Auburn Spotlight, Blair Chenault

"Having the opportunity to intern with NASA was an incredible experience."
Blair Chenault
Senior, Mechanical Engineering

Spotlight Interview

Blair Chenault is a senior from Huntsville majoring in mechanical engineering. He recently completed an internship with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center where he won first place in the poster and presentation expo.

What made you choose Auburn?

Having grown up an Auburn football fan paired with its exceptional engineering school, choosing Auburn was easy. Auburn's engineering program is a special place with a wide range of specialty professors and unique research opportunities, so even though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I was a freshman, I knew that Auburn had what I was looking for. I just had to find it. My official major is mechanical engineering, which is generally called the engineering program with the most diverse curricula and with the widest range of job opportunities after graduation. Knowing my wide range of interests across several engineering fields, I felt this was the best major for me to choose. 

Tell us about your internship with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Having the opportunity to intern with NASA was an incredible experience. Through my time here at Auburn I went into this internship prepared to excel and manage any challenges faced daily. During my internship at NASA, I worked with two other interns from Oregon and Tennessee. We were given the task of improving pulsed plasma thrusters for CubeSats. While this may sound extremely complicated, all of the basic principles were taught in my freshman physics class here at Auburn. The idea is that a small amount of thrust is produced when plasma is accelerated and even though the thrust is small, when pulsed repeatedly at a high rate over a long period of time, the acceleration can be enormous. The attractiveness of this system is that it uses relatively little power and is very compact, making it ideal for small satellites such as CubeSats. The problem with the current design is that the fuel supply is hard to store efficiently and restricted to one material, Teflon. We collaborated with materials scientists and researched different materials that could be stored more efficiently and delivered to the thruster. Once we decided on the improved material, I then designed a feeder system and the control software to deliver the fuel at the required rates. The fuel and feeder were tested in open air, and we studied how to improve the design and the electrical system for the next design phase. Now that we proved the idea is feasible, a second phase research effort is being pursued by NASA where they will be testing a prototype in a vacuum that simulates the conditions in orbit. Under these conditions the system will be studied to find how much thrust is produced and how the new fuel will behave in space.

What was your most rewarding experience with NASA this summer?

The best part about working for NASA this summer was definitely winning the poster and presentation expo. This was a poster presentation given on our projects from the summer that was judged against all of the other interns by senior engineers and executives from NASA and Lockheed Martin. Even though we knew we worked hard and produced good results, it was all the more rewarding that the judges found our project to be the best. Winning first place rewarded us with an article in the NASA newsletter and a big check presented to us by the Marshall Center director, Todd May.

How has Auburn set you up to achieve your goals after graduation?

During my time here at Auburn, I have made many connections with people who have mentored me and provided me with opportunities many students across the country are not able to experience and enjoy. I think the most important thing that I have learned at Auburn is how to make new relationships and connect with people on a personal and professional level. I have learned that when I associate myself with high-caliber people, like my peers here at Auburn, it helps me see my own strengths and weaknesses. I can use these observations to better myself and those around me. 

What are your plans after graduation? 

After graduation I hope to use the diverse set of skills that I have learned in Auburn's engineering and business programs combined with my experience as an intern to excel at whatever I may do. Upon graduation, I hope to be working in a new, interesting field faced with challenges and opportunities to learn each and every single day. Long term, I hope to run my own business and apply the skills I've learn over the years to successfully grow the company's product and provide my employees with exceptional opportunities for further success.