An all-female team gets fired up about propulsion

Author: Angie Roberts
Yen Yu’s childhood fascination with fireworks sparked an interest in rocket propulsion. Loral O’Hara’s love of flying propelled her into aeronautical engineering. For the past two years, they have served as the first all-female team in the rocket propulsion facilities at Purdue’s Maurice Zucrow Laboratory.

Rocket GirlsIn fact, the “Rocket Girls,” as Yu and O’Hara are called, are likely one of the few all-women rocket propulsion teams in the entire country.

“It’s a male-dominated field,” explains Yu. “Not many girls think about getting their hands dirty, plus they may have wondered since most of the engineers are guys, they might not be welcome. But that’s not the case, and we can do as good as any guys out there.”

Born and raised in Taiwan, Yu became captivated with rockets while observing annual Chinese New Year fireworks displays. “It was fascinating to see something that was originally stationary and sitting on the ground to suddenly be lit and shot off into the sky,” she says.

After attending high school in Singapore, Yu enrolled in Purdue’s College of Engineering. During her senior year, she tested rockets in a laboratory. “In the undergraduate program, you don’t have a lot of hands-on experience related to propulsion,” she says. “But I got the opportunity to design hardware, see it built, and then test it.”

Two years ago, O’Hara joined her group. A native of Houston, Texas, home of Johnson Space Center, O’Hara knew from a young age she wanted to be an astronaut. “I grew up in a space culture, and when I was in elementary school, we flew tomato plants on the space shuttle. That probably played into my whole obsession with space,” she says.

O’Hara began flying planes as a teenager, then, as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, took propulsion classes and joined the rocket club. After graduation, she headed to Purdue for a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics.

Together, the women have conducted subscale rocket engine experiments for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “The model rocket that I’m building has a diameter of two inches, but it’s able to produce the sound of a jet engine 100 meters away. From this little thing, it’s pretty impressive,” Yu says.

For each test, the duo measures temperature and pressure under different configurations—injector sizes, combustor sizes, operating chamber pressure, and propellant combinations. “We want to establish predictive capability,” Yu says. “Hopefully from this experiment, we can gain fundamental understanding towards rocket engine combustion instability that can be applied to the next-generation rocket engine.”

For O’Hara, the hands-on experiences in the laboratory have been invaluable. “Anywhere else you go, the technicians turn the wrenches,” she says. “Out at Zucrow, the students get to do it. It’s experience you don’t get anywhere else,” she says.

O’Hara will complete her master’s degree in August. Possibly after more studies, she’ll pursue NASA’s astronaut program.

Yu graduated in May with her PhD in aerospace engineering. She’s now working as a postdoctoral fellow, continuing her work with NASA on combustion instability. Someday, she may become a faculty member and do research. 

But neither one seems ready to leave the rocket lab yet—probably because they’re having so much fun. “It’s cool putting together the hardware and lighting it,” O’Hara says. “It’s always exciting to see some fire.”