NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center Engineering Technicians Jason Nelson, Kyle Whitfield, and Alex Zamora discuss their essential contributions to NASA missions.
Technicians, machinists, and other trade and technical professionals play a key role in NASA mission success. At NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, much of the focus is on aeronautics and requires development and fabrication of unique components for cutting-edge missions and technologies.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- The role of engineering technicians working alongside NASA engineers
- The importance of welding, machining, and other skilled trades for NASA mission success
- Idea sharing among engineers and trade and technical professionals
Jason Nelson is Lead Engineering Technician for the Experimental Fabrication Branch of the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s (AFRC) Flight Operations Directorate. Nelson oversees workflow for the Sheet Metal Shop, Welding Shop, Fluids Lab, Composites, and 3D printing. He served as a NASA co-op prior to working as an aircraft mechanic and then transitioning to the Experimental Fabrication Division. Nelson has worked on every aircraft platform AFRC has supported in the past decade and is part of the NASA Fabrication Alliance. He previously served in the Navy as a Jet Engine Mechanic. Nelson is a NASA Designated Inspector and has an associate degree in aviation maintenance from Reedley College and a Federal Aviation Administration inspection authorization/airframe and power plant license.
Kyle Whitfield is an Engineering Technician for the Experimental Fabrication Branch of the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s (AFRC) Flight Operations Directorate and serves as a Welder. Whitfield is responsible for reviewing weldment designs and fabricating, installing, modifying, repairing, and maintaining equipment, components, and facilities. His previous jobs at NASA include Sheet Metal Engineering Technician and Support Expeditor for flight operations. Whitfield holds multiple certifications, including certified welding inspector (American Welding Society); ASNT Central Certification Program Level II A2 VT GI (American Society of Nondestructive Testing); Certified for Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW) to (TO) 00-25-252 (USAF Aircraft and Missile Welders); Certified in Oxy-Acetylene torch brazing (Silver Brazing) per (TO) 00-25-252 BT#2; Certified for Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW) to D1.1 (American Welding Society); and Certified for Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW)-S to D1.1 (American Welding Society).
Alex Zamora is Lead Engineering Technician for the Machine Shop in the Experimental Fabrication Branch of the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s (AFRC) Flight Operations Directorate. Zamora is responsible for directing all Machine Shop operations in the execution and manufacturing of experimental components and flight hardware, ground support equipment, assemblies, and components. He started out as a machinist contractor working for NASA, transitioned to a position as a civil servant Engineering Technician, and was promoted in four years to Lead Engineering Technician. Zamora has an associate degree in business.
Pam Melroy: The NASA workforce is what makes this agency so special, and from my earliest days flying the Space Shuttle I’ve been amazed at the unbelievably important contributions technicians make to NASA missions.
Before my second flight, some extremely tiny cracks were found in the flow liners of the main engines of the shuttle — and NASA recruited a group of the most highly skilled welders in our country, who saved the day.
I’m NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy.
At NASA, our skilled technical workforce — our team of talented machinists, welders, sheet metal workers, and technicians — make the seemingly impossible, possible.
Our technical staff is second to none, and I’m excited for our wonderful trade and technical professionals to be in the spotlight in this podcast series.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
We’re kicking off a three-part series featuring NASA trade and technical professionals — and how they impact mission success. Our conversation today is with three engineering technicians at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.
Thanks so much for joining us. Could you tell us your name and what you do?
Alex Zamora: Hi. Yeah. My name is Alex Zamora, and I am an engineering technician at Armstrong Flight Research Center. I work in the Experimental Fabrication Branch, and our branch is actually split up in a few shops and I am focused in the machine shop.
Jason Nelson: My name’s Jason Nelson. I also work in NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s Experimental Fabrication Shop. I am the lead of sheet metal welding, composite, and 3D printing.
Kyle Whitfield: I’m Kyle Whitfield, currently an engineering technician with a focus in welding, been here for about 16 years, hold multiple structural aircraft certifications as well as structural certifications, and a certified welding inspector.
Host: What kinds of projects are you working on? Kyle, we’ll start with you.
Whitfield: Not every day is you get the glitz and the glam projects. Currently, I’m working on modifying sea containers. One of our satellite facilities is shutting down, so we have to modify some sea containers for storage units. So, that’s currently what I’m on.
