Space Travel as a Chemical Engineer



By Milena Nutrobkina, 2020-2021 SCS Student Advising Leader

When I was in elementary school, I became fascinated with space travel. I participated in an astrophysics camp where I learned how to use software that models distant solar systems on the weekends, and I joined a robotics club in school designing and building remote-controlled cars. You can see I have been interested in engineering from the beginning. Later on, I fell in love with chemistry. So, when I was applying to school, I was determined to find an engineering major that utilized chemistry, thus chemical engineering. However, I never stopped being passionate about space travel. I made an effort to follow the news from NASA, send my name to every rover I was able to and learned the best I could about new space travel technology. If you are as interested in working for NASA, or another space-technology company, but wonder how chemical engineers can help, then keep reading.

On February 18, 2021, the fifth rover, perseverance, landed on Mars. For anyone who is a science enthusiast like me, watching the landing was an excited yet scary time. You might be thinking, “how are chemical engineers involved in the process?” It is certain that chemical engineers helped design and implement how the rover was going to be sent to and land on Mars. Anytime there is a chemical reaction, heat or mass transfer, or process control involved, chemical engineers are seen getting the job done.

The reason why the rovers are currently on Mars is to analyze the surroundings and to send back information for the sciences to analyze. These explorations are the driving catalyst to potentially send humans to Mars. For future human missions, chemical engineers will be in charge of designing equipment to process the Martian atmosphere. These machines will be able to use pure hydrogen from Earth to react with carbon dioxide on Mars to produce oxygen to breathe, methane to use as fertilizer, and water to produce in the atmosphere. These missions won’t happen until far into the future. Yet, chemical engineers at NASA need to start thinking about mission planning as more data comes back from Mars.

If traveling to Mars is too far in the future for you, chemical engineers at NASA are also responsible for developing heating and cooling units for spacesuits currently used to travel to the International Space Station. Here, aspects of fashion design and practicality come into play. Chemical engineers are in charge of some propulsion systems in rockets, which involved a lot of thermodynamics, fluid flow modeling, and combustion – everything we learn at the University of Illinois! There are more than 125 alumni from the University of Illinois that have or are currently working at NASA, helping advance human knowledge about space, and you could be one of them.