The Catholic University of America

June 13, 2013

Former CUA Student Wins Trip Into Space

  Pedro Nehme with space shuttle

Pedro Nehme, former CUA engineering student and past participant in the Science without Borders program, will be the first Brazilian civilian to go into space.

Pedro Doria Nehme, a former student of Catholic University’s School of Engineering and past participant in Brazil’s Science without Borders program, recently won a trip into space as the top prize of an international competition sponsored by KLM/Space Expedition Corporation.

To win the prize, he submitted his guess as to how high in the atmosphere a helium-filled balloon, launched April 22 from the Nevada desert, would burst.

Nehme is currently finishing his electrical engineering degree at the University of Brasilia (UnB). He will be the first Brazilian civilian to go into space. While at CUA, he was an intern at NASA.

How did you come to be part of the Science without Borders program?

The Science without Borders program sends more than 100,000 students to study in the best universities all around the world. They select the best students from Brazil and send them abroad with full scholarships. Roy Braine, from CUA’s International Student and Scholar Services office, together with CUA Associate Professor of Physics Duilia de Mello and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jandro Abot, worked really hard so CUA could receive students from Brazil.

What attracted you to space sciences?

I’ve always had a special attraction to space. I used to play with LEGOs and the ones I enjoyed most were the space shuttle and airplanes. Space is a really special place for me. I like to ask questions and find the answers for those questions, and space has a really peculiar characteristic: There are questions that don’t seem to have answers yet. And that’s how science is built. You have a question and you try to find an answer for that question, making sure that the answer is coherent (or not) with the previous theorems. Also, you can find an answer that contradicts previous theorems, and so on. That’s why science is so fascinating, especially space sciences, because they tend to lead us to new discoveries every day.

Could you expand on your experiences at CUA?

CUA courses helped me a lot, especially the ones taught by Dr. Scott Mathews and Dr. Larry Schuette. In Brazil, most courses only teach you how to do something in theory. Dr. Mathews and Dr. Schuette teach really hands-on classes. They are two bright professors who won’t give up until you fully understand something. Their classes are full of examples on how to apply concepts to real-world applications, and that’s what engineering is about.

What did you do at NASA Goddard?

At NASA, I worked on the Balloon Experimental Twin Telescope for Infrared Interferometry (BETTII). It is an 8-meter boom interferometer on a high-altitude balloon. BETTII enables new spatially resolved spectroscopy. This capability is key for a wide range of important scientific questions related to star formation, evolved stars, and active galactic nuclei. I’ve worked with electronics systems and I’ve also developed and built an environmental test chamber. During the summer, together with five other students, I built a star tracker camera for BETTII. It was an amazing experience. I’ve learned a lot about the challenges to develop electronics systems for space applications, and also about the American way to work, which I’ve found to be perfect for me.

Did you have a particularly memorable moment at NASA?

Yes, it was one of the first days of the summer internship and all the BETTII interns were having lunch together. After that, we decided to go see what was going on at the clean room, a huge room where they integrate and test most of the satellites and space systems at Goddard. We got there and a white-haired gentleman was waiting for a meeting, working with his iPad.

Then we stood in front of the big glass that separates the clean room from the outside world and started guessing what was going on inside. Suddenly this gentleman appeared right behind us and started to tell us what is going on inside the clean room. His words were precisely describing what was happening inside. We’ve asked him a couple of questions and then he said it was time to go.

Before leaving, though, he presented himself as the senior engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope. Yes, he was Dr. John Mather. I just couldn’t believe that I had just talked to someone responsible for one of the greatest engineering challenges ever.

How have your experiences at CUA and NASA helped you while earning your degree in Brazil?

I’ve worked with expensive hardware at NASA, really specific stuff. Maybe I would never have worked with that if I had stayed in Brazil. Also, I got to know the American culture of work and study. That was important for me as well.

What are your current research interests?

I am currently an intern at the Brazilian Space Agency, working on a CubeSat (which is a 10 cm cube, miniaturized satellite) project at the Automation and Robotics Laboratory. We have a lot of world-class research projects, with some cooperation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as universities in Europe and Asia. That is our first space-related project. We have a lot of experience on attitude estimation and control, and we have applied new concepts to different projects. We have experienced professors who have worked on real space missions.

Tell us how you came to be interested in this contest and how you came up with the calculation that won the prize.

I was about to watch a video on You Tube and there was a commercial video from KLM talking about the contest. I thought that KLM’s contest video was amazing, so I entered the website and decided to participate. I couldn’t do any calculation, just guess the answer. One of the contest objectives was to give everyone the same chances to win the prize.

When will you begin training with Space Expedition Corporation (SXC), the company building the spacecraft?

There are three training sessions: a simulator training, a jet fighter flight, and an A300 zero-gravity flight. I don’t know yet if it’s going to be this year or in 2014. SXC will have the Lynx Mark I spacecraft ready for next year – they are going through Federal Aviation Administration certification now. This first spacecraft will go up to 60 km in altitude, though, which is not space.

I will fly in a Lynx Mark II spacecraft that is currently being built. This one is capable of reaching 106 km of altitude, crossing the Karman line (100 km, the international definition for the edge of space). The Lynx Mark II will be ready by 2015. (More info at

What do you want to do in your moments in space?

I haven’t thought about it yet, with so many things going on at the same time. Although I’ll definitely say hi to CUA.


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