Nelson: Well, being the lead, I’m pretty much involved in all the projects. Let’s see. Right now what do we have going on in the shops? We are supporting NASA’s X-59 aircraft. It’s over in Palmdale. We have F-15s that we are trying to get up and going for chase aircraft for that flight. We have F-15 research aircraft. We have some support equipment aspects going on. I work with Kyle as well so we have that, everything that goes on in there with him, like those sea trains, and then I work with Alex as well. The big project right now, the main focuses are F-15 fleet and X-59, but we have about 10 aircraft platforms at this moment, and this division services all those on top of whatever the center needs, so any org, sim, lab, life support, security forces, facilities, they always come in with something, needing something. That’s kind of what I deal with.
Zamora: Yeah. For me, I’m with these guys. We touch a bit of everything, but some of the big projects that have come through the shop are — Global Hawk is a big project for us. We do a lot of modifications for Global Hawk. Right now is the era of X-planes, they call it. I wasn’t here for anything before X-57, so I’ve heard it was a dry period. In our shop we’ve touched on a lot of X-57, modifying electric motors, X-59, the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator, we’ve made many parts for that, some inlets on the aircraft to track airspeed, and then now there’s the X-66 Transonic Truss-Braced Wing. That’s a new project coming up that we’re going to be I think heavily involved in. So, a lot of fun work coming through the shop right now, a lot of cool things happening.
Host: As engineering technicians, what’s your role working alongside NASA engineers?
Nelson: The interaction with the engineers is very important. The theoretical CAD world is amazing, but it’s still theoretical. So, when you get down to physical properties and things of that nature, there’s bend radiuses they don’t think about. You stress material in certain ways, you’ll get cracks down the road, a part will fail, and we don’t want that. So, there’s definitely times where we can come up with our own ideas and plans. We use the same CAD systems as the engineers, and we can make our own designs and say, ‘Why don’t you try this, analyze that?’ It comes out good, and then we let them do most of the paperwork. Just say, ‘OK, well, take it from there.’ Then it’ll come back and then we’ll make it for them.
Engineers will come to us sometimes for us to double-check their prints, to make sure it’s manufacturable, it’s feasible, the timeframe’s good, the material is good, and we can relay to them like, ‘Yes, no.’ I’ll let Alex expand on the machine shop side but especially over there on the sheet metal side it’s like they don’t have that on-hand aircraft experience that we do, and so I can sit there and tell them with my experience in civilian aviation and in the military like, ‘That’s not safe,’ or ‘It’s not going to work. You might be violating a rule or two,’ and there’s easier ways to fabricate stuff as well.
Zamora: Yeah, yeah. For the machine shop side, we’re actually all pretty lucky. We work right below, physically below — the engineers are upstairs, a lot of them are, and they’re able to come down and speak with us on a day-to-day basis on designs. A lot of them take the advantage of that because in our shops, I know the machine shop has over 75 years’ experience in there easy and we’ve seen a thing or two. A lot of these engineers that we have are pretty young, pretty fresh out of college, and I love it when they come down to pick our brain. They show us a design and we can help them make it easier or, like Jason was saying earlier, maybe put a new fresh pair of eyes on the problem and see, ‘Hey, what do you think about doing it this way instead?’ It’s almost a daily basis for us. I mean, I think that’s where the engineering and engineering technician comes into play. We also have a say in designs and can help the end product.
There is a shirt that I’d once seen that said, ‘Machinists, because even engineers need heroes.’ Yeah. I thought it was pretty good, pretty funny. I should have bought it. I didn’t buy it. I might go back and get it, but it’s…
Nelson: You could make a sign.
Zamora: Yeah. I should make a sign. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s fun and games, but you know what? In the end, we all work together, we all try to get the mission done. Honestly, it’s a team effort and it’s just you can see the difference in engineers, the ones that actually come talk to us, for making parts. The end product just gets that much better with our eyes involved.
Nelson: And sometimes faster.
Zamora: Definitely. Definitely. That’s a good point, Jason. We were just working with somebody and they had a design for this handle and it was crazy complicated. Instead, it was like, ‘Let’s step back for a second. What if we not make this out of one piece, but out of multiple pieces and just weld it together?’ That literally cut down the time in, I would say it would’ve taken us probably, say, a month and a half to make these parts. Probably half a month now, so it took a month of time off of making this. It’s just, like you said, new perspective on a problem.
Whitfield: I don’t remember being involved in that design review.
Zamora: You were not. You were not. We ended up not welding it either, actually. There’s iterations.
Nelson: Sometimes that’s how that works out.
