During Aaron Olson’s freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his EPD 155 class, Basic Communication, required students to do a project on an engineering topic they were interested in. Olson chose NASA’s space station.
And little did Olson know that in the coming years, a prototype he created would be tested by NASA, he would fly in microgravity, he would work with NASA on acquiring fuel from the moon to use on earth, and have countless other opportunities that aspiring astronauts could only dream of.
Ever since EPD 155, Olson’s mind has never strayed far from space and the ways astronautics can improve life on earth. In 2012, Olson graduated with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering and that same year he began pursuing a PhD in engineering mechanics and astronautics.
Although raised in Madison, Olson was born in the Congo, where his father met his mother while working in the Peace Corps.
His accomplishments as both an undergraduate and graduate student in the College of Engineering are remarkable. Olson credits programs at the university for helping him achieve his goal of becoming an engineering student at UW-Madison.
In sixth grade, Olson was accepted to UW-Madison’s Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE), which targets low-income and minority students in the Madison area. The program provides these students with opportunities to start thinking about college and to explore career options. Students who complete the program and are accepted to UW-Madison receive a full-tuition scholarship.
Throughout his middle school and high school years, Olson constantly put the importance of succeeding in school into perspective. “If I get into UW-Madison, I will get the tuition scholarship, and I will get to be an engineering student there,” Olson would tell himself.
The summer before his senior year, Olson participated in the Engineering Summer Program (ESP), which immerses rising high school juniors and seniors in college-level math and science classes, while exposing them to potential career paths through industry tours and lectures.
After ESP, Olson knew he wanted to pursue engineering. That coming year he was accepted to UW-Madison and received the full-tuition scholarship from the PEOPLE program.
“That was big for me and my family,” Olson says.
Ever since Olson stepped foot on campus as a College of Engineering student, he has not stopped pursuing innovative ideas and looking to space for answers.
The summer after his sophomore year, he went to Greenbelt, Maryland, where he worked on the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“It was an eye-opening experience. I hadn’t done any real engineering at that point,” Olson says. “It was a great opportunity to see what happens at NASA, what engineers do on a day-to-day basis and how I might fit into that.”
A year later Olson interned at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. He focused on expandable structures, which can launch an object of a smaller volume that then expands in space. These structures not only can be used for space stations, but also on the moon, mars and other planets.
His work at Langley inspired a project he and fellow students created for NASA’s eXploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Competition. The competition challenges teams of university students to build an expandable habit for space to be tested using NASA’s systems. The UW-Madison team built what it named the Badger X-Loft, which expands from a foot-long package into an entire room. The students won the competition and had the opportunity to travel to Flagstaff, Arizona, where they tested their prototype as part of NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies field test.
Olson continued to get a feel for what life in space would be like as his undergraduate studies progressed. He participated in the Mars Desert Research Station, where selected students and faculty from around the country traveled to Hanksville, Utah, and lived as if they were living on Mars.
“It gave me a perspective of what it would be like to be an astronaut eventually,” Olson says. “By the way, I would love to go into space.”
Although Olson has yet to go into space, he has come close to it. His senior year he and fellow students were selected by NASA to fly in NASA’s zero gravity plane. The plane does parabolas in the sky, which simulates weightlessness and microgravity in orbit.
As Olson now works on his PhD research, his desire to go into space could become a reality. Olson is looking at fuels that could be used in a fusion reactor to generate energy. In particular, he is interested in Helium-3.
“It turns out that there are actually some fuels that are very rare here on earth,” he says. “This allows me to bring in my aerospace background to help with that problem. One particular fuel called Helium-3, which we have roughly 100 kilograms of available here on earth—there is actually tons of it on the lunar surface.”
He is researching ways to bring the Helium-3 from the lunar surface back to earth. Helium-3 can be used as fuel in a fusion reactor to generate energy. “While Deuterium and Tritium, which are typically used as fuels in these reactors, produce extensive nuclear waste, Helium-3 would produce a lot less and possibly zero nuclear waste,” Olson says. “We can eliminate nuclear waste completely and still get the benefits of using nuclear power.”
Research on using Helium-3 as a fuel source has occurred since the 1950s and Olson believes one day Helium-3 will be the answer to some of the world’s greatest energy problems.
“I am confident that Helium-3 will be something that people will want to use eventually,” he says. “When that will actually happen, I can’t tell you, but I am confident that it will happen.”
He recently received a space technology research fellowship from NASA, which will allow him to work with NASA on his research of Helium-3.
While a future in space may seem inevitable for Olson, he is still considering all of his options and says he also would love to be involved in some sort of start-up company. And maybe one day his research will lead him to the moon to gather Helium-3.
“Being a contributor to moving forward in space and knowing what is out there would be a great thing,” Olson says.