Jennifer Adams, a former NC Space Grant-supported NASA intern and rocketry team member, had been a high school science teacher for seven years when she decided to make a career leap. She had always wanted to be an engineer, and when her students pointed out she was capable of making her dreams a reality, she decided to go back to school for mechanical engineering. Due to her previous degree, which required many STEM courses, Adams was able to complete her mechanical engineering degree in only three years. During those three years, she successfully capitalized on many opportunities that would ultimately help her land a dream job at United Launch Alliance (ULA), where today she is a propulsions system test engineer.
In 2015, Adams students gifted her a NASA badge with her name on it. A few months later, she was starting courses for mechanical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. At this point in her life, she was living an hour and a half away from the UNC Charlotte campus with her partner and two-year-old daughter, yet she overcame the many challenges of being a nontraditional student. She graduated in 2018 with a mechanical engineering degree and a job offer from ULA already in hand.
During her time at UNC Charlotte, Adams landed two internships with NASA – the second of which NC Space Grant supported, welcoming her into the Space Grant family. In 2018, Adams also served as a payload lead for the UNC Charlotte 49er Rocketry Club, an NC Space Grant-supported team that won second place nationwide in the NASA Student Launch Initiative competition that year. She was responsible for leading the design of the rover payload that won the team second place for all payloads and first place for rover payloads, among other awards.
Adams counts her greatest accomplishment, though, as receiving her first internship offer from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
“I got the acceptance email while I was in my thermodynamics class and I rushed out to read it thoroughly,” Adams says. “I will never forget the feeling I had and where I was when I received the news. That internship opened up a lot of doors for me, including a second internship the following year, a spot as the payload lead for our rocketry team’s NASA SLI competition, and the experience to interview for my current job at ULA.”
Adams first NASA internship focused on engineering design, while her second focused on data collection and assessment from hot-fire tests of RS-25 engines. While the internships concentrated on different skills, Adams was able to gather a wide range of experiences that translated into her work at ULA.
Adams managed to balance all these activities while also serving as a teaching assistant for a computer-aided design course.
“My time as a teaching assistant allowed me to explore my new love for CAD. It is amazing to think something up and be able to produce a 3-D object on the screen that later can be 3-D printed or machined. I do a lot of CAD designs and drawings currently for my job and the training that UNCC gave me has helped,” Adams says.
Adams is currently working on developing the Centaur V upper stage for the Vulcan Centaur rocket. Most of her tests since joining ULA have been in second stage development of the Centaur V upper stage. This rocket will be launched in 2021 and Adams is excited to see the launch and know that she contributed to the success of the rocket.
When asked about what she would say to aspiring engineers, Adams offers this advice: “First, do not be afraid to fail. I have witnessed so many engineers and friends miss out on opportunities simply because they did not want to stretch their limits and take a step outside their comfort zone. The only way to grow is to keep seeking out the projects you know will be hard. Second, surround yourself with people who are better than you at something. I am constantly seeking out those who know something better than I do so I can learn from them. Third, age is not a factor and excuses are just excuses. I went back to engineering school at the age of 30. Leaving a career, and a steady paycheck, to chase a dream was scary, but my family, friends, and colleagues were behind me 100 percent and it was very worth it.”
Adams’ current goals are to continue to grow and learn in her field. She wants to take on more “stretch assignments” that she feels will force her to think differently and learn. She said her manager is a great supporter when she wishes to take on new challenges. Adams is currently working on an “On The Job Training” document to integrate a new clean room into ULA’s facility. She is also going to travel to Cape Canaveral in the near future to become a systems cleanliness focal for the Prop Shop.
Adams is thankful for her career and says the work she does is exciting. She has tested a variety of components, from small to large parts.
“On any given day, I can be outside doing large-flow cryogenic tests, at my computer creating 3-D models of test rigs, researching and procuring equipment and instrumentation for upcoming tests, performing shock tests on pressurized systems, or in meetings discussing data results,” Adams says. She enjoys being on her feet and performing in the fast-paced, on-the-go environment of her job. She also loves the people she works with and appreciates they all feel comfortable asking each other questions, as they work both independently and closely together as a team each day.