Whitfield: Yeah. Just to jump in on Jason and Alex’s statements, to me I feel like sometimes we’re manufacturing feasibility technicians first and then we’re fabricators after that. A lot of the engineers we have, like Alex said, pretty fresh out of college. Most of the ones that I’ve ever dealt with in terms of welding, if they have done welding projects before, they literally sketched it out on a napkin, brought it to their welder. Their welder just made it. Here in the aerospace industry, it’s not how they want to want to do things. The paper trail, the drawings, everything.
Whitfield: Yeah. It needs to be much more involved in that, so I constantly get engineers coming down asking advice, how it needs to be welded, what kind of welding symbols they’d be putting on things, what weld would be sufficient for the structural integrity of that part, all sorts of things like that, so I think it’s a very important role. If there was just engineers, they’d have a lot of paperwork and a lot of drawings, but they’d have no parts.
Zamora: Yeah. It’s our expertise, right, Kyle? I mean, there’s three of us to see all of the manufacturing. For the engineer, that’s a lot, I would say, for one person to know everything.
Whitfield: Oh, absolutely.
Zamora: So, coming down to you, it just makes sense, right? ‘Hey, Kyle, you’re the expertise in welding. What should I do here?’
Zamora: I can see it’s a big pill to swallow for the engineers to take on all the roles, so we’re a perfect complement to their projects.
Host: Which leads me to wonder how important is your craft in making missions successful?
Nelson: The most.
Zamora: I like that.
Nelson: The most important.
Whitfield: Yeah. I don’t think much is possible here without our craft. Everything we do is a one-off. It’s not an assembly line where you’re stamping out parts. Every part is a different part, and then there’s different revisions of those parts sometimes. I just don’t see it being possible without these trades or these crafts.
Zamora: Yeah. Then I’d add too, I mean, you guys said if there was just engineers and no one to make this stuff, we wouldn’t be anywhere, but there’s also I guess the way I’ll look at this question is internally, how important are we to mission success? Someone could send parts out maybe to different companies but like you said, Kyle, a lot of what we do is one-offs and sometimes not fully developed, so it’s very difficult for us to send parts out, get something back and say, ‘You know what? This didn’t work the way we want it to. Let’s send it back out.’ There’s a lot of back and forth there where since we’re literally downstairs, we’re in the building next door, we’re on the same facility, we can knock parts out, test them real quick, have a quick turnaround on the fly. So, for mission success, it’s hugely important — cuts down on time big time.
Nelson: There’s also an aspect for my side too, is knowing the aircraft and the publications that govern the aircraft as far as repairs and flight worthiness. There’s a lot of engineers, they don’t know. They don’t take the time. It’s not in the engineering schedule to read through these pubs. There are some engineers, they get into it because that’s the specific platform they’re on, but they’ll come to us because we are heavy in the repair manuals of the aircraft. They don’t know them so, again, that’s not something that was pressed upon them to know. Here we are, we’re in those books, we’ve read them, we have individuals, prior military, prior industry, they know these manuals, and we could get them the quick answer or the best answer per se as well and guide them because the books aren’t always law.
It is meeting the intent sometimes, and so we have to translate the book to them as well as far as with the intent. We had one corrosion project where it’s like all these engineers and great minds wanted to do this thing, and I was just like, ‘Nope. We shouldn’t do that. That’s not really what we should do.’ I will say that we pulled in another corrosion specialist from another center who came down and basically validated my concerns and what my view was, and it made happen, and we were able to complete that project to the furthest extent on our part, I’ll say. So, it’s very important. They just don’t have the experience that we do on the actual aircraft or with the actual material or with the machines that we’re using to make the parts for them.
Host: And so that hands-on experience is really what we’re talking about here that’s making a difference?
Nelson: I think so.
Host: It sounds like you get to share your ideas and you actually see them implemented.
Nelson: I will say that we’re very fortunate here to be able to do that. I know Alex has worked in other outside industries, and, again, in the military there’s a fine line of what you could express and not express, and sometimes even in the civilian world with general aviation you have to deal with companies or pilots. There’s levels. I feel like here it is a very open forum. We really try to keep that open door for conversation.
Zamora: Yeah. Jason, like you said, when I was working at a production facility, we were making parts for Boeing or whoever. It was already designed and we were just making the parts. There was nothing you could say about design or even had much ideas, but where I think the big difference is, though, is that here in Armstrong, we’re all journeyman level so we have a good, good background and we have this trust to see our ideas come through. There’s always that trust factor that needs to be in place first for someone to actually trust that you’re going to make a good choice, and because of our backgrounds I feel like that trust is there.
