Kao named an Astronaut Scholar

7/7/2021

Maddie Yang

Justin stands in front of the famous JSC mural, with the only remaining lunar landing research vehicle hanging from the ceiling.
Justin stands in front of the famous JSC mural, with the only remaining lunar landing research vehicle hanging from the ceiling.

Justin Kao, a rising junior studying mechanical engineering at Illinois, was recently honored with an Astronaut Scholar award by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF).

Founded in 1984 by the Mercury 7 astronauts, the foundation has provided more than $5 million in scholarship money to over 600 students. Kao, one of 60 students chosen this year, just completed a co-op at NASA, and is now working for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in Denver, Colorado.

At NASA, Kao primarily worked on low-technology readiness applications, ensuring that the new technology they were developing enabled safer battery systems for human rated spacecraft. Due to a supply chain disruption, NASA looked towards a new lithium-ion cells design to be used in Orion spacecraft. Kao designed, built, and assembled a test fixture which sets cells into thermal runaway to statistically defend new proposed battery configurations. Another series of Kao’s tests, including conducting vibrational analysis, provided the data which led to NASA buying 60,000 of these high-power cells for use in future lunar missions. He said he was also very excited to spend a few days in Cape Canaveral to watch his first rocket launch: SpaceX’s Crew-2.

Justin explored the Space Center Houston (museum) with fellow Spring 2021 NASA JSC interns.
Justin (in the black cap) explored the Space Center Houston (museum) with fellow Spring 2021 NASA JSC interns.

Kao’s interest in aerospace engineering began when he did an internship at Boeing in 2018 as a rising senior in high school.

“There, I got a lot of exposure to a lot of cool stuff like the CST-100 (known as the Starliner) and I think that's definitely what inspired me, because I was just in awe of everything that was around me. I remember walking around and seeing like ‘oh there we’re building a rocket’ and then I walk over to the next one and they’re building a heat shield. After those experiences I was pretty captivated,” said Kao.

At his current internship, Kao works on the solid rocket boosters (SRB) and ordnance team for Vulcan Centaur, which is responsible for all the pyrotechnically actuated events such as SRB jettison and stage separation events. While he said he enjoys the technical work, Kao said he also had the opportunity to attend a Q&A with the CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, while he was in the middle of a congressional hearing during a recess. Outside of work, Kao has enjoyed the serene Rocky Mountains and recently completed his first 14er hike and went skydiving with his fellow interns.

Along with scholarship funds, Kao is able to participate in networking opportunities, a professional development program, and will present his research at the ASF’s Innovators Week. He will also go to Orlando at the end of the summer to receive the award at the ASF Innovators Gala. ASF’s monetary grant will help enable Kao’s dream of making a significant positive impact for the people on earth, by reaching for the stars.

On campus, Kao plans to continue conducting research with Aerospace Engineering Professor Francesco Panerai’s Center for Hypersonics and Entry Systems Studies (CHESS), where he is creating a plasma wind tunnel data acquisition system and investigating flexible high-temperature composites for hypersonic scramjets.  He also leads the Eco Illini Supermileage team as captain.