at Rocket U] I get a chance to actually figure out the work that needs to get done and then divvy it up.

APPEL News: What kinds of challenges have you faced in your role as project manager?

Niehaus: The biggest challenge is time-lining what needs to be done. Not being an engineer, not knowing what it takes to get through a systems requirement review or a preliminary design review, I have to read the literature and have long meetings with some of our mentors. They have been fantastic in guiding us, but I have to learn things as fast as I can and then also work on the leadership skills to try and motivate the team and make everything run as a well-oiled machine.

APPEL News: Have you faced other challenges in terms of Rocket U?

Niehaus: Getting organized. At the very beginning, we all wanted to do a lot of different things. We all wanted to wear different hats—I know I wanted to. I wanted to try project management. I figured that might be the hardest thing to get into, so I volunteered for that first. But then I also wanted to get a lot of technical expertise: to try avionics for a month or systems engineering for a month. We all thought we’d be able to do that. But as we found out, changing roles like that would be very inefficient. Even to get our roles set in the first place took a lot of time. So figuring out roles and responsibilities was definitely a challenge, especially since we all wanted to try a lot of different things.

APPEL News: Was it disappointing to be unable to experience multiple roles?

Niehaus: At first it was disappointing. But the good thing about how Rocket U is set up is it’s a small team—we’re only 12 people. At the end of the day, we’re all interfacing with each other and we’re all making a lot of decisions together or as part of a small team. So while on a large flight project I might not have any idea what some of the other people are doing or how they make decisions, here I see what everyone else is doing and how they make a decision.  So we still get good experience; we’ll get to know every part of the project even if we’re not directly responsible for it.

APPEL News: Does Rocket U fit easily into your daily work schedule?

Niehaus: Sometimes it’s hard to fit, but overall I’m pretty lucky that a lot of my work can be flexible. Some of the ISS operations and meetings are rigid, but a lot of the work that I do at the lab can be moved around—and sometimes I can move the Rocket U work around. So sometimes it’s challenging, some days I have to work more because I have a fixed, rigid commitment; but there are other days where it fits pretty nicely. It can definitely be done: you have to have supportive supervisors and managers on board, but once you discuss the return on investment, a lot of them jump on board.

APPEL News: It sounds like you’ve found it really worthwhile. What have you loved most about Rocket U?

Niehaus: I’ve gotten a chance to broaden my horizons. And the classes we’ve taken have been fantastic. There was one about decision analysis where you have a bunch of decisions and you quantify each decision—each one gets a number. As engineers, we love putting numbers in front of objective items, so that was a very useful skill that we employ all the time in deciding things. Also, I’m getting a chance to see a project lifecycle, which is something very few people get to do. And networking with a lot of different people. Since I’ve been at Glenn, pretty much all of my work has been combustion work. But now I get to see some of the other things the younger people here are working on—power systems and other projects. I get to see what’s going on around the center and meet new people.

APPEL News: What did you like about your decision analysis class? Have you applied the skills you learned to your Rocket U project?

Niehaus: There are many classes—we’re doing requirements writing right now, and I keep referencing the requirements—but decision analysis is something you do every day whether you’re in engineering or not. We applied the process we learned in that class to the NASA projects we had to assess when we were deciding what project to do for Rocket U. We’d ask questions like: “What do we want to get out of Rocket U, and how well does this NASA project help us get that out of it?” “Will we get a chance to go hardware with this project?” “Will we get a chance to network with this project?” “Is it a spaceflight operation or an air flight operation?” We used the process from the class to answer those types of questions.

APPEL News: Is there anything we haven’t asked you that you’d like to add?

Niehaus: There’s definitely a lot to [Rocket U]. Anyone who has an opportunity to do Rocket U or some other sort of technical or leadership training should take advantage of it. These opportunities are rare and you never know when another will present itself. I would definitely say this has been worthwhile. If I had to do it over, I would.

Learn more about Rocket University.


Justin Niehaus removing water and nitrogen hoses during fill tank training.

Featured Photo Credit: Sterling Tarver, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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