Having a father as a welder and farmer as well as several uncles in construction as superintendents, contractors, brick masons and carpenters, math and science were made practical to Howard Conyers. Even as a small child who didn’t know what an engineer was, he experienced both fields with his hands from an early age. He loved math and science, but never in his dreams did he see himself where he is now.
Conyers recalls filling out about 20 applications on USAJOBS.gov, a website that aids people in finding government jobs, before landing his current job as a structural dynamicist for NASA at the John C. Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi.
“Support and testing rocket engines at NASA Stennis? I never would have dreamed that,” exclaimed Conyers.
The Stennis Space Center is one of ten NASA field centers in the United States. It is also home to America’s largest rocket engine test complex where all space shuttle main engines were tested and proven flight worthy.
“My job is to evaluate the structural integrity of the various components and systems in the test stands and other facilities impacted by engine testing to ensure that we don’t have any failures during engine testing,” said Conyers. “The static and dynamic structural analysis that I perform can sometimes be challenging because of the cryogenic temperatures that are used for rocket engine fuel. The thermal environment can create a significant amount of stress within a structure.
“Unfortunately the shuttle program is coming to an end, but we are preparing to test the next generation of rocket engines for use on future vehicles,” Conyers continued. “In the next few months we will be testing the AJ26 engine for the first stage of Orbital Sciences’ Taurus II space launch vehicle.”
The Taurus II is a two-stage launch vehicle designed to provide responsive, cost-effective, and reliable access to orbit and escape Earth for medium-class payloads weighing up to 7,200 kg. NASA is working with Orbital as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) joint research and development.
“We will likely begin to test other engines for use on a heavy lift launch vehicle over the next few years. Therefore, a lot of my work is geared towards the design and analysis of modifications to existing test stands,” explained Conyers. “In addition, I have been heavily involved with a project looking at dynamic behavior of the new A-3 test stand that is being built to test rocket motors at simulated altitudes up to 100,000 feet,” said Conyers.
Conyers has also been working alongside fellow Duke MEMS graduate, Robert B. “Ben” Davis at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on evaluating the dynamic behavior of this test stand.
Conyers, a South Carolina native, holds a bachelor’s degree in Bioenvironmental Engineering from North Carolina A&T University as well as his master’s and doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from Duke University.
At Duke, under Earl Dowell, William Holland Hall professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and Kenneth Hall, Julian Abele professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, Conyers did his research in aeroelasticity, more specifically the response of wings induced by missile damage.
At first, Conyers was apprehensive about attending Duke, but Dowell seemed to convince him otherwise.
“I remember Dr. Dowell asked me what text books had I used, I sent him a list and he assured me that I would be just fine,” said Conyers. “He’s the primary reason I attended Duke for grad school.”
“But I’m currently expanding my knowledge of the finite element method that I learned at Duke to solve structural problems at Stennis,” said Conyers.
“Howard wanted to learn everything,” recalled Dowell. “I remember I had to tell him to ‘slow down and save some for later,’” he laughed.
While at Duke, Conyers was a member of the Bouchet Society, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and a graduate student recruiter for Duke Graduate School. He also lived with and assisted noted historian and pioneering Duke professor, John Hope Franklin during his last two years of graduate school with things like cultivating orchids or grocery shopping at times.
“Dr. Franklin was very independent and busy for that matter, he was so busy that I had to keep a calendar just to keep up with his personal schedule,” said Conyers.
However, hard work, dedication, and humility are just a few of Franklin’s qualities that still resonate with Conyers today. “Everything that Dr. Franklin taught me, I may not understand right now or even when he told me, but I may in ten to fifteen years from now,” said Conyers. “He changed me.”
Dowell agreed, stating, “He’s eager, and he matured a lot as a person and a scholar. And I strongly suspect that Howard learned as much from his personal interaction with Dr. Franklin as he did from me or any of his other engineering professors."”
Nonetheless, Conyers leaves this piece of advice for students, “You never know where life will take you, so just sit back and enjoy the ride and don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone.”
By Naundi Armour