Matthew Gross uses his know-how to help advance the world's knowledge of the cosmos
– and to help deliver the most basic of needs to some of the world's poorest inhabitants.
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue
The job: Determine and develop the best materials for use in future space flight.
Some materials must withstand unearthly cold temperatures of 4 kelvins (that's -452.47 degrees Fahrenheit), while others will see broiling-hot temperatures of 673 K (750 F).
One of the men taking on that job is Matthew Gross, a materials and process engineer for Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., a subsidiary of the packaging company known for its familiar "Ball" canning jars.
Ball Aerospace has contributed to hundreds of NASA projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope (Ball made all of the telescope's optics), Deep Impact and the Mars Rover Lander. The company also supports the missions of such national agencies as the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other U.S. government and commercial entities.
"A piece of satellite imagery from a Ball Aeropsace instrument that almost everyone is familiar with is the Google Earth images," said Gross, a Pennsylvania College of Technology plastics and polymer technology graduate who began his full-time work at Ball about a year ago. "We built the satellite, WorldView, that captures those images."
Among Gross's assignments, he is investigating the use of carbon nanotubes for Ball Aerospace applications. At one-sixth the weight of steel and an estimated 150 times stronger, the material is touted by the Army Corps of Engineers as the strongest material ever discovered.
Gross proposed the research and received a $150,000 yearlong internal grant from Ball to study the tiny, hollow tubes of pure carbon – about 10,000 times thinner than a strand of hair.
Among the study's major objectives, Gross is investigating the material's electrical conductivity and how it can be used in coatings for low-Earth orbit. He's also studying its use as a black body and stray-light control coating (arranged in a "carpet," the gaps between the tubes absorb 99.5 percent of the light that hits them, which could help improve measurements of faraway space objects), and as an antenna substrate.
With the grant, Gross set up a small lab with the equipment necessary to process carbon nanotubes. His studies of the material – both during graduate school and at Ball – already have yielded three published articles, as well as presentations to the 2011 Denver American Chemical Society and the 2011 National Space & Missile Materials Symposium.
"The level of responsibility was scary, because when you start talking and telling people that things are possible and you'd like to work on it ... all of a sudden, it's handed to you," Gross said of his first months on the job. "That's been scary, but fun at the same time, because it really pushes my comfort level, and it really does use the foundation of my education."
Gross spends about 50 percent of his time on the grant's funded research. The remainder of his time is dedicated to other internal research projects (he also worked on a new dust-resistant coating for lunar and extraterrestrial applications) and to program work on several of the company's missions.
Among Ball's current missions is the Hubble Space Telescope's infrared replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope is designed to observe, in only a few hours, objects that take the Hubble scope one or more weeks to record. NASA expects it to find some of the earliest galaxies formed and to view stars forming planetary systems.
"The things that we learn because of these spacecraft – it's really neat to think that the very small part I have in this is both national pride and a worldwide gain in science and knowledge," Gross said.
As the primary subcontractor on the James Webb Space Telescope, Ball Aerospace is contributing the new scope's advanced optical technology and lightweight mirror system. NASA plans to launch the telescope in 2014.
Keeping it Together
"When a program starts, they have requirements for every material, down to the screws ... and the glue that hold things together," Gross explained. "As an M&P (materials and process) engineer, we have to understand every material. We have to know how strong things are, how flexible things are and how materials will interact together."
And he has to understand, test, evaluate and re-evaluate materials' performance not only in the down-to-earth environment at Ball's laboratories, but also in the volatile conditions of outer space.
When developing materials that will travel beyond Earth's atmosphere, engineers must factor in temperatures that can range from extremely cold 4 K to up to 500 K when an object re-enters Earth's atmosphere. In an extreme circumstance, which must be taken into account, a satellite that orbits the Earth can experience a 300-degree temperature change as it moves from facing the sun to passing through Earth's shadow.
The materials used in spacecraft also must survive the move from the air-filled environment they are built in to the vacuum of outer space.
"The environments that we work on are literally out of this world," Gross said.
And with only one chance to send a project into space, Ball does not hesitate to test new materials – like carbon nanotubes – as they are developed, constantly searching for optimal outcomes.
"It's really neat to be at the cutting edge of implementing new materials," Gross said. "I just love the precision and the amount of engineering that goes into the projects that we make. We've never had a failed mission at Ball Aerospace, so that is something we pride ourselves on."
Gross, hired after completing a master's degree in materials science and engineering from The Pennsylvania State University, is the youngest in Ball's materials and process engineering group.
Gross earned an associate degree from Penn College in 2006, then stayed on until Spring 2007, when he competed in the Quad College Business Plan Challenge and applied for the first of two summer internships at Ball Aerospace. He then transferred to Penn State to earn a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering. He completed the bachelor's in 2009 and a master's degree in August 2010, just weeks before getting married and beginning his full-time work at Ball.
