Student awarded prestigious Astronaut Scholarship

From high school to his third year at Tech, aerospace engineering major, Jonathan Walker has contributed to his community in the name of science, and his deeds have recently been rewarded by a $10,000 scholarship from the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF).

Astronaut Charlie Duke visited campus on Sept. 22 to present Walker with the scholarship on behalf of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

Since 1987, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation has awarded scholarships to science and engineering students exhibiting leadership, creativity and excellence in their field.

Walker has accomplished just that, researching spacecraft propulsion systems and tutoring grade-school children through the Center for Pan Asian Community Services.

The center is a nonprofit organization that contributes social and health services to immigrants, refugees and racial-ethnic minorities in Georgia facing difficulties. He says that a majority of his students and after-school program participants are Hispanic, Vietnamese,and Burmese immigrants.

Walker’s research focuses on improving efficiency and speed of propulsion systems by accelerating ionized gases that could move the projectile at speeds tens of kilometers per second. His current project in this area is developing carbon nanotube cathodes, which could obviate the use of extremely hazardous and limited, in the context of spacecraft applications, chemicals currently used in propulsion systems and greatly improve efficiency.

Out of school, Walker tutors and teaches a science-enrichment after-school program for children in middle and high schools. Meetings are often based around a cool science demonstration or hands-on activity.

“In one experiment, I put enough rockets on a sled to accelerate it to about 40mph, and I gave the kids very simple materials to protect an egg that is transported by the sled,” Walker said, “I like doing things for the kids that they wouldn’t be able to do or see otherwise because of the district they’re in or their economic status.”

Though the State of Georgia and other private contributors finance the general tutoring, Walker most often pays for his after-school programs out of his own pocket, which he is happy to do in the name of science education.

Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Dr. Mitchell Walker, who also heads the High-Power Electric Propulsion Laboratory where Jonathan Walker works on research, nominated him for the scholarship.

For the future, Walker is interested in NASA, and with the Space Shuttle Program phasing out by 2010 and the Constellation program taking over, preference for military-trained astronauts has decreased as openings for civilian engineers and scientists has increased.

In fact, only four of the eight crew members of the last manned mission were current or former members of the military.

With a larger window opening for him, Walker feels that he could be on a space program crew in the future.

“You see actors as astronauts on television, and you think they’re really cool and wish you could be like them, but at the end of the day they’re just actors. But then I met Charlie Duke (a former astronaut who walked on the moon), who’s the real deal and furthered space exploration, and there was just no way to describe that kind of experience,” Walker said.

Should NASA not be his calling, he would consider working for private spacecraft technology companies like SpaceX.

Walker plans to start on his Masters degree next year at Tech and eventually work on a Doctorate. He hopes to continue working in the same lab, working on his propulsion system projects, but with his Masters and Doctorate programs, he looks forward to learning and seeing what it’s like working in a lab everyday.