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AEM spotlight:

AEM alumnus heads branch at NASA Ames


Michael Wright is a three-time graduate of AEM and now heads the Reacting Flow Environments branch at NASA Ames.

For a computer and space aficionado, NASA is a natural choice and likely to be a good fit. For alumnus Michael Wright, that aspiration proved a bit greater. After graduating with a doctorate from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics, Wright brought an alrgorithm he had developed at AEM to NASA. Just 10 years later, the code that evolved from this algorithm is in ubiquitous use at several NASA centers and in industry; it efficiently and computationally predicts details surrounding hypersonic atmospheric entry. This code will support the Mars Science Laboratory launch next year and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle being designed as part of NASA’s Constellation program, and the code has served several prior NASA missions.

Wright was a three-time graduate of the University. He received his bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. from AEM in 1992, 1994 and 1997, respectively. Wright said he decided to stay for graduate school at the University because of the exciting working being done by his soon-to-be adviser, AEM Professor Graham Candler.

“I knew I wanted to work for Candler, who moved that year from North Carolina State,” he said. “In that field, even then, he was one of the stars.”

Working with Candler, Wright developed a new type of Computational Fluid Dynamics algorithm for computing hypersonic reentry flow fields that could run efficiently on multiple processors.  While dual-core and even quad-core computers have become commonplace now, such parallel technology was relegated to supercomputers at the time.

To give an idea of the difference, Wright recalls 3-D flow calculation technology.

“When I graduated, 3-D simulations for reentry CFD was state of the art – you did it when you needed to do it and if you could get away with something else, you would do that.”


Courtesy: Michael Wright
The above illustration is of an Apollo wake simulation. Click the image for a larger view (30k).

Now, Wright notes, 3-D model calculation is standard operating procedure, and technologies for analysis are in use that hadn’t been dreamt of just 10 years ago.

Now acting chief of the Reacting Flow Environments Branch at NASA Ames, Wright supervises 35 engineers and provides what he calls “technical leadership,” connecting the right people for the right job in this highly-technical area; he also continues overseeing implementation of the code he developed at AEM.

While many doctoral students end up researching a different topic or in an entirely separate field, Wright says he is pleased that his Ph.D. research applies directly to his everyday life.

“A lot of people get degrees and do something different, but I’m the opposite,” he says, “I’m using and directing the use of code I began writing in graduate school. It put me where I needed to be.”

Professor Candler praises Wright’s hard-earned success and notes it reflects well on AEM’s capacity for education and training competent and passionate individuals.

“Mike and other AEM Ph.D. students are well-known within the community, and this helps put AEM on the map,” he says. “I think we are known as providing a very good education to our students, with the emphasis on independent thinking and fundamental understanding of the key physics.”

“Mike is a very good example of this message, and clearly our students can compete very well with students from any other program in the country.”

To learn more about Mike Wright, visit the NASA Ames site.

To find out about Graham Candler’s research, click here to view his AEM biography page.

To learn about more AEM Alumni, go to the Alumni page.



Last Modified: Wednesday, 22-Aug-2012 13:11:28 CDT -- this is in International Standard Date and Time Notation