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Get Paid to Build and Break Things?

Category: Smartforce By: Kathy Webster, Managing Editor Sep 7, 2021


NASA materials scientist shares her lifetime path to a great career and her love of building things and breaking them.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make breakthroughs in manufacturing technology, but don’t tell that to Karen Taminger. For the last 32 years, Taminger has been a materials research engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and her research has led to some developments that are advancing manufacturing efficiency including metal 3D printing in outer space.

Initially she started working on the NASA subsonic fixed wing project to uncover materials that will lighten the weight of aircraft frames and propulsion system for commercial aviation. For the last 20 years, Taminger has been leading a team to develop a unique 3D wire printing technology called Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EBF3). Originally developed for manufacturing here on Earth, it became clear that this technology would also be very useful to help astronauts quickly print metal parts or tools while in space, such as for the Artemis Moon missions.

COSM Advanced Manufacturing Systems, is working with Taminger to help move EBF3 forward (read more about COSM and its people ) for deployment in space. Now, Taminger shares her story about the many steps on a life-long path to becoming a NASA scientist – from a high-school STEM program and the Challenger accident to the first 3D printers and Dr. Seuss.

Q: Did you show early interest in engineering as a child?

A: Not right away. My first exposure to engineering was from my dad, who was a captain in the Navy. As a kid, he would take me on his ship and show me around select areas like the boiler rooms. To me, that was what engineering looked like, and it seemed like no fun. But in school, I really liked math and chemistry and had great teachers. My school guidance counselor said I should look into engineering, so I did.

Q: What was your first real experience with engineering?

A: At 16 I was accepted into a summer internship for high schoolers at NASA Langley. That was my first exposure to the idea of engineering as a discipline outside of the boiler rooms on my dad's ship. I got to see the airplanes and the technologies surrounding what it takes to go to flight. That was in 1983 at the beginning of the computer era, so I thought the computers there were kind of cool, but I wasn’t interested in programming.

But then I got to the lab and saw students filling test holes on the surface of an airplane wing to find different filler materials that could handle extreme cold without buckling. They were using epoxies and dunking them into liquid nitrogen. That looked like a fun way to use chemistry.

Q: How did you find out about the NASA Langley summer program?

A: Through a program for kids who are gifted in academics and arts called Governor’s School, which is sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education. I had very good grades in high school, so I was chosen along with 299 other high school students in Virginia to participate in a four-to-six-week program.

Q: What did you do at the Governor’s School program?

A: Most students went to Virginia Tech and spent a month on campus doing STEM enrichment activities in engineering and science labs. That was long before STEM was a thing. Somehow, I ended up in a small group that went to Langley. We worked side-by-side with engineers at Langley during the day. At night, we would engage in other things like reading Shakespeare plays. It’s funny to think about a bunch of engineers reading Othello together, but it was a holistic experience, and I enjoyed that. Little did I know then that I’d eventually spend my entire career at NASA.

Q: Why did you choose the materials track of engineering?

A: I attended the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. When it was time to pick a discipline, I saw materials engineering and chemical engineering as the two tracks that involved a lot of chemistry, which I love. The chemical engineering side seemed to be more about oil and gas and fluids, but I’ve always wanted to build things and break them. That’s really what materials engineering is.

Most of my engineering friends were in mechanical and aerospace engineering and would say, "How can you stand materials engineering?” So, I proudly wore my department t-shirt that said “Materials Engineering: Because Airplanes Aren’t Made of Air.”

Q: How did you feel about the fact that engineering has traditionally been a male-dominated field?

A: It was interesting to find out that 50% of the students in Virginia Tech’s materials engineering program in 1984 were women, which was a much higher percentage than the other engineering programs. I think that’s because in addition to the logic of chemistry, there is an art to it. From what I’ve seen over my career, having both science and art in material science tends to draw more women.

Q: When did you join the NASA team?

Karen Taminger

A: When I was in the NASA high school program, I met a resident assistant who had a co-op with NASA, so he was in school part-time and working at NASA part-time. That seemed like a fun way to go through college. So, when I got to Virginia Tech, I got a co-op job my freshman year with NASA’s materials engineering group. I started at NASA two weeks before the Challenger accident on January 28, 1986.

Q: What was your experience working at NASA when the Challenger accident happened?

A: That day started like any other day. I walked into the cafeteria at lunch where it was usually full of noise from people talking and glasses clinking. That day, it was silent, and people were glued to TV screens. I distinctly remember seeing the video of the blue sky and a wisp of smoke, with the voiceover saying, “It’s down, it’s down.” I had a sinking feeling that my world just changed.

