Patrick Drew’s “crazy engineering experience”
Aerospace senior Patrick Drew took the fall 2017 semester off to have an amazing experience with a co-op internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He calls it his “crazy engineering experience.”
Drew says it’s not that unusual that he got the co-op at NASA. It’s more unique that he applied for it. “These sorts of opportunities are offered by a lot of companies, but there aren’t a lot of undergrads applying for them, probably because programs like these delay graduation.” Drew says he applied online last spring, was contacted by a recruiter from JPL in late April, and by May was set to start in the fall of 2017. “I wanted to spend the summer there as well, so they allowed me to start right away. I was there a total of seven months—June to December—in Pasadena, which wasn’t so bad,” he says smiling.
Drew was assigned to the Entry, Descent, and Landing department. He says there were about 12 summer interns but only one other student intern for the fall. The total program has 600 to 800 undergraduate and graduate student interns from top engineering schools from all over the world.
While at JPL, Drew worked on several projects that required a knowledge of mechanical engineering. One of his primary assignments was to work on the integration of the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator for Mars 2020.
“The Curiosity Rover, also known as Mars Science Laboratory, landed on Mars on August 6, 2012,” Drew explains. “I worked on the next rover, which is very similar to the Curiosity but with different science instruments.”
The Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator converts heat from the natural decay of plutonium-238 dioxide into electricity. It’s like a nuclear brick and the only power source for the rover.
“I was helping redesign a test unit so that people can practice installing it,” Drew says. “Because plutonium has a dangerously high radiation level, technicians must complete the installation quickly and efficiently. Technicians who will install the plutonium on the real rover will use the unit I designed to practice, reducing the time and dosage of radiation exposure.”
Drew says that although Curiosity has a very similar structure, there are variations in the configuration of the new rover, such as the angles of the brackets and the wiring. The test build for the Curiosity can’t be used.
“I delivered engineering drawings for full production of the test, which I can’t legally share, and I left instructions for build, assembly, and testing,” Drew says. “That document is within the JPL system, so that as soon as all of the parts exist, and my manager approves it, it can be built and used for the test.”
In his coursework at the University of Illinois, Department of Aerospace Engineering Drew learned how to create computer-aided designs in AE199 with Brian Woodard--who Drew says is a phenomenal professor. With that training he used CAD software to create the designs.
Drew will return to JPL in the summer of 2018. “I worked hard enough that they asked me to come back,” he says. He hopes to be assigned to building the MMRTG integration unit that he designed.
Although Drew thoroughly enjoyed the work and challenges during the internship, he’s not sure if it is what he’ll pursue as a career. “I do my research here in electric propulsion for satellites with Dr. Joshua Rovey. He is great to work with, but I haven’t decided exactly what I want to pursue as a career. I want to get my master’s degree first.”
Drew is from Clarendon Hills, Illinois. He is also working on a minor in business with The Hoeft Technology & Management Program through the Gies College of Business at the U of I. He will graduate in December 2018 instead of May, and doesn’t regret having extended his years in college by one semester at all.