Please tell us about yourself

This profile continues a series to introduce the people behind the development of Orion. The first space-bound Orion vehicle is at Kennedy Space Center being outfitted for Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). EFT-1 is an essential step that will allow engineers to acquire critical re-entry flight performance data and demonstrate early integration capabilities to prepare Orion for deep space exploration.

Dave Chan never imagined that he would work for NASA one day, let alone work on the next human spacecraft.

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What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Originally from California, Chan received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Riverside. In 1999, he was offered a job at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. to work in the National Transonic Facility wind tunnel. Chan didn’t initially see himself working for NASA, but upon arrival, he realized flying airplanes, rockets or any vehicle of the sort has always been a love.

“I love NASA,” Chan said, smiling.

After realizing his passion, he decided to earn his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at George Washington University in the District of Columbia. In 2007, Chan was hired into his current position in the Configuration Aerodynamics Branch and joined the Orion team.

What do you do?

His main focus is wind tunnel testing and working on the aerodynamic database for the various vehicles in the Orion program, including the crew module and the launch abort system. The crew module will be capable of carrying four crew members beyond low Earth orbit. Positioned atop the crew module, the launch abort system can be used to pull the crew module away from a failing launch vehicle if a problem were to ever occur.

“A wind tunnel is a tool used in aerodynamic research to study the effects of air moving past solid objects,” Chan explained. “Testing sub-scaled models of Orion vehicles in a wind tunnel allows engineers to determine the aerodynamic characteristics and performance of the vehicles at a much lower cost than using full-scale prototypes. The data also helps to minimize risk to the expensive flight hardware.”

This past February, Chan along with his team members completed a wind tunnel test for the crew module. The data acquired was the last major update to the aerodynamic database that’s used for all of the flight simulations for EFT-1.

“Basically the Orion program is using all of our data to make sure everything is okay before they actually fly,” Chan said.

The data is used by a software called the guidance, navigation, and control units ,which simulate all kinds of scenarios for flight, including checking all safety margins.

What do you love about your work?

Thinking about the future flight test leaves Chan both nervous and excited.

“When you have a very high-profile flight test of something you’ve worked on, of course you want it to succeed,” Chan said. “You’re also excited because you want something you can tip your hat on and say, ‘Hey, I was part of that.’”

Chan compared EFT-1 to the successful Pad Abort-1 test of the launch abort system in 2010.

“It was my first experience with a program that actually had some flight hardware that did something,” Chan said. “It feels good to be able to always go back to that and say I was involved with an event that went perfectly — kind of like what you saw with the Mars landing. You get excited because you’ve been working so hard on it.”

He hopes EFT-1 will have the same success.

“I worked a lot on the launch abort vehicle, and to see that go up and successfully fly exactly the way it was supposed to was a big accomplishment,” Chan said. “We’re hoping EFT-1 will be the same.”