Rachael Tompa was introduced early to the space industry during her family’s yearly summer vacations in Florida.
There, her parents visited the renowned John F. Kennedy Space Center. She eventually discovered her growing interest in the field of space exploration.
“It took a little bit of a push to realize that I’m really good at math and science,” Tompa said. “I realized that I was interested in taking concepts and applying them to diverse and hard problems.”
In high school, she participated in NASA’s “sleepover” space camp in Huntsville, Ala. She later moved from her native New Jersey to Boston where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and physics from Northeastern University. She traveled to California where she received a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University. She is pursuing a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford.
Tompa’s recent research on a method designed to make “space launches less disruptive to air traffic and therefore space exploration easier for people to do,” earned her the Department of Transportation’s Recognizing Aviation and Aerospace Innovation in Science and Engineering (RAISE) award. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx honored her on Jan. 7 at the 26th Annual Outstanding Student of the Year ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The annual award encourages college students to think creatively and develop innovative solutions to aviation challenges. Tompa’s work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation focused on safely integrating commercial space vehicles into the National Airspace System. She explored a method to minimize airspace closures and civilian aircraft rerouting that are typically implemented to maintain safety during commercial space launch operations.
The Secretary's RAISE Award Trophy
The FAA is responsible for facilitating and overseeing space launch, reentry and launch site operations in the U.S. To date, the agency’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed more than 250 launches and re-entries back to earth. The DOT and the FAA recognize the integration of these vehicles into the national airspace system as a critical concern.
“The nation’s space program has been undergoing a major transformation over the last several years from one in which the Federal Government was completely responsible for space missions to one in which private industry is playing an increasingly important role,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “It has always been the FAA’s job to ensure public safety during commercial space operations, and lately we have seen not only an increase in the space of activity but also in the complexity of the operations.”
Dorothy (Di) Reimold, Director of Strategic Operations for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, with former Secretary of Transportation Dr. Norman Mineta presented the RAISE award to Tompa at the awards ceremony on January 7.
The FAA, along with the DOT, and the Council of University Transportation Centers (CUTC), also acknowledged Georgia Institute of Technology student Nicholas Rock and Texas A&M student Kathryn Tippey as 2016 Outstanding Students of the Year for their contributions and work with the FAA Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels & Environment and the FAA Center of Excellence for General Aviation, respectively.
“I congratulate our extraordinary FAA Center of Excellence students who diligently work with us to discover innovative solutions to challenges we face today,” Foxx said. “These are the leaders who will ultimately guide us and continue to help us solve transportation problems as we strive to improve the aviation system of the future.”
Tompa said she was honored by the recognition. Her Stanford advisor, Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Mykel Kochenderfer, approached her about his intention to nominate her for the award.
“I was really excited to see that people were interested in my research,” she said. “I think the problem I’m trying to tackle will help space exploration in the future...it’s a great time for space transport.”
In his nomination letter, Kochenderfer highlighted Tompa’s “strength as a researcher” and her established “passion for aviation” as a pilot and an aspiring astronaut. The summer before she started at Stanford, she interned at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Massachusetts where she worked on the analysis of the next generation aircraft collision avoidance system (ACAS X).
Tompa presented her research at the AIAA/IEEE Digital Avionics Systems Conference last year in Prague and her paper, titled “Optimal Aircraft Rerouting During Commercial Space Launches,” received the best of track award.
“Rachael is passionate about what she does, and her enthusiasm is contagious,” Kochenderfer wrote. “She is an inspiration to me and others in our department. Undoubtedly, she will be a leader in the aerospace field, as both a researcher and as an educator in service to our nation.”
Tompa also strives to stoke the same passion for aviation and aerospace in young girls. As a student at Northeastern, she volunteered to mentor students during Saturday meetings of the Science Club for Girls, an organization that provides science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs to girls in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade. She continued her involvement at Stanford where she participates in outreach to students through the Young Astronauts program and other local school activities.
“It’s one of the most rewarding things to see the kids excited,” Tompa said. “It’s something that I’m very passionate about.”
She credits her parents for encouraging and supporting her interest in science. Her father holds a Ph.D. in physics and owns a small business selling nanotechnology production tools. She said her father will be her “plus-one” at Saturday’s award ceremony.
“Both my mom and dad were really hard working when I was growing up,” Tompa said. “My mom promoted a strong work ethic no matter what I wanted to do.”
Her doctoral work is fully funded through 2019 and she has high goals for her future career as an astronaut.
“My main goal is to be able to conduct research in a really extreme and interesting environment,” she said. “Much of space is unknown. I want to help figure out the unknown of space.”
More information on the FAA Centers of Excellence and 2016 Secretary’s RAISE award may be found here. The 2017 RAISE announcement will be published in March.
Top Photo: RAISE Award Winner Rachael Tompa, center, with former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Strategic Operations Director for Commercial Space Transportation Dorothy (Di) Reimold at the Jan. 7 ceremony in Washington, D.C. Photo: Patricia Watts