Celebrating our Alumni - 30 years - UAH Propulsion Center

Alumni achievements are in focus as the Propulsion Research Center (PRC) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), celebrates its 30th anniversary with a pandemic-delayed banquet on April 14 and a propulsion symposium on April 15.

“At the end of the day, what’s important is the success of our students,” says Dr. Robert Frederick, PRC director at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

“When our students graduate and go on to succeed in their careers, it means that the Propulsion Research Center has succeeded,” Dr. Frederick says. “That’s why we want to celebrate 30 years by inviting our PRC alumni back to campus, sharing their many successes, and allowing them to reconnect with classmates, professors, staff and UAH stakeholders.”

PRC alumni will be welcomed back to campus at the reservation-only PRC 30th Anniversary Banquet from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on April 14 at the UAH Student Services Building. The banquet will feature PRC alumni reports and recognition of alumni.

A reservation-only PRC Propulsion Symposium from 8 a.m. to noon on April 15 at Charger Union Theater will include propulsion research presented by alumni and current students and cover topics such as rotating detonation engines, nuclear propulsion, hypersonics, missile system design and more. Later, tours of Johnson Research Center will be conducted.

Dr. Robert Frederick

The success of its students and alumni are at the core of the Propulsion Research Center, says Dr. Robert Frederick, who was named its director in 2013.

Michael Mercier / UAH

“The PRC is a different organization in that we don’t actually provide the degrees,” says Dr. Frederick. “Those come from their respective colleges and departments. What we do is, we help form the research groups that allow the students to do that research.”

The first seven master’s degrees with PRC involvement were earned in 1993. The first four doctoral degrees came in 1997. In the past 30 years, the PRC has supported over 300 students who completed a master’s or doctorate degree through over $60 million in external research funding awarded to the center.

“That’s about $200,000 in external customer funding per degree, on average,” Dr. Frederick says.

Besides the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the PRC collaborates with other academic units on campus, including Chemical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Civil Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Music.

In addition, the PRC has promoted high-quality education by designing and teaching numerous new propulsion courses in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Dr. Frederick says.

“The basic propulsion class in 1991 had 15 students, and in 2021 the course had 140 students,” he says. Over 30 years the basic propulsion class has taught 1,400 students.

“Another key to who we are as a center is our focus on hands-on student research,” Dr. Frederick says. “We have established several nationally-classed experimental facilities in solid, liquid, hybrid, air-breathing, nuclear and solar prolusion.”

Current research includes work on hypersonics, nuclear thermal propulsion, plasma propulsion systems and rotating detonation engine technologies. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal remain major PRC research partners, as well as private industry in Huntsville’s rapidly growing aerospace sector.

Led by UAH’s Dr. Dale Thomas, the PRC is involved in UAH-led NASA research into the bubble-through NTP engine concept, which could become a NASA workhorse of the future for distant, direct space missions. Likewise, under Dr. Thomas’ leadership UAH scientists are designing potential spacecraft for NASA that are suitable for deep-space missions under propulsion by NTP engines.

Dr. Gabe Xu is investigating a new concept for a ramjet rotating detonation engine that can be used with hypersonic craft, funded by the University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics (UCAH), a U.S. Department of Defense initiative managed by Texas A&M University in which UAH is a partner. The research was included in the first set of grants issued by UCAH.

Dr. Phillip Ligrani, the eminent scholar in propulsion, is studying the effects of shock waves at transonic, supersonic and hypersonic speeds under a three-year grant from the Thermal Transport Program of the National Science Foundation, using the $2 million SuperSonic/TranSonic/WindTunnel (SS/TS/WT) at the PRC’s Johnson Research Center (JRC) experimental facility.

Fusion propulsion research to enable rapid deep space travel is being conducted by Dr. Jason Cassibry funded by an Interstellar Initiative Grants award from the Limitless Space Institute. Dr. Cassibry has been studying fusion and pulsed fission/fusion hybrid (PuFF) propulsion systems for 10 years in collaboration with NASA colleagues.

The PRC is involved nationally with teams or consortiums of universities on various propulsion projects, as well. With each project the PRC takes on, student involvement is of paramount importance.

In perhaps one of its most influential roles, by its practices and organization the PRC also fosters among its students a relationship-based approach to doing business.

“In the end, your career success relies heavily on the positive relationships you build along the way, and we try to encourage the art of developing and maintaining good relationships and good people skills as a habit among our students,” Dr. Frederick says.

The center’s official beginning came in February 1991 when Dr. Clark Hawk accepted the position as founding director, bringing with him Dr. Frederick. The vision of Dr. Hawk, who died in 2008, was to create a positive and supportive community where students were at the center of research activities.

At the same time, UAH funded an eminent scholar in propulsion, a move that was supported by industry, Redstone Arsenal, Marshall Space Flight Center and the missile community. Currently held by Dr. Ligrani, the position was first filled in August 1991 when Dr. Hugh Coleman was appointed and added to the faculty as a professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering.

Initially, the PRC relied on NASA and Thiokol Corp. labs, and those were where Dr. Frederick went to work on hybrid propulsion research as a NASA summer faculty member. But by summer of 1996, the PRC had expanded into the 15,000 square-foot JRC on the south side of the UAH campus, a facility originally built in 1975 for energy research and then repurposed to propulsion research.

Today, daily operations at JRC are managed by PRC principal research engineer Dr. David Lineberry, who is the facility’s associate director and is often personally involved in the research projects ongoing there. Research engineer Tony Hall helps investigators and students with experiments and ensures safety.

At JRC, the PRC has six primary facilities: the Hot Fire Test Cell, the High-Pressure Spray Facility, the Plasma Combustion Laboratory, the Water Tunnel Flow Facility, a Large-Scale Vacuum Chamber and the SS/TS/WT.

“We began to develop more and more laboratories to provide our students with hands-on experience and expertise in the various aspects of propulsion, because that’s what industry wanted,” says Dr. Frederick. “And then we expanded that, and the idea was to work with all the local agencies and their laboratories, as well. These kinds of relationships continue to this day.”

“As we’ve matured, we’ve had to become more of an organization to provide the kind of cooperative environment where our faculty, students and staff can thrive in our areas of interest in propulsion and energy,” he says. “We have also evolved to work closely with industry in these fields, where we are able to provide them with the kind of close working relationships and attention they need to succeed.”

In the future, Dr. Fredrick sees the PRC as a major generator of talent and innovative solutions in propulsion and energy related technologies.

“The PRC connects the academic research community with industry and government to advance basic science and technology development related to propulsion and energy,” Dr. Frederick says. “We plan to continue the legacy of excellence and to equip the future workforce for success in their professional careers.”


Dr. Robert Frederick

Jim Steele