National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Kimberly R. Trent

Kimberly R. TrentUniversity of Michigan
PhD Applied Physics – 2013

Yale University
B.S. Applied Physics – May 2007

NASA Academy Research Project:
Identifying the Next Steps for Further Research in Theoretical Spacecraft Propulsion

Principal Investigator:
Dr. Marc G. Millis


Throughout my childhood, my father and uncle were fascinated by Star Trek and Star Wars, and this sparked my infatuation with space, science fiction, and futuristic spacecraft. In my senior year of high school, I took an Advanced Placement Physics class. After this experience, I realized that I enjoy studying physics because of its power to explain the complex yet fundamental inner-workings of our world in an elegant way. I also enjoy physics because unlike many other subjects, a great amount of the material does not have to be memorized due to the fact that the concepts build on each other in a logical way. Since physics is the language through which one can explain and study our universe, and since it is also one of the main tools that are applied to design and build complex machinery, I knew that I wanted it to be the channel through which I would pursue a research career in spacecraft development. Therefore, in college I majored in Applied Physics, and with the flexibility Yale’s Applied Physics department gave its undergraduates in choosing courses beyond the required classes, I was able to choose physics and engineering courses that would prepare me for studying astronautics in graduate school. This fall, I will start graduate school at the University of Michigan in the Applied Physics (AP) Program to pursue a PhD with a focus in theoretical spacecraft propulsion research. The AP program will help me meet my educational and career objectives because it allows its graduate students to set up interdisciplinary research projects that fit their unique interests.

Research/Work Experience

Even though spacecraft development is my main scientific passion, I love learning and have always had a number of different scientific interests. The three internships I participated in as an undergraduate allowed me to explore these other interests. However, delving into these other topics actually deepened my desire to pursue astronautics and spacecraft development, because what I learned in these other fields gave me more of an idea of the many possible benefits of further spacecraft development.

One of my other scientific interests is the quest in astronomy to discover earth-like extra-solar planets. During the summer of 2005 after my sophomore year, I attended NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at UCLA to work with Professor Mike Jura of their Astronomy and Physics department. For my research project, I chose to investigate a method that would find planets by detecting their auroral radiation. I chose this method because it would make it possible for astronomers to detect planets as small as Jupiter and Earth, because their magnetospheres are large enough to cause a very bright emission of radiation. Through this research, I learned that a space-based radio telescope array would be needed to detect the auroral radiation from earth-like planets in other solar systems. However, this type of space-based telescope has not yet been built because of the amount of money it would cost. An undertaking of this sort would become more economically feasible if a spacecraft propulsion system is developed that could make transporting materials, and large devices from Earth to the space assembly location, and onsite maneuvering of these items easier, less dangerous, and less expensive. Therefore, this research strengthened my interest in spacecraft development and in theoretical spacecraft propulsion specifically.

Another one of my other scientific interests is hurricanes and global warming. The summers after my junior and senior years, I participated in the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) Program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. The first summer, under the guidance of Dr. Warren Washington, I conducted a project where I ran simulations of hurricane Katrina, using their Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) atmospheric model, to determine the possible effects of the projected sea surface temperature increase for the year 2100 due to human-induced global warming on major hurricanes. The second summer, I conducted research under the mentorship of Greg Holland and Rich Rotunno. We wanted to know if increasing the complexity of the ocean model would significantly increase the hurricane simulation’s physical accuracy. My internships at NCAR also deepened my interest in theoretical propulsion. During my two summers at NCAR, I learned much more about the impact human activity has had on the Earth so far, and about the catastrophic events that could take place if we do not significantly decrease our carbon dioxide emissions soon. This made me want to do something to help change this daunting forecast. Futuristic spacecraft propulsion research could help to address this situation if a feasible propulsion method is developed that results in lower greenhouse gas emissions. Then, just as many other inventions developed for space missions and spacecraft have been applied to devices for everyday use; a similar version of this spacecraft propulsion system could be used in different types of air and land vehicles.

My interest in theoretical spacecraft propulsion, the realizations I have come to about the possible benefits of further propulsion development, and the fact that I enjoy leading scientific discussion and research have led to my main career goal. This goal is to work towards revolutionizing travel by developing spacecraft, and various forms of air and land vehicles that make transportation easier, safer, and more environmentally friendly.