CHS graduate explores life at NASA

January 4, 2018 GMT

COLUMBUS — Jon MacArthur has a secret wish.

He knows it probably isn’t possible, but there is nothing wrong with dreaming.

“My long-term secret drive is to build a warp drive,” he said.

It’s like what is seen on “Star Trek” when the USS Enterprise needs to go faster than the speed of light.

“It’s not technically possible, but I have that on the back burner,” MacArthur said with a laugh.

Growing up, his parents Bill and Beth showed him the old “Star Trek” television show with William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Watching that program, as well as visits to the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland and a 4-H rocketry program, spurred his interest in space travel.

The 2013 graduate of Columbus High School might not be sending spaceships zipping along at warp speed just yet, but he has completed three internships with NASA developing spacecraft propulsion systems.

The internships took place the last two years while MacArthur was studying aerospace engineering at Iowa State University. The 22-year-old said he applied relentlessly for an internship since his freshman year of college and got accepted his junior year.

His work mainly focused on developing propulsion prototypes at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“There is a lot of different internships, but only about half a dozen a year that deal with propulsion. It’s a real niche field to get into and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to break into it a little bit,” he said.

MacArthur worked full time, usually 40 to 50 hours a week, in a lab setting. He knew what the projects would entail and discovered he had a lot to learn.

“When I went down there, I realized I had about 2 percent of the knowledge that was required. It was kind of sink or swim. They throw you into a lab and say, ‘See ya in five months,’” he said.

One internship involved developing a prototype plasma thruster for a spacecraft.

“The selling point on those is they are way more efficient than the traditional chemical type, which is smoke and fire,” MacArthur said.

Another internship project focused on using solar wind to propel a spacecraft. MacArthur also took part in a NASA Propulsion Academy Internship that included traveling across the country to visit with technical experts in the field and another propulsion project.

The work he has done could used in future space exploration. One project is scheduled to fly in a couple of years and another has a flight date in the next five to 10 years.

“Having something actually go to space with sort of my name on it would mean a lot,” MacArthur said.

One part of the experience that stood out was working with experts.

“The most interesting thing is how humble a lot of the smartest people in the world are. They go to their job like it’s any job, they do their work and go home. They all have Ph.D.s. I thought it would be a lot more ego-driven, but everyone down there was really humble,” he said.

MacArthur might be one those people one day. He graduated from Iowa State at the end of the semester and is planning on going to graduate school in the fall to study applied physics or aerospace engineering. The goal is to work at NASA. He also wouldn’t rule out becoming an astronaut.

He said continued exploration of space is important because of the many technological advancements it has produced. The wonderment is also a draw for people like MacArthur.

“The more dreamy aspect of it is exploring the unknown and trying to push the boundary without absolutely needing to, just doing it out of ambition. That is really appealing to a lot of people. I think that is inspiring to do stuff like that,” MacArthur said.