June 2020

Randy Eckman: The pursuit of Orion’s first giant leap

By Matt Schnepf

Randy Eckman (2013, aeronautics and astronautics) first teamed with NASA as an undergraduate, when he landed a cooperative education opportunity there in 2009. This entailed alternate semesters of working at NASA and completing coursework at Purdue. Today, he takes great pride in helping prepare the Orion spacecraft for its first giant leap.

Upon graduating from Purdue, Eckman joined NASA full time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He now serves on the mission design team for Orion, planning trajectories for future missions. “The intent is to use this multipurpose crew vehicle for exploration so it can travel to the moon,” Eckman says. “Eventually, we can maybe use Orion to go to Mars.”

Eckman had dreamed of working at NASA from an early age but wasn’t initially interested in human spaceflight. He first wanted to become an astronomer, having been intrigued by pictures captured from telescopes and interplanetary probes, such as images of the planets. 

His plans eventually changed, however. “I didn’t become interested in spaceflight until middle school when I was watching a History Channel documentary about mission control for some of the early NASA missions,” he recalls. “I thought it was amazing and wanted to be a part of it.”

In eighth grade, Eckman asked a friend how he could prepare for a career in mission control. “He told me, ‘You should get your aerospace engineering degree from Purdue,’” Eckman says. Yet, it wasn’t until he visited campus and did additional research himself that Eckman fully grasped his friend’s advice. “Later in high school, I realized Purdue has such a close relationship and long history with NASA,” he says.

Eckman credits Purdue’s professors for enhancing his education — instructors like Kathleen Howell, the Hsu Lo Distinguished Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Howell’s lab works closely with NASA’s mission design teams and today is highly involved in planning future Orion missions. “Professor Howell is very passionate about education,” Eckman notes. “She makes a point to provide valuable experiences and background for everything she teaches.” 

In addition to classroom instruction, hands-on experience contributed greatly to Eckman’s success. “I often learned about things on the job before I got to those topics in my degree program,” he says. “It not only gave me a leg up when I took related classes but also a different lens through which to view the curriculum, because I could see how knowledge was being applied in the real world.”

Eckman’s co-op experience also provided a pipeline for securing full-time employment. And now, with Orion’s first unmanned test flight likely to occur next year, he continues Purdue’s rich legacy at NASA.

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