By Leah Roesler
NASA’s Space Launch System, which is scheduled to have its first launch in 2017, will be able to hold a crew of four astronauts. These astronauts will go farther and stay in space longer than astronauts on any previous space mission. Before this can happen, the rocket and spacecraft must be built. That is where Tal Wammen comes in.
Wammen is a 2013 graduate of the University of Wyoming who earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He now works as an engineer for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Before landing his job, Wammen worked with NASA as an intern. He began his internship in January 2010 and worked at Marshall Space Flight Center for a semester before he was selected for the co-op program, where he alternated a semester of school and a semester of work with NASA between the summers of 2010 and 2012. He even got to see a space shuttle launch in Florida before NASA quit launching astronauts into space in 2011.
Since it discontinued the Space Shuttle Program, Wammen says, “It’s kind of funny; people always ask me if NASA even exists anymore.” It does indeed and is getting ready to start sending people into space once again. This time the agency will send people not just to the International Space Station, but to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Wammen’s role in getting people back into space has to do with fuel tanks for the rocket engines. He works in a team of around 15 engineers who are all project managers, meaning that they oversee projects from start to finish. He says, “There are a lot of people involved, so a lot of that is problem solving and getting the team to come to a solution.”
His team is finishing the design of two test stands to prove the structural integrity of the fuel tanks. Next it will oversee the building of the test stands. “Next year NASA is going to be testing the fuel tanks that will be used to supply fuel to the rocket engines. So we are building test stands that will be used to twist them and pull them and test the material strength.
“I’ve always been interested in what NASA does, but I never thought I would end up working for them,” Wammen says. “I can’t say that I was one of those kids who grew up always wanting to be an astronaut or something. I grew up in South Dakota on a cattle ranch. I never thought I would be working for NASA.”
His realization that he could work for NASA came in 2010, when he was a sophomore at UW. Wammen says, “I started the internship in 2010, and then I got the co-op program set up as well. So the way that worked was I would go to school for a semester, and then I would go work for NASA on location.” This prolonged his time in school, but Wammen says, “It was worth it in the end.
“I had a couple different job offers at private companies right out of college that probably would have paid me more, but I don’t think they could have given me the opportunities that I’ve had working for NASA,” Wammen says. “It’s such a relaxed place to work, and they give you the freedom to innovate.” But innovation can also be the difficult part of his job. He says, “We are trying to push the boundaries of technology. Sometimes you don’t know if the answer you came to is the right answer because it’s never been done before.”
Wammen says that his education at UW plays a big role in his job success. He was able to build relationships with professors here, and he still trusts their knowledge. “On a couple occasions I have called some of my teachers from my classes there and asked them to help me out on … certain problems. I have a great relationship with the faculty there at UW,” he says. “The experience I got there at college is something that has helped me every day at work.”
One of the 10 Cowboy Ethics adopted by UW is “Take pride in your work.” Alumnus Tal Wammen demonstrates this with his dedication to his job at NASA.