Gautam Nagaraj is currently developing a drill to help NASA drill for ice on Mars, is graduating with two Penn degrees and is about to start work on an aerospace project that’s so confidential that he can’t talk about it.
He’s a senior in VIPER, studying earth sciences in the College and mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He originally started out as a chemistry major, but decided to switch over to geology after a program advisor suggested it to him. “They wanted a hard science. What’s harder than rocks?” he quips.
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VIPER stands for Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research, and is the newest of the dual–degree programs at Penn. His class will be the second–ever to graduate this upcoming May.
“I’m pretty sure they had the word viper and were like, ‘That sounds cool!’ and came to that,” he adds jokingly, as his excitement breaks through background murmur.
Gautam's roughly a Philadelphia local, hailing from the King of Prussia area. He went to William Penn Charter School, but was forced to explore most of his now longstanding interest in aerospace outside of high school. “My high school didn’t have much of anything science related,” he explained.
His participation in the NASA INSPIRE online learning program, an online educational virtual environment for STEM students to collaborate on projects and learn about career options, was an early foray into the field. Gautam was lucky to experience this unique program during its existence, as it no longer exists due to recent NASA budget cuts.
He continued to participate in NASA programs in high school.
“We did a competition to redesign the James Webb space telescope. It’s supposed to be a successor to Hubble,” Gautam adds. His team came second in a national competition to help optimize the new telescope’s mirror assembly.
With this substantial experience under his belt, he came to Penn because of the unique value of the VIPER Program. He shares why senior year of high school, he thought to himself, “I can get two degrees for the price of one?” The rest was history.
VIPER has allowed him to combine studies in a hard science with an engineering background, all the while positioning him for a career in energy. Matriculants into VIPER are required to do research, and have to take specialized writing classes in order to communicate their lab findings.
The summer after his sophomore year, he worked in a physics lab attempting to sequence DNA using graphene nanotechnology. He enjoyed this requisite research, as it was a different take on energy. “Not the typical, 'Let’s build a fuel cell,'” he jokes.
As a senior at Penn now, Gautam says he’s winding down his involvement in clubs—understandably so, as his involvement in school mirrors his impressive achievements outside of it.
He served as aircraft director of Penn Aerospace Club, which a friend of his founded in 2014. “I helped that really get off the ground—no pun intended,” he offered. It started as an interest group to bring speakers to campus, but Gautam nudged it into a more substantive direction.
The club has since taken on many facets, including rocketry, high–altitude balloons and participation in Design/Build/Fly competitions. This is where Gautam comes in as aircraft director, working with a team to build a remote–control airplane from scratch that meets competitive guidelines. There’s always some sort of challenge for them to follow, just to make things interesting.
“This year it’s like, ‘Fit as many hockey pucks as you can inside your plane and then fly it!’” he elaborates. “It’s always a trade–off, especially in aerospace. Weight is a thing.”
Penn’s urban campus is a hindrance to the group’s functioning, however, and they’ve been forced to go to Fairmount Park if they want to test their planes and rockets.
Luckily, he doesn’t have to leave West Philadelphia for his other extracurricular pursuits. He served as co–president of PRISM, Penn’s umbrella interfaith organization. He worked to help get faith communities more involved with each other at Penn, and helped start a “Sharing our Scriptures” group that brings together individuals from different campus faiths biweekly to discuss religious passages together.
He was also co–chair of Penn’s Faith Fund, helping to disburse funds to faith groups planning events on campus who are not eligible to receive funding from the Student Activities Council. “I think the budget now for that is like $20,000. When I started it was $10,000,” he adds in the humblest way.
Now that he’s wound down his involvement in these groups, Gautam can focus more fully on his collaborative senior design project: helping build a drill for NASA. Last year, NASA put out an open application for a project for delivering nutrients to plants in space. Several Penngineers and him were interested in the opportunity, wrote up an application and found a professor who was interested in their project.
“We didn’t get it. We got rejected,” Gautam says.
Most people would have been pretty disappointed about this. Gautam’s response was simple: “Aw, that’s a bummer!”
But there would be more opportunities for him to collaborate with NASA. In the fall, their professor alerted them to another project that NASA was soliciting applications for help developing technologies for drilling for ice on Mars. “We actually designed the drill from scratch, the whole system, with the criteria they gave us.”
NASA had provided them with parameters for the volume of the drill, energy efficiency, weight and length of use. They chose the top eight teams’ designs from across the country and gave them $10,000 to develop this drill. “Luckily, our team was one of the eight teams they selected to build this drill,” he says.
They found out this past semester, and have been working tirelessly to complete the project for Penn’s Senior Design Day on April 3rd. This deadline has forced them to get a first prototype of their project finished far ahead of the NASA competition in June.
“We have the whole frame put together. We’re finishing up the drill and most of the subsystems are ready,” Gautam continues. After they finish optimizing it, the team of Penngineers will go down to NASA’s facilities in Langley, Virginia, and do live testing for them there. After two days of testing, NASA will give their inputs and critiques and likely develop their own prototype based on the designs they saw.
After he graduates, Gautam will be returning to work at an aerospace company (which can’t be named due to the sensitive nature of his projects). He’s worked there for the past two summers, working in manufacturing support one year and in developing simulations the year after. “I can talk generally about what I did there,” he offers lightly. “But it’s classified,” he ultimately concedes.
He’s enjoyed his time at this company and hopes to work there for at least a few years in order to orient himself in the field. But he has a more independent interest in aerospace for the long–term: “Hopefully, at my own point I can start my own aerospace company for doing some deep space exploration.”
“There are a lot of untapped markets,” he explains. Most companies like SpaceX are interested in going to Mars. But Gautam’s eye’s are cast elsewhere. “In terms of resources, getting to a moon of Jupiter is like, the best place you can be,” he muses. You can get fresh water from Europa, and, “The potential for life is there.”
He’s interested in a long–term approach for sustainable exploration, and thinks that developing a colony on the moon would set a good precedent for infrastructure development in Mars and other planetary destinations. “If everyone focuses on going to Mars, we will not have settlements in space in our lifetime. If you build that colony on the moon, space development doesn’t seem that far away,” he adds.
Though many programs, like those focused on our own planet in terms of climate change and deep sea exploration, are suffering cuts, he’s not so frightened of the prospects for securing funding for future space ventures.
“Space exploration is cool, it’s glamorous,” he adds with a grin.
Above all, Gautam has enjoyed his time at Penn and experiences learning about energy in VIPER, and hopes above all that future Quakers will continue to invest the same effort into these same pursuits.
“I think aerospace at Penn is growing, and people should get involved if they’re interested,” Gautam adds. “There are a lot of opportunities out there,” he concludes. The sky isn’t even the limit, in aerospace or in his aspirations.
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