Like many Americans, Lawanna Harris grew up watching “The Jetsons.”
Today, she is embarking on a journey to make space-age technology – like
that found in the popular cartoon series — her life’s work. And, she’s
well on her way already.

An engineering technician at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala., Harris was recently named Outstanding Engineering Student
of the Year by Alabama A&M University in Huntsville. She was also selected
by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) to present
her research on a rocket-based combined cycle engine for future generation
space travel.

Her paper is one of approximately 3,500 papers published each year
by the 30,000-member global organization. “I knew I’d be working on
technology that would be realized out of the Jetson cartoons,” Harris said
of her research.

“We’ve made such subtle advances that, like most Americans, we
think it’s something normal. But it’s not. The reason we have improved
medical technology, cell phones, pagers and fast-networking computers is
because of the exploration and experimentation we’ve done in space.”

Her senior design paper, presented at the Year 2000 Joint Propulsion
Conference Session, held last month in Huntsville, describes the technical
and economical feasibility analysis of an innovative propulsion system
designed utilizing the rocket-based combined cycle concept.

Her results support the development of a 1/20th scaled prototype
engine for evaluation and testing. The STEPER-engine (Space Transportation
Engine Prototype for Engineering Research) has been designed to power a
reusable launch vehicle.

NASA’s goal is to reduce today’s cost of roughly $10,000 per pound
of payload to hundreds of dollars per pound within 25 years and tens of
dollars per pound within 40 years.

“My conceptual design addresses some of the economic and technical
issues of making access to space more affordable. The STEPER engine was
designed with features geared to increase reliability and maintainability,
therefore increasing safety and reducing the cost of fabrication and
operation,” she said.

It’s been an “exciting year” for Harris, who earned her bachelor’s
degree in mechanical engineering from Alabama A&M University in the spring.
She plans to use her degree to continue space-related research.

“There’s so much we have yet to discover from space exploration –
new medicines and new materials that could help people on a daily basis,”
she said. “We’ve only skimmed the surface of information available in
space. I’d like to help make it more affordable to get there.”

Harris is now working at the Marshall Center on propulsion systems
design for the X-38, the emergency crew return vehicle for the International
Space Station.

A native of Huntsville, Harris is the daughter of Carrie and Chester