Q: Did you have a role in the investigation after the Challenger accident?

A: Not directly because I wasn’t senior enough at the time, but it was happening around me. A member of my branch did all the investigation on the root cause of the problem for the Challenger accident, which was the hot gases blowing by an O-ring that remained compressed when it was too cold. It was a materials problem. When I wasn’t in classes or at work, I was in the lab watching all that testing happening. It was interesting detective work, which is a lot of what we do in materials research.

Q: Did the Challenger accident give you a stronger feeling of purpose in your materials engineering job?

A: Yes. The accident investigation really highlighted that materials are an important area of research, and we’re an important part of the team. It showed that our research will never be done. Early in my career, I was also exposed to the failure investigation for the Air Aloha 737 that fell apart in 1989. The top canopy of the plane came off because tiny cracks had formed at each rivet hole, forming a perforation. During a flight, those cracks connected, and the metal was overloaded so the whole top ripped off. That year I completed my undergraduate degree and was hired full time at NASA. I was inspired to solve problems like this to ensure future air vehicles are safe and efficient.

Q: How has your work at NASA changed over the years?

A: For many years, the materials engineering hires, research work and money were really focused on the composites research and less on metals. At that time, we in the Metallic Materials Branch were working on changes to chemistries to make something a little bit stronger, a little bit lighter, but they were incremental changes. In 2000, our division chief saw me walking down the hall and asked me, “What's new in metals? Don't give me the same stuff. What is completely out of the box, original, different. Where should we be going next?” We talked to Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico about a process they called Laser Engineered Net Shaping. It was a metal freeform fabrication process that used a laser and stainless-steel powder to build little pieces you could hold in your hand. So, I looked at that and we put together a proposal, because we could see there was something interesting there. Instead of taking a big block of material and deforming it or machining it to make a part, let's build it layer by layer, build it up from nothing. But the question was how to do that at a scale that makes sense and aligned with NASA's key objectives. That’s when we started developing the Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (or EBF3) technology, because it was highly energy efficient and could work with many metals.

Q: How was your experience partnering with COSM to develop EBF3?

A: They're brilliant. We’re working with them via an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program, which encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research/research and development with the potential for commercialization.

The COSM team members have a unique skill set with a high level of expertise in an area that we don't have internally to NASA. They look at the world differently, and they’re in it for the right reason. It’s all about the technical success, because they want to make a difference. I think it’s important to come up with innovative solutions and not look at the problem the same way everybody else does if you want to come to a novel solution. The COSM team embraces the vision and has the highly technical expertise to pull it off. This collaboration is the fun part of my job. This is what reinvigorates me to go back in and deal with the more mundane paperwork.

Q: After 35 years in materials research, how do you keep it interesting?

A: I’m a tech lead in one of our aerospace projects where we do planning presentations every year. Generally, the aerodynamicists get up and talk about Reynolds numbers and viscous flow, the acousticians talk about vortices, and so on. It all starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. So, one year I wrote my entire program review in Dr. Seuss rhyme. I was in charge of structures, aeroelasticity and materials, SAM. So, I started, "I am SAM," and went through the whole thing like “Green Eggs and Ham.” It was funny because everybody was sitting there working on their computers and not listening. When I started with the rhymes, they began to pay attention. Another year I highlighted our work with a parody on “One Fish, Two Fish” that started out one wing, two wing, old wing, new wing, high wing, low wing, fast wing, slow wing. Now it’s an annual thing. They've dubbed me the poet laureate within our group.

Learn more about interesting careers in advanced manufacturing, visit IMTS.com/Smartforce.

About the Author

As AMT’s Managing Editor, Kathy seeks out connections, builds relationships, and strives to learn more about the people of the manufacturing industry. A writer and editor with more than 25 years of experience on the topics of manufacturing, technology, architecture, art, and parenting, Kathy is an avid listener who is deeply curious.

Kathy is particularly interested in autonomous vehicles. Since she was a member of Team ENSCO in the 2004 and 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, she’s been enthralled with the progress of self-driving vehicles.

When she’s not writing or mingling at manufacturing industry events, Kathy is spending time with her husband and four children creating art, visiting museums, hiking, traveling, and entertaining friends and family. She does try to sneak in reading, yoga, Sudoku, and long walks with her dog, Meadow.

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