Astronaut Scholar

AAE senior balances studies with NASA co-op experience

Like a lot of kids his age, Tim Duquette saw the movie "Apollo 13" (released in 1995) and first dreamed of working for NASA, maybe even becoming an astronaut. Now a senior in aeronautics and astronautics, Duquette has already had an internship and several co-op stints at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Time will tell if he ever makes it to outer space.

The Western Springs, Ill., native looked fairly closely at the University of Illinois, but Purdue's international reputation, first-class facilities, and renowned cooperative education program drew him to West Lafayette. "The fact that Purdue has graduated 22 astronauts didn't hurt either," Duquette says.

From his first days on campus, Duquette has taken one of the College of Engineering's toughest majors head-on. He credits timing, luck, and a good connection in landing his internship at Marshall the summer after his freshman year. There he researched potential technologies and provided a report to his superiors. "Not a lot of responsibility," he admits, "but it did leave the door open for more opportunities."

He began his co-op program at Marshall in the manufacturing area in spring 2007, actually becoming a federal employee. As part of that group, he was looking at how to assemble the upper stage of Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, which will replace the space shuttle around 2015. "It was pretty exciting," Duquette says. "Doing the manufacturing, you got a good idea of what all was in the rocket, instead of being focused on just one part." He would later transition into a design team, followed by the Space Shuttle Main Engine Systems team.

Last summer, Duquette was named an Astronaut Scholar by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which supports 19 students annually across the country. Founded by the six surviving astronauts of the Mercury Seven program, the scholarship is a way to promote continued science and technology research in the U.S. "The scholarship is not necessarily focused only on space," Duquette says, "but that's where my interests lie."

Alternating his campus studies with semesters of real-life work experience, Duquette says the co-op simply gives him a better perspective on his class work. "It helps so much in understanding the overall scheme of where your learning fits in the actual engineering world," he says.

Duquette has now spent five terms in Marshall (including three successive summers), and this is only his second spring semester on campus. Still, some advanced credits from high school will allow him to graduate only one semester behind his original freshman classmates. And while being an Astronaut Scholar is an impressive resume builder, it's no guarantee of a space flight. "That would be pretty cool," he says of astronaut ambitions. "I wouldn't be able to do it for another 10 or 15 years, and it's not something you can really plan for. You can make yourself available for it and have all the right qualifications. But there are a lot of other people out there, so you have to have another job that you really enjoy in case you don't get selected."

His federal-employee status at Marshall will make for an easier transition into full-time work at NASA. From there, he can work toward a master's degree or even enroll in a graduate co-op program. For now, he's looking forward to possibly meeting Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks played him in the movie) at the annual Astronaut Hall of Fame reunion that the Astronaut Scholars are invited to.

And should good fortune, timing, and a connection or two be part of his future, maybe Duquette could find his own image on a poster of astronauts who got their start at Purdue.

-William Meiners