The Columns

Ready for Launch: Elizabeth Robertson ’01 Alumni at Work, Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA, Huntsville, AL

— by on September 5th, 2016

Elizabeth Robertson '01

“I’m excited about NASA. What we do makes lives better for America.”

Like many children, Elizabeth Robertson ’01 was fascinated by the space program. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, she watched launches of the space shuttle and imagined what it was like for humans traveling through space.

That fascination continued into her days as an accounting major at Washington and Lee, throughout an accounting internship and even into her job search.

When graduation came around, and she researched jobs opportunities that would make use of her business background, she realized that “nothing seemed to fit.”

That’s when she decided to switch gears and pursue a degree in mechanical engineering from Louisiana State University with the goal of working for the space program.

Now the team lead, Liquid Engine System Branch, for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Robertson is making her mark through application of a new design technology that uses 3-D printing to manufacture metal components for rocket engines.

Previously team leader for the Advanced Manufacturing Demonstration Engine team, she led a group of 10-20 engineers who created 3-D engine components and tested them under the most extreme conditions possible to determine whether they would hold up in space. For their efforts, the team received the Outstanding Achievement Award in Liquid Propulsion Systems at the Joint Army-Navy-NASA-Air Force propulsion meeting in June 2015.

Robertson got her start with NASA as an intern at Marshall, followed by a permanent position the following year. Her first job was supporting the space shuttle’s main propulsion system problem resolution team. She then became deputy chief engineer for propulsion systems engineering and integration for the final five space shuttle launches.

“That was a lot of fun,” she said in a NASA publication. “It was the end of the program, but I was able to go see the last several launches, sit on console during the launch and really be a part of the end of an era.”

Her new team is supporting a new space launch vehicle that is now in critical design review and is scheduled to launch in 2019.

“Historically, developing a new rocket engine takes about seven years and billions of dollars,” said Robertson. Using 3-D technology for design and manufacturing, costs and development time are dramatically reduced.

“This is good for NASA in an era of tight budgets,” she said. The facility also shares its work with commercial companies developing their own space programs.

Although NASA has used 3-D technology to create plastic components in space, this is the first time the technology has been used to create metal parts, she said. The process uses a powder base, a roller, and a laser, all guided by a computer-based 3-D program, to build the parts layer by layer, she explained.

Robertson said the intangible skills she learned at W&L have served her well in an engineering environment. One of very few engineers at NASA with a liberal arts background, she said the leadership, communication, analytic and problem-solving skills she learned at W&L help her every day.

By serving on the Panhellenic Council, she learned how to run a meeting, and she constantly interacted with other student leaders, faculty and university administrators. Linda Hooks, professor of economics and the Panhel advisor, was a mentor to Robertson. “She was very supportive,” Robertson said.

Her accounting advisor, Elizabeth Oliver, Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Accounting, also was supportive, “especially when I turned down a job offer in accounting to pursue the engineering degree.”

Coming from a small high school in Mississippi — there were only 17 students in her graduating class — Robertson sought out a liberal arts college on the East Coast. She wasn’t sure then what her major would be, but “I visited campus and felt it was the right fit; everyone was friendly and the professors were open.”

The small classes at W&L also helped her. She remembers one class of just 12 students. Each class period, they had to discuss the readings assigned from the previous class. “That prepared me to present my arguments concisely,” she said.

Robertson’s fascination with space travel and NASA has grown from her childhood wonder. “I’m excited about NASA,” she said. “What we do makes lives better for America.”

Although she once toyed with the idea of going into space herself, she now believes that staying on the ground near her husband and two children is a higher priority.

However, she still believes that exploring space is important. “We learn so much just by getting there, and once there, we learn so much more.”

– by Linda Evans