PhD student receives NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship

Nathan Pehrson, a PhD student studying mechanical engineering, recently received the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF). Pehrson was awarded over $60,000 for the fellowship and will begin in August, while still working to finish his PhD.

Pehrson applied for multiple fellowships with the hopes of getting at least one offer and he actually got offered two others in addition to the NSTRF. Because they are all federally funded, he could only accept one and the decision was not an easy one. One offer came from the Department of Defense,  and the second was an opportunity to work in an Air Force research lab, which he had worked in previously. He chose the NSTRF out of the three because it not only provides him with internship experience, but it also gives him an opportunity to work with NASA.

The fellowship objective is to increase the capabilities for solar arrays in space for solar power generation. This goes along with the research Pehrson has been doing for the past two years as a PhD student working in the BYU Compliant Mechanisms Research lab. His research has been about origami-based mechanisms. He said origami can be useful for solar panels in space because they can be stored compactly on the rocket, but then cover a lot of area when unfolded in space.

“My specific research has been how to create thick-sheet material mechanisms that can fold up using the material itself,” Pehrson said. “We use compliant mechanisms along fold lines on the thick material that cannot normally bend or crease to get folding action. This has advantages in ease of manufacturing because it’s one sheet material.”

With the fellowship, Pehrson will be assigned a NASA employee as a mentor that will coordinate with him on the specifics of his research. He will continue with the same research he proposed to them and next summer he will have a “visiting technologist” experience, which is an internship at a NASA facility for 10 to 12 weeks. Pehrson also has Spencer Magleby, a mechanical engineering professor at BYU, as his advisor currently and for the fellowship.

This is not an easy fellowship to get, but Pehrson thinks that his experiences here at BYU, specifically in the compliant mechanisms research group he is a part of, helped him become a good candidate.

“I feel very lucky to be in this compliant mechanisms research group where there has been past students who have received this award,” he said. “This lab has connections with JPL and other NASA facilities and the Air Force research lab.”

He also mentioned how his undergraduate capstone project helped prepare him for the fellowship, specifically getting to know Associate Dean Larry Howell, whose research is based around origami-based mechanisms.

“The Marshall Space Flight Center sponsored the capstone project and Dr. Howell was the capstone coach,” he said. “That really prepared me to get familiar a little bit with NASA and Dr. Howell. All those connections have really prepared me.”

Pehrson is looking forward to the fellowship, especially the opportunity to work in and visit NASA facilities. He said that the fellowship will be a great experience and will help open doors for him after he graduates in April 2019.

“I definitely want to work in the aerospace industry and so having these experiences I’ve had at BYU and continuing them with this NASA fellowship will open up opportunities for post-graduation."

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