After seeing the U.S. Navy Blue Angels perform over Jacksonville as a child, Jessica Baker ’20 fell in love with flight. The Florida native felt influenced by the nearby Space Coast, and quickly developed a passion for aerospace engineering, which she earned a bachelor’s in at UCF. Now, she’s earning a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from UCF and is about to start a fellowship at the agency she’s always dreamed of working for — NASA.

Baker is the recipient of a 2021 NASA Minority Serving Institution Fellowship, which is awarded to graduate students who attend Minority Serving Institutions. The fellowship will last for the duration of her doctoral studies and will allow her to travel to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama to conduct research for 10 weeks each summer. She is one of 12 recipients this year.

“I am very excited and honored to have received this fellowship,” Baker says. “I feel confident that this project will provide essential insights into the development of the next generation of rocket fuels.”

Rocket fuels are at the core of Baker’s research. As a graduate research engineer in Professor Subith Vasu’s lab, she studies alternative rocket fuels made from natural gas, hydrogen and hydrogen-containing compounds, which are cleaner and more cost-effective.

“The goal is to minimize toxic emissions such as carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, and test what percentage of impurity in natural gas fuels is acceptable while maintaining performance and minimizing cost,” Baker says. “I use this information to refine and make chemical models that can be used to predict combustion conditions at pressures and temperatures relevant to rocket systems.”

Jessica Baker

Through the NASA fellowship, she’ll study liquid methane. This fuel tends to elicit better performance, costs less to produce, and creates less soot than kerosene-based fuels. However, the fuel can only contain trace amounts of impurities before its chemical kinetic and ignition properties are changed. Through both the facilities at NASA Marshall and at UCF, she’ll investigate these properties and compare them to those found in natural gas and other methane-based fuels. The goal is to create an industrywide purity standard for low-cost, aerospace-grade liquid methane that improves upon the military’s standard, which is conservative and only pertains to certain grades of the propellant.

Baker believes that having access to NASA’s scientists and facilities will allow her to make significant strides in her research. After graduation, she plans to launch a career in the field of rocket propulsion and hopes to work for a cutting-edge organization like NASA one day.

This isn’t Baker’s first research experience. As an undergraduate student, she participated in the International Research Experience for Students, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation. She says she chose UCF in part because of its location.

“UCF is centered right near the Space Coast and offers so many industry and research opportunities,” Baker says. “I decided to continue on to my graduate degree here because I made connections with peers and mentors that truly encouraged my growth and drove me to want to learn and develop new skills. UCF has been my home for the last five years and I’m looking forward to continuing my degree here.”