Penn State Undergrad Leads Rocket Parts Acquisition for Moon Mission

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Few, if any, undergraduates in the country can say that they have led parts procurement for a mission to the moon. A Penn State sophomore is one of them.

Philip Chow’s fascination with space exploration began when his parents took him to the Franklin Institute to see “Space Station,” the first 3D, live-action documentary to be shot in space. Its portrayal of how humans could survive beyond Earth’s atmosphere captured the imagination of Chow, who was then just 6 years old.

“Every time I went back to the Franklin Institute, I asked to see it again,” he said.

As he grew older, his optimism toward the possibilities of space exploration faded slightly – after all, humanity has yet to send a man to Mars, let alone out of the solar system. By the time Chow reached high school, though, some of that optimism returned, when he discovered that he could help create the technology to facilitate a manned mission to Mars by “effectively getting a major in rocket science.”

“I figured that aerospace engineering would be the best way to continue my dreams,” Chow said. “‘To infinity and beyond,’ as Buzz Lightyear would say.”

The second-year aerospace student, however, is getting much more than just a classroom education in rocket science. He’s now leading rocket equipment acquisition as procurement specialist for the Lunar Lion, Penn State’s mission to the moon and entry in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The competition will award $20 million to the first privately funded team to land a rover on the moon – and no private effort has ever accomplished this feat, in case you were wondering.

Chow is likely the only undergraduate in the country to have led procurement for a mission to the moon, according to Michael Policelli, the Lunar Lion’s chief technologist.

“While most aerospace students learn the rocket equation during their undergrad, few, if any, would know the first thing about how to build an actual liquid rocket engine or test stand,” Policelli said. “Because of the project, Philip can rattle off part numbers and prices from memory to assemble a working system.”

Chow first learned of the Lunar Lion – a joint effort involving students, faculty, and Applied Research Lab (ARL) scientists – after he saw the project’s promotional video at Freshman Convocation. The project’s goal of reaching the moon was overwhelming to Chow at first, but that feeling quickly passed after he learned that the mission could be broken into small, approachable steps.

“It feels a lot more manageable, but it’s still the same big goal,” he said.

Shortly after, Chow joined Lunar Lion in the fall of his freshman year, first as a computer coder for its flight controls team – “I quickly discovered that I was terrible at that,” he said – before settling into the project’s propulsion team. A few months later, Chow took on what seemed like a small project at the time – Policelli, who also leads the Lunar Lion’s propulsion team, had asked for a volunteer to look into prices for components, to be used in the construction of a rocket test stand.

“No one raised their hand,” Chow said. “So I decided, ‘Sure, why not?’”

He continued to take on such assignments – to acquire this valve, to find that solenoid – until the Lunar Lion decided to put him in charge of parts procurement because of the relationships he had formed with suppliers and the familiarity with schematics that he had developed.

Chow, as procurement specialist, is tasked with replicating the function of custom NASA components – which are well beyond the budget of a university-led project – with off-the-shelf parts that may vary in quality (temperature and pressure thresholds) and compatibility (whether or not one part can work together with another). To Chow, this challenge of “making do” with mismatched parts is just another puzzle to be solved – an approach to building rocket equipment that is contrary to (and more cost-effective than) the standard industry practice of custom-ordering parts.

“They’re used to hearing ‘OK, you need exactly this, this and this, and we’ll go make it for you,’” said Chow of most space companies.

On an average weekday as procurement specialist, Chow, like any other Penn State student, wakes up to go to class in the morning. (Well, maybe he’s not your average student; check out his final exam schedule.) After class ends around 10 or 11, depending on the day, he treks out to ARL’s High Energy Test Facility – 15 minutes away from campus, right by the State College airport – to help assemble the parts that he acquired for the Lunar Lion’s rocket tests. In the afternoon, Chow returns to campus to attend more classes, but often returns to the test facility after to continue work on the moon mission.

Outside of the time that he spends at test facility, Chow is also on call with parts suppliers for much of the 9-to-5 business day. Before he walks into class, he’ll silence his phone; when he walks out, he might field two or three voicemails and several emails from companies regarding specifications and prices for components.

It’s not all business at the Lunar Lion for Chow, however; through the project, he has found both a meaningful use of his time at Penn State and a close circle of friends.

“Lunar Lion has become my college experience, more or less,” he said.

Beyond the team’s social interactions in the office – which often consist of gossip over SpaceX’s latest dealings – its members manage to hang out together in a non-Lunar Lion settings. For instance, the propulsion team went to see “Star Trek: Into Darkness” over the summer and, according to Chow, the team of mostly engineers spent some time poking holes in the more physically implausible aspects of the film.

“I think physics calculations were involved in that discussion at some point,” Chow said.

In his lifetime, Chow probably won’t be working on the warp drives of the Star Trek universe, but he hopes that he’ll be working on a more realistic but still revolutionary space mission in the near future.

“[SpaceX CEO] Elon Musk talks a lot about how he’s working on his plans for colonizing Mars,” Chow said. “I want to have a hand in some part of that mission.”

For more on Penn State’s Lunar Lion mission, check out our interview with Team Lead Michael Paul and our updates on the team’s progress, here, here, and here.

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