Whitfield: Yeah. I would say in terms of our ideas getting implemented and being able to see them through, this is probably one of the greatest places for that. I see it time and time again. Over there in the machine shop, like Alex was talking about handles, I know recently they had another project that they wanted these 5-axis machines. I think they were like a clevis or some kind of a latch of some sort, and instead it was a couple great minds got together and they 3D printed them, saved the project a ton of money. They got to see it from conception to the actual part done, worked. I think in a lot of industries you don’t get to see that, and it’s almost not encouraged in a lot of other industries. You’re told, ‘Here’s your job. Push this button. You’re expected to make a hundred of these today.’ Here it’s a very innovative environment, in my opinion.
Zamora: Yeah, and a sense of accomplishment, right?
Zamora: I mean, every day we get to go home and say, ‘Hey, we just made this, or we had a piece in this.’ It’s very rewarding, I think.
Host: What’s the learning process for you? Does it take a lot of experience to be really good at this?
Zamora: YouTube. YouTube does it. (laughter) Watch a couple videos, you’ve got it.
Host: You got it, huh?
Zamora: No, I mean, I think there’s years and years and years of just digging in deep, always trying to learn, getting out of our comfort zone, and doing our best. With every job there comes a little more experience. Thankfully, I’m in a shop where I’ve got people who are very well-rounded in different aspects of machining and we really work strongly as a team to pull off of each other and to learn from each other, and so every day we take it as learning experience and just grow your skill and grow your craft. It has taken a long time to get where I’m at, for sure, but exposure I think was my biggest thing, and then wanting to learn, giving yourself those opportunities to learn. Don’t take no, just go for it, go for it, go for it, keep trying and going in with an open mind. It’s not an overnight thing for sure but, honestly, it went by pretty quick to where I’m at now. So, feels like it, but it’s a lifelong thing.
Whitfield: Yeah. I’d have to say the learning process is… It’s not short, especially in the world of welding. I know a couple guys that had told me, ‘I watched it on YouTube. Seemed pretty easy.’ Yeah. They didn’t have–
Zamora: I think I was one of those guys.
Whitfield: I wasn’t going to name names. (laughter) Yeah. It can definitely be humbling, but, to kind of quote Alex, if you’re hungry to learn, you’ll go places. I think that’s how the three of us have gotten where we’ve gotten. There was always a desire to, ‘Hey, how do you run that machine over there? Hey, how do you do that? How did you do that?’ The constant curiosity is I think what really makes a good, experienced tradesman. So yeah, it does take a lot, but if you’re willing and hungry to learn, you’ll go places.
Zamora: I have so much respect for welders because I really was one of those guys that said that. I had seen a video on welding, and I was like, ‘OK, I think I can do this.’ We had some free time and Kyle was willing to show me how and, oh my goodness, that was the toughest thing that I’ve done. It was so hard to just lay a bead, and so I’ve got a lot of respect for you, Kyle.
Whitfield: It’s equal. It’s mutual. It’s back at you. There’s things and aspects of all of our trades that it’s like, ‘Man, I couldn’t have thought of that if I tried.’ It’s not just one field.
Nelson: That right there, it’s not just one field, I think is an important aspect of this. All of us have experience in a lot of different things to the point where it’s like we were never a journeyman at one specific thing ever because we do have all this experience. Then as we’ve come to mature, now there’s a label that we are journeymen in our specific zone. But Kyle can come to the sheet metal shop and do work there, he could do composites, right?
Nelson: Alex, same thing. He’s dipping over into the welding side. He could come over to sheet metal and do that, too. Same with me. We all have just enough to get in trouble with, you know?
Nelson: Just enough knowledge sometimes to get in trouble, like I say, but we haven’t stopped learning. We’re still trying to learn from each other too to this day. The learning process — I was just speaking in Oshkosh about this. Sometimes the learning process, especially in these fields, it can be long and arduous, but it’s that want of accomplishment, to see something go from such a raw thing to a functional part. That for me is a big thing. In the Navy, I just wanted to know as much as I could about that aircraft. Part of that was fear, too, because I did not want one falling out of the sky because of me, but you have to be able to overcome that fear as well. I think there are some people, they’re shy, we could say shy instead of fearful or whatever, and they just sometimes may need a little help and a push. Then that first setback comes and sometimes some people tend to draw away, and then that’s when you need to endure, and you need to step up and keep moving forward with that. I think that’s a big part of the learning experience as well.
Host: What do you see as the future of manufacturing and skill trades?
Nelson: Investment in the education system, right? Junior high, I had a wood shop class. I was supposed to take an art class as well, and I was like, ‘Art’s not for me.’ I ended up doing a full year in wood shop class. I could say that’s pretty much what I knew, but how many of these schools have these vocational aspects to it? How many people live in areas that have a wide variety of industrial work going on or, Alex, you found a place. What if you were somewhere that didn’t have a machine shop and then what?
