Student Shoots for the Moon, Lands A Career

Designing lunar landing gear helps a Tufts engineering student on path to a job with NASA

Tufts student Colby Azersky is preparing for a career with the space agency NASA while earning a doctorate in engineering at Tufts University School of Engineering.

Developing parts for a probe or a crew capsule that can land safely on the Moon is no easy task. Make a small error in your design, and a smooth touchdown can become a catastrophe. It’s not for the faint of heart—yet Colby Azersky, E19, EG20, a PhD student at Tufts School of Engineering, embraced the challenge this past summer as an intern at NASA Langley Research Center.

“It was a pretty incredible experience,” he says. “The next generation of landers have new specifications for their size and weight, and there have also been a lot of advances in material science over the past decade, so our mentors at Langley asked us to come up with a new design for footpads that kind of rebooted the existing technology.”

During his internship, Azersky led two undergraduate engineering students through the brainstorming and design process, taught himself new 3D design software to execute the group’s ideas, and put the final designs through a barrage of computer simulations to test their efficacy.

“It was my first real experience managing a team, in terms of making sure we stayed on track, making sure we had good communication, that we understood what was needed from us, and that we delivered everything to our mentors. It was really valuable,” he says.

As a NASA intern, Colby Azersky helped design parts for a lunar module footpad that drew inspiration from previous Apollo footpad designs, like the one shown. Photo: Courtesy Colby AzerskyAs a NASA intern, Colby Azersky helped design parts for a lunar module footpad that drew inspiration from previous Apollo footpad designs, like the one shown. Photo: Courtesy Colby Azersky
Although his time at Langley lasted only a few months, the internship was just another step in a multi-year relationship with NASA. As an undergraduate at Tufts in 2017, Azersky joined a research group led by Doug Matson, associate professor of mechanical engineering—a serendipitous decision that offered his first opportunity to work with NASA researchers. It soon transformed his academic path.

“Growing up, I never had a vision that I wanted to be a NASA rocket scientist or anything. But once I once I joined Dr. Matson’s group, it just clicked,” he says. “I was immediately doing research where we electrostatically levitated materials in a vacuum, and then heated them up with the laser to look at their properties. It was incredible to get hands-on with that equipment. From then on, every single project that I did with the group felt like the best work that I had ever done in my life.”

That first year in Matson’s lab helped to springboard Azersky into NASA Pathways, a program that places science and engineering students into internships at the agency’s research centers. Eventually, it shepherds them into long-term careers at the agency.  

“Part of the idea of this program is you move to each one of these centers, and then you see what it would be like to live there and work there. And then you make a final decision on where you want to be placed at the end,” Azersky explains. “It gives students a variety of different work experiences, but it's also really useful for NASA. As they watch you work through a variety of projects, they can see where your strengths are, and match you with a job where you're really going to succeed.”

Today, Azersky is finishing his PhD at Tufts and simultaneously going through a process he describes—in classic government parlance—as a “conversion to civil servant.” Next come placements at the agency’s Goddard and Ames research centers in 2021, which he’ll do while completing coursework and taking his qualifying exams.

“Tufts is really well suited for a non-traditional path like NASA Pathways. The university has been incredibly supportive in helping me shape my doctorate around the program,” Azersky says. “The coursework and faculty help set students up to think about solving problems creatively and collaboratively. It really gave me everything I needed to find both academic and career success.”

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