Houston: we have ideas

Young electronics engineer seizes value from prized NASA internship, David Wilson writes.

Young electronics engineer seizes value from prized NASA internship, David Wilson writes.

Aged just 23, whizz-kid Thomas Cooney has already racked up a singularly sparkling career highlight - the experience of working for the American space agency NASA.

Earlier this year it was announced that Cooney, from Arncliffe, Sydney, had won the 2012 VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize, placing him with NASA from June 17 to August 23. Cooney spent those two months at the NASA Aeronautics Academy at Ames in the heart of California's Silicon Valley.

"This place is so cool!" the University of New South Wales (UNSW) engineering graduate says. His prize, awarded by the Victorian Space Science Education Centre, was won through helping design vital hardware for a new satellite system.

"The density of world-class research and researchers is amazing. There is cutting-edge aeromechanics and aerophysics research, the 18th fastest supercomputer in the world, the largest wind tunnel in the world," Cooney says.

Founded in 1993, the high-tech academy was modelled on the idea of an international space university. The academy is pitched as "a unique summer institute of higher learning whose goal is to help guide future leaders of the US space program by giving them a glimpse of how the whole system works".

About 900 interns worked at the elite institute during the northern summer, lending the facility a university campus feel. Shorts and T-shirts are worn by many, but not Cooney. "My supervisor had slightly higher expectations - I prefer to wear a business shirt and trouser pants," he says.

His schedule limited him to three swims in six weeks, and would test the mettle of any executive. Typically, after a 6am start, he and 11 other academy members billeted three to a room in a four-bedroom unit would take a cafeteria breakfast then get cracking at 8am. Mainly involved in computer design and simulation, Cooney shared an office with two other international scholars: Mitsuhisa from Japan, and Natalia from Spain. As they racked their brains, they were guided by several advisers. After midday lunch, Cooney would attend a lecture or a "colloquium" - an informal meeting for the exchange of views - run by a top Ames scientist or engineer.

At 5.30pm, the high-achiever would return to digs for dinner, but his day was far from done. Cooney would toil until midnight on a group project: designing a universal bioreactor platform for the simulation and measurement of three-dimensional cells in space.

His personal project was to design a sycamore seed-style probe for atmospheric descent and landing on Venus. Using one of his own computers - a Windows laptop or a Mac - Cooney modelled the device using a computational fluid dynamic program designed for rotorcraft. His biggest headache was having barely enough computing power to do all his simulations, he says.

Cooney found the most surprising part of working for NASA was the diversity of its mission. While aeronautics and spaceflight are key, NASA also hosts intensive research in astrobiology and life sciences.

Supercomputing and quantum computing also feature.

The key lesson he learned on his high-powered placement, billed as "rigorous" and "immersive", was to resist letting specialisation define your career. "I have met a lot of people in the academy and outside who have made the most of some great opportunities by moving outside their comfort zone," he says, adding that working hard and asking lots of questions also pays off.

The offspring of an electrical engineer and an accountant, during his childhood he wanted to run a caravan touring company, but the influence of Star Wars, Star Trek and Lego prevailed, making engineering an obvious career choice.

At UNSW, the electrical engineering student won another prize, a Co-op Scholarship (coop.unsw.edu.au), which is industry-linked - it immerses select undergraduates in fields including business, engineering and science.

Cooney, whose boffin vibe belies phenomenal drive, calls the scholarship "fantastic". It let him train at four companies and undergo diverse experiences: he worked on everything from beer filling machines to biomedical microelectronics while continuing his degree and designing a circuit board to process radar signals for an Australian-built spacecraft that will screen the country's water resources.

According to a University of New South Wales press release, Cooney designed the circuitry that wowed VSSEC and NASA so cannily that it worked first time. Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research director Professor Andrew Dempster was quoted as saying that Cooney richly deserved the prize and that his impressive work showed that space projects lure and inspire the best engineering students.

After Cooney's Ames internship ended, he was resuming his work with the hearing implant developer, Cochlear.

His dream is to work for a kind of domestic NASA: "an Australian Government space agency that proposes, designs, and launches space exploration missions."