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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

Michelle Munk,
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

IMAGE: Michelle Munk
Michelle Munk, lead systems engineer for Aerocapture.

NASA engineer Michelle Munk has dedicated her career to the study of aerocapture -- the use of a planet's atmosphere to slow down a spacecraft.

April 2003 - For most of her 15 years at NASA, Munk has been working on aerocapture -- the use of a planet's atmosphere to slow down a spacecraft.

"I grew up watching Space Shuttle launches. I was fascinated with flight," says Munk, who started working at Johnson Space Center in 1987, while attending Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va. She got the idea of working while in school, she says, from her mother's cousin, a student at Virginia Tech who was working as a co-operative education intern at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. Munk followed his lead and became a "co-op" in Houston, shuttling between work and school every few months. "Co-op" students are jointly enrolled in an undergraduate program and employed as an intern by a NASA facility, allowing them to experience hands-on application of their courses of study.

Munk graduated from Virginia Tech in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering. She wanted to "do space," so when Johnson Space Center offered her a full-time position, she moved to Houston and continued working with colleagues from her co-op days. Her primary focus was aerocapture, a concept that was being considered for demonstration in Earth's atmosphere.

After 11 years at the Johnson Center, Munk took a position in the vehicle analysis branch at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The branch, a sister organization to Munk's group at the Johnson Center, conducts systems and performance analysis for robotic missions. There, Munk served as coordinator of the aeroassist working group, a mechanism for keeping NASA's aeroassist specialists, located at NASA centers across the country, in regular contact with each other in order to share ideas on concept development and project opportunities.

In 2001, the aerocapture project became part of the In-Space Propulsion Program, implemented by the Marshall Center's Advanced Space Transportation Program for NASA's Office of Space Science in Washington, D.C. In January 2002, Munk was asked by In-Space Propulsion management to come to Marshall for a year-long assignment as lead systems engineer for the aerocapture project. The move was no small consideration - she had to relocate her family to Huntsville; her husband had to secure a transfer within his company; and she had to move her 2-year-old daughter away from grandparents and other family.

But for Munk, the opportunity was too good to pass up. "It was just perfect," she says of the chance to work with aerocapture again. "I feel like I have the perspective to pull all elements of the project together." With a new budget and several contracts awarded, aerocapture is gearing up to advance to the next level - flight demonstration.

"Ideally a flight mission would incorporate aerocapture, "Munk says. "But currently it is not scheduled to fly, so we need to spread the word about aerocapture, its readiness and its benefits."

For Munk, the challenge is a logical culmination of her career thus far. "It's very exciting to have a budget," she says. "After working with concepts on and off for 15 years, we will have some hardware that I can actually touch."

For more information about aerocapture, read Aerocapture is Key for In-Space Travel and the Aerocapture (48 Kb PDF) fact sheet.

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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