Zamora: Yeah, yeah.
Nelson: What if I was born somewhere else and didn’t have the access that I had? I think some of these classes need to be incorporated nationwide. I mean, home economics used to be a nationwide course that students had to take just so you could know how to cook on your own, maybe fix a hole in your pants or whatever. I don’t even know if that’s a thing anymore, honestly, but I think there needs to be some investment back into that and open up the opportunity to not just rural area students, farming communities or heavy aerospace industries. Like Edwards Air Force Base, Lancaster, Palmdale is the hub of flight research of this country. Well, there’s a very small population. Lancaster and Edwards accounts for maybe, what is it, like 300,000 people? And that’s not a lot, and that doesn’t mean everyone here is interested in getting into this either. So, I think investment into the lower school grades or at least high school is what I see the future.
Zamora: Yeah. That’s not to say that it’s not happening, right, Jason?
Zamora: I mean, we see it, right? I mean, Jason and I help out in FIRST Robotics. We’re trying to wrangle Kyle to help out too. Maybe next year, Kyle, maybe next year. But we were fortunate enough to actually get a trailer that was outfit with a bunch of equipment inside of it like mills, lathes, all types of fabrication equipment. We take that trailer to all the big competitions that FIRST Robotics have, and we’re there to help out all the teams, help with the kids, speak to them. We see firsthand that these kids are really, really involved. Some of them you can tell are going somewhere, but a lot of them do ask questions, too, ‘How’d you get here? How’d you do this? How’d you do that?’
They see NASA and they want to work for NASA. A lot of them are actually really surprised that you know what? Many of us actually didn’t go to college. Many of us, we found a job doing what we like and we pursued it and it’s kind like we just learned on the job. It opens up their eyes huge. It’s like, ‘Wow, really?’ Some kids, they’re just not made for college. They just don’t want to go, and it kind of gives them another route. Sometimes people hear NASA and they just think engineering and a lot of school and scientists and rockets and this and that. It’s not all that. There’s way, way more to it than that. Like Jason was saying, if that knowledge was brought about young and give them the opportunities, that I think will open doors for the younger generations to get into this trade. Not only that, but knowledge is cheap these days. You could go on websites for free and learn anything you want. The theory of machining or sheet metal or airplanes or whatnot, it’s all there. It’s all there for free. Now, we just got to know how to get them to get hands-on experience, and that’ll make the big difference, I think.
Whitfield: Yeah. Like both Jason and Alex had mentioned, I think investment but also kind of how they had touched on part of it is appeal. How do we make trades appeal to the younger generation? It’s hard to compete with the tech sector considering the fact that the pay salary, everything like that on the tech sector is wildly kind of top-heavy. So how do we get appeal to manufacturing? One thing that I’ve seen that’s kind of cool, and it’s kind of changed things recently even though it’s been around for at least two decades, is 3D printing. I’ve seen a lot of kids get interested in manufacturing because of 3D printing because it’s almost become, for lack of better words, a toy. You can make little fidget spinners, you can make salt and pepper shakers. The sky is the limit. That’s to me, ‘How do we make it appeal to kids as well as give them the opportunity to be able to learn at a younger age, putting it back into high schools, middle schools, whatever it be?’ But I’m excited to see what the future’s got in terms of manufacturing changes to see if it can kind of rein in even more of the youth, get them more interested in the trades.
Host: Well, this has been absolutely fascinating. Thank you all three for joining us today on the podcast.
Zamora: Thank you, Deana. This was great.
Nelson: Yeah. Oh, it’s been a pleasure.
Whitfield: Yeah, thank you. It’s been fun, for sure.
Host: Yeah. Have you got any closing thoughts?
Whitfield: Go out there and learn.
Zamora: Yeah. One thing I’ve got too is unfortunately this is a dying trade, bottom line. It’s hard to replace people that have retired. It’s getting harder and harder. I think it’s up to us to really show how great this trade is. It can be fun, it can be challenging, it can be rewarding, but, like Kyle said, go out there and learn.
Nelson: I would say my final thought is do epic stuff.
Host: Alex, Jason, and Kyle’s bios are available on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript and links to topics discussed during the conversation.
In the next episode of this series, we’ll talk with NASA trade and technical professionals supporting a wide variety of work from additive manufacturing to lasers to contamination control and planetary protection. And we encourage you to share the podcast series with your friends and colleagues.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.