Dreaming of the Stars: An Interview with Rocket Scientist Dr. Anita Sengupta
Dr. Sengupta started her career working on the launch vehicles and communications satellites at Boeing Space and Communications. Next Dr. Sengupta's journey took her to the forefront of the US space program.
At NASA her doctoral research focused the developing the ion engines that powered the Dawn spacecraft to reach Vesta and Ceres in the main asteroid belt launched in 2006. Dr. Sengupta was then responsible for the supersonic parachute system that was integral to the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012.
RR: What motivated you to pursue a career in aerospace engineering?
I am a lifelong science fiction fan. I knew since I was a small child that I wanted to explore space. As a teenager I considered degrees in aerospace engineering and astrophysics. I selected engineering as I wanted to develop technologies to facilitate the exploration of space. Also, my father was a mechanical engineer with a PhD; I was always so impressed by his problem-solving ability, which came from his engineering training.
RR: You spent 16 years at NASA – what are some common misconceptions about NASA and space?
I would say the biggest misunderstanding related to NASA is that you do not need to be an aerospace engineer in order to work at NASA. In fact, all disciplines are represented and needed for the space program – all fields of engineering, biology, chemistry, math, and computer science. If you have a passion for space, there is a career for you at NASA, if you put your mind to it.
RR: In your time at NASA you were a part of the team that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars – what is the most memorable part of this experience?
Being a part of something bigger than yourself, accomplishing an incredibly difficult engineering feat, and working together as a team are the most memorable experiences. People ask me if I want to go to Mars. My answer is yes; but something that I built is already there, so part of me is already driving around the red planet.
RR: What motivated you to make the switch from aerospace engineering to working on revolutionizing modern transportation?
Aerospace engineering includes the sector of aviation and the sub-disciplines of aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and controls to name a few. As a person who cares deeply about climate change, putting my engineering skills to create solutions for sustainable transportation was a natural and important journey for me to take. We all have the ability to build the world we imagine.
RR: What does the future look like for hyperloop technology?
The hyperloop is a magnetically levitating, electrically propelled transportation system that operates inside of a vacuum tube: the analogy I like to use is a spacecraft travelling on the ground. Aerodynamic drag is reduced to a very low level and high speeds can be sustained as little energy cost (as compared to an airplane). A great deal of technology development is needed to certify such a system for use, but that work is underway at startups around the world.
RR: How did your experience at a Hyperloop technology company help you in becoming an aviation entrepreneur?
As an engineering executive, I gained exposure to the transportation sector and what society needs from public transport, from an individual customer’s point of view up to what cities, countries, and our globally connected society requires.
The global movement for sustainable mass transportation is underway and I wanted to be at the forefront as an engineering-savvy executive. Also, as a woman of color, I was shocked by the lack of diversity and gender equity in the tech sector. I like to make myself part of solutions, so it was time for me to become an entrepreneur.
RR: You are co-founder of an Urban Air Mobility Company ASX. How will UAM address the transportation needs of the future?
Urban Air Mobility is the first use case of fully-electric aviation. When you can create a new ecosystem, you kick start innovation and disrupt the way things are normally done. I believe that UAM will start the movement to emission-free regional flight and eventually cross-country and trans-oceanic air travel.
RR: Will air traffic management be updated to support UAM?
The FAA is responsible for air traffic control. How an aircraft is flown in controlled airspace depends on whether you are flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or Instrument Flight rules (IFR). The rules define altitude, weather minimums, communications, to name a few things. It is most likely that UAM aircrafts will be operated under VFR to begin with just as any other aircraft. The good news is the newer technologies, such as ADS-B, are incorporated in a way that increases safety and efficiency of air traffic control.
RR: You have devoted your recent years to helping develop technologies that will transform transportation. What do you see the future of transportation looking like?
My view is that the future of transportation will and must be sustainable with a reduced carbon footprint. I see the personal car being replaced by more mass transit and shared ride emission free vehicles. I see ground-based vehicles supported by a renewable energy grid. I see hydrogen fuel cell powered planes for long distance travel. I also see an increase in bicycles, enabled by bike lanes for local transport. In terms of commuting, I see a reduction in congestion as more of us permanently shift to telecommuting.
RR: How does the current Coronavirus climate affect Nasa’s research and funding?
I think NASA funding is and always has been too small in my opinion. I do not see it being affected. It is a source of innovation for our economy. I think that there will be a re-evaluation of the tech sector, venture capital, and private equity, post covid-19, in terms of what are the areas to focus on. I hope we will see a shift to green tech, healthcare to address infectious disease, and use of AI to improve distribution for all sectors.
RR: You do talk about hyperloop which does if not directly, indirectly, affect other modes of transportation. Let’s say there are ~100 flights that go between SF and LA a day, if you have hyperloop you can cancel most of those. It’ll be hard for airlines to rebuild post COVID if the substitutions get better.
I also suspect we will see a de-emphasis on self driving car technology as it couples to Mobility as a Service, and a shift to greener forms of public transit.
Written by Ben Stick, Edited by Allyson Zucker & Alexander Fleiss
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