He had followed his older brother, Jason, who earned a bachelor's degree in plastics and polymer engineering technology in 2005, into the program at Penn College. They attended together during Matthew's freshman and Jason's senior year.
"I remember when he was in high school, he went to Penn College for Plastics Day," Gross said. Now called Plastics Experience, the event invites high schools to campus to participate in hands-on activities and interact with Penn College plastics students. "We were both just excited about the program."
Especially exciting was the prospect that an education in plastics could lead them to careers engineering some of their favorite playthings – snowboards, bike helmets and the like.
Jason Gross is using his degree as a capital project development engineer for Graham Packaging Co., a Pennsylvania-born company that is a worldwide leader in producing custom blow-molded plastic containers.
As the younger Gross brother moved through the plastics courses at Penn College, he said, "I always found myself wondering the 'why' behind plastics. Why does polypropylene behave one way and polystyrene behave another way? What was happening at a molecular level?"
He chose a related emphasis in polymer science when he entered the materials science and engineering major at University Park. It was much less hands-on, Gross said, but with an abundance of practical experience already under his belt at Penn College, he was well on his way.
"I found that I had a much deeper understanding while I was there because of the things I learned while I was at Penn College. ... I don't think I would be where I am today without Penn College, for sure," he said. "I don't think it was a mistake that I ended up at Penn College before Penn State. I really enjoyed seeing the application of fundamental knowledge, and that's much thanks to what I learned at Penn College."
At Penn College, Gross was active in Campus Crusade for Christ and the Society of Plastics Engineers student chapter. He was a plastics ambassador, teaching basic plastics concepts to high school students using traveling plastics equipment; worked in the college's Plastics Manufacturing Center, which provides product development services to the plastics industry; and founded the Outdoor Adventure Club.
It is his love for the outdoors that helped lead him to Ball and its idyllic Colorado locale.
"I work to play and live; I don't live to work," Gross said.
But even work is full of highlights for the young engineer, as he works in some of the cleanest environments on earth in the Ball Aerospace laboratories and comes in close proximity to multibillion-dollar spacecraft – such as the $2 billion NPP, a weather satellite that is slated to orbit the earth from pole to pole and collect 24 types of data to track global change and climate science.
A self-described "people-oriented person" – as his Penn College activities reflect – Gross spends about half his time behind a computer, he said. "The other half I'm working and interacting on the floor with other engineers in the lab. ... I'm definitely not locked behind a computer or locked in the lab."
The people person's relationships extend to Rwanda, where he hopes to establish a plastics company that would provide both crucial commodities and employment opportunities to the relatively young nation that is trying to break its reliance on foreign aid and to pull itself up from the horrors of a genocide a mere 17 years ago.
The small, densely populated nation – slightly smaller in area than Maryland but with double the population – has already rebounded with an average 7- to 8- percent growth in its gross domestic product every year since 2003. Yet, it remains among the world's poorest nations, with 60 percent of its population below the poverty line, according to the CIA's World Fact Book. In 2010, Rwanda ranked 208th out of 228 countries in GDP per capita.
" I'm not looking to 'develop' Rwanda ... as much as I am trying to feel for and listen to the needs of the people."
Gross, who has visited Rwanda twice, sees the opportunity for a plastics company to provide infrastructure and commodities the nation still lacks – like readily available drinking bottles and other basics.
"I'm not looking to 'develop' Rwanda or 'bring America to Rwanda' as much as I am trying to feel for and listen to the needs of the people," Gross said. "I will learn and take more from the people of Rwanda than they will ever take from me."
An example of those needs, he said, is PVC pipe used for water transportation.
"Many Rwandans do not have access to clean water, and the few that do have to travel, sometimes upwards of a mile, to get to the clean water," Gross said. "Not only is this a hard physical activity, but it is so time consuming that sometimes children cannot go to school because they spend their days fetching water for the family while the other family members work."
The plastic pipe is expensive and not readily available because it must be imported, he explained.
"It's a multifaceted problem, and there is no one fix-all solution," he said. "Having water from wells brought to different areas of villages would alleviate physical, emotional and family strain, but it wouldn't by any means be a solve-all solution."
As part of his participation in the Quad College Business Plan Challenge, Gross spent a lot of time outside of class – where he was learning the manufacturing side of the plastics industry – developing a product and business plan. He finished third in the competition for his plans for a company that would manufacture, market and distribute synthetic wallboard.
"Because of that, I have a lot more insight into the business world than I would have without the Business Plan Challenge," he said.
Gross has been in contact with the Rwanda Development Board as well as the Young Professionals Organization in the United States. He plans to partner in the venture with a pair of Rwandan brothers who founded Umuryango Children's Network, a boys home for which Gross is sponsorship director. Gross also serves on the Board of Directors for Global Capacity, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to secondary-school students in Rwanda.
Because of the monumental task ahead and the slow pace of working in a country half a world away, Gross said he sees his dream becoming a reality in five to 10 years.
"It's a really fun yet challenging goal."