Nathan Cheek

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Nathan Cheek
M.S. AE '20

What is your next adventure?

Once I wrap up my research in December, I’m looking forward to a much-needed break. I will use some of this time to finish a research paper related to my work on the Lunar Flashlight Propulsion System. I’m considering a few options for work in the new year, including an aerospace company in the Los Angeles area and an engineering company in Silicon Valley.

What about your next adventure are you most looking forward to?

I’m excited about the opportunity to go out and build something new and exciting. And I’ve always lived in Georgia so the possibility of living in a new place is very intriguing. At Tech I’ve dedicated a high amount of my time to school, research, and projects, so I am looking forward to a chance at a healthier balance of my time once I graduate.

Did you have any previous co-op, internship, or research experience in this area?

As a graduate research assistant in the Space Systems Design Lab, working under Dr. [Glenn] Lightsey, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to lead the development of the Lunar Flashlight Propulsion System controller. Lunar Flashlight is a JPL mission that aims to insert a cube-sat into orbit around the moon.I’ve had a mind-boggling range of opportunities on this project. While I’ve done a lot of the work on the flight hardware and firmware we’ll be delivering, there’s a huge amount of supporting work to produce the end-items. This means working with the mechanical structures team to ensure we are working within the right volume constraints and ensuring that we can actually integrate the parts once they’re manufactured. It means designing and manufacturing test equipment that allow us to debug and perform functional testing of the controller. It also means carrying out environmental tests where we ensure the electronics can survive their journey into and through space.When you launch a payload into orbit, you have to worry about the vibration from the launch vehicle. I learned how to perform random vibration testing to ensure that the controller will continue to operate after it reaches space.We also want to make sure that the electronics can stand up to the vacuum and extreme temperatures of space. Fortunately, our lab has a thermal vacuum chamber so I was able to learn how to thermally cycle the controller under vacuum, showing that it can withstand the temperatures we expect. And something I learned years ago when I was part of the Yellow Jacket Space Program (called “Project K17” at the time) was that while space is cold, electronics can actually get very hot since there’s no convection to remove the heat. So we had to do some stress testing on LFPS to ensure our electronics will survive even when they are driving lots of power-hungry equipment.

One thing about sending a satellite to the moon compared to a low earth orbit is there is much less protection from radiation the further you get from earth. Back in January I flew to JPL with a prototype controller I’d designed,and a colleague and I tested how it reacted to powerful levels of radiation similar to what the satellite will see in space. We were able to quantify the degradation and show how our design met the operating requirements for the mission. I was also fortunate enough to intern with JPL this summer, albeit remotely at Georgia Tech, where I continued to support the Lunar Flashlight project by performing interface testing and creating a flat sat, among other things. This flat satis a test fixture that allows us to apply electrical loads and sensor inputs to the controller just like if it was in a real spacecraft, testing that it operates like we need it to.Overall,I’ve had some great engineering learning experiences while working with the Lunar Flashlight project, and that has definitely set me up for success in what comes next.

How did your educational experience at Georgia Tech help you to achieve your goals?

Georgia Tech is really unique in the number of opportunities available. A big part of this is the over 400 student organizations on campus. I was a bit overwhelmed when I arrived since there were so many amazing-looking projects that I could get involved with. Over the course of a few semesters, I finally settled down on a reasonable number of student orgs to be involved with.I believe the most important part of my educational experience at GT was my work on HyTech Racing, the Formula Student Electric team at GT. I joined HyTech as a freshman in 2014, where I started by writing microcontroller code to control the vehicle. It was a very small engineering team at the time, maybe a dozen people. Over the next 5 years I continued to get more and more involved in the project, going from leading software development to leading the entire electrical team to leading the entire organization as team president. Over the same time period, we grew the team from about 1 dozen to over 100 student members. During both of my years as team president, we took home the first-place prize at the Formula Hybrid student engineering competition.On thisteam I learned so much about engineering, project management, and logistics. I think a lot of engineering students don’t realize how much project management, logistics, and business matter, but HyTech taught me the importance of these. One example is how I learned to properly traverse Georgia Tech’s at times complicated procurement system. Alongside this, I built an ordering system for tracking our spending to ensure we effectively utilized our budget. I also built an automated system for tracking shipments to our team, ensuring they got from campus to our off-campus workspace. It turns out that as an engineer, understanding how to procure things and get them to your team in a timely manner is critical to success, and this is applicable at basically every company.

What advice would you give to an underclassman who would like to follow the same path?

Join an engineering student organization! Seriously. I think the best thing about Georgia Tech is the huge number of student-led engineering projects that undergrads can work on. If you join one of these organizations and really put in the work, you will learn so much more than students who just come to GT to take classes.Another thing is to really read your emails! Most of the great opportunities for me at GT started with an email. I joined HyTech Racing after seeing it on one of those weekly student event emails. I got my graduate research assistantship after seeing an email posting about it. I think a big part of finding success in life is staying informed about the opportunities around you. So don’t fall victim to information asymmetry while at GT; good things will come to you if you read your emails!Finally, understand that things don’t always go perfectly. I’ve learned some big lessons on every project I’ve done at GT, and while they sting in the moment, you have an opportunity to emerge as a better engineer each time.But make sure to help others learn from these mistakes! If you’re on a team, build out documentation and processes to ensure that the next person who comes along doesn’t fall into the same trap. If you develop the skills to share your knowledge with others in a way they can use, you can really make a difference wherever you go in life