Inside Rensselaer
* Phil Bracken
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Phil Bracken: Future Astronaut Aiming for Space
It’s not every day that you meet someone who builds next-generation rocket engines — from scratch — for fun. But Phil Bracken, who is graduating with a major in aeronautical engineering and a clear goal of becoming an astronaut, is doing exactly that.

The engine project, along with securing a prestigious NASA internship last year, are two key factors that helped Bracken land a job with leading aerospace firm Orbital Sciences Corp. Soon after graduation, Bracken will begin his new career as a propulsion engineer with the Dulles, Va.-based company.

Bracken’s first task at Orbital will be to expand the work he started at Rensselaer, and further develop a next-generation, liquid first-stage rocket engine. The engine, which runs on liquid kerosene and oxygen instead of conventional solid propellants, is slated for use on the new Taurus II launch vehicle which is expected to carry its first payload into space in 2010.

“There’s something fundamentally fascinating about the fact that we take an object that doesn’t look like it should be able to fly, and put it up in the air.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” Bracken says. “There’s something fundamentally fascinating about the fact that we take an object that doesn’t look like it should be able to fly, and put it up in the air.”

Bracken has spent most of his time at Rensselaer, and much of his time growing up in Cambridge, N.Y., thinking about the sky. Bracken and his older brother — who is also a Rensselaer School of Engineering graduate and currently working near Dulles in the aerospace industry — spent their early days building, testing, and flying different model aircraft, rockets, gliders, and eventually radio-controlled airplanes.

This passion prompted Bracken as a junior to resurrect Rensselaer’s Design/Build/Fly team. The club, which has since been handed over to a younger leadership and is still going strong, develops and creates new 5-foot-wingspan aircraft to compete against teams from other universities. The rules and design specifications change every year, requiring the team to start from scratch.

“Prior to Design/Build/Fly, there were no hands-on activities for aerospace students,” Bracken says. “Now we receive a lot of support from the aerospace faculty, and a wider, more diverse student membership, which is important because there’s so much to do, and it’s all multidisciplinary.”

Two years ago, Bracken was set on a future in designing jets and airplanes. But after spending the summer of 2007 as an intern at NASA’s Goddard Academy in Greenbelt, Md., one of four academies run by the space agency, he has been enthralled with rockets, shuttles, and spacecraft.

One of only 18 interns accepted by NASA, Bracken spent most of his time working with NASA researcher Erik Silk to develop a more efficient spray cooling and heat transfer system for use in satellites and possibly space shuttles.

The highlights of the NASA internship, Bracken says, were a front-row seat to watch the June 8, 2007, launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, as well as VIP tours of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Despite the success that Bracken and his classmates have achieved with building a rocket engine for their senior project, he humbly admits that the first incarnation of the rocket was a flop. But the process of designing and building a dud, Bracken stresses, also has its benefits.

“If it had worked the first time, we wouldn’t have learned as much,” he says.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 9, May 16, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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