TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity

Big and small: Where space meets nanotechnology


About Nicolas

Nicolas Augustus Rongione is currently a PhD student at UCLA in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow working on novel thermoelectric materials. He is also a member of the AIAA Aerospace Power Systems, as well as a volunteer at the California Nano Systems Institute.


I remember when I was a kid and I saw the space shuttle launch from my Orlando hotel. And even in all its majesty and all its glory of this controlled explosion taking us into space, I couldn’t help but think to myself it would take 165,000 years for us to reach the nearest star beyond our sun.

Today we continue to push the theoretical limits of 19th-century physics to take us to Mars using largely remodeled equipment known as heritage hardware to take us there to keep down both its cost and risk. The fundamental bottleneck remains to take us to the next star beyond our sun that we do not yet have the ability to harness the vast quantities of energy needed to take us there within a reasonable human lifetime. Moreover, my grandfather did not even believe we had landed on the moon. The idea was so preposterous at that time. I was vexed.

In my short career, I’ve already had the incredible and humbling opportunity to work in three different NASA centers: NASA Kennedy, Goddard and Marshall spaceflight centers. And in these experiences I was left wanting. As a… now I’m a Ph.D. student at UCLA continuing to try to push these boundaries even further.

I couldn’t remember what to think to myself as a young professional that the facts of cost and risk are the reasons we’re still at the moon. But I thought immediately again followed said, “Well what could I possibly propose to do differently?” Hence we know spaceflight is very hard and new ideas are as hard to come by as they are, both are hard to develop and also to implement.

So then I came to the idea that perhaps the best way to contribute to my field may be to leave it. So I’ll begin my story as is the story of my life.

So as an undergraduate I began this aerospace engineering curriculum with limited to no exposure from my family background to what this engineering field would mean. So I involved myself in anything and everything I could. I built rovers, microgravity experiments, rockets, and even satellites. This is the state of the art of today’s smallest satellites. Imagine one-third of this.

So having felt that I surveyed the breadth of existing ideas in the field and having built a strong foundation and my understanding of the engineering side of things, I too began to feel short of creative ideas. So when the time came to go to graduate school, I had always known I’m going to study aerospace engineering. I was always head honcho. Everyone who asked me would have said, “This man is studying aerospace engineering.”

However, I realized something, after I submitted my applications, that in graduate school you’re likely to build depth within the existing doctrine. If I wanted to learn to think differently about my passion then perhaps I need to take that step to do something completely different and outside of it.

So instead I chose to study nanotechnology, something which I knew nothing about, just I’d heard buzzwords. What is this?

But despite 35 orders of magnitude difference, the difference between the size of the cells and say — excuse me — the size of the DNA inside the cells in your human body and the size of the known universe, how is something so small going to take us to the most distant stars?

So I literally switched from building satellites to culturing cells overnight. It took me one year to relearn a whole new set of fundamentals and even feel comfortable with this new field. I learned that the physics of a nanoscale world operate with different principles and that the field is highly interdisciplinary between chemistry, material science, electrical engineering, and biology.

I learned that nanotechnology represents a whole new set of tools and opportunities for engineering beyond the theoretical limits of 19th-century physics. But it’s interesting to note, had I not taken that step to leave my field, it’s unlikely I would have ever been exposed to these ideas because they are not a part of the fun —  of the traditional aerospace engineering curriculum.

But still, how is something so disparate actually going to be useful? Let’s explore a little bit.

So nanotechnology represents a whole new engineering toolbox. We know that at the nano scale, the principles dominate on quantum mechanics. In this world, objects cease to appear to be continuous like a string of rope. Instead, imagine there to be only the knot along the string. As you continue to scale down, the spacing between these knots can be changed.

These knots represent the electrons on an atom. And as you continue to scale down, you can change the distance of the electrons on the atom and thus provide a rational way for controlling the material’s properties. So we can imagine to enhance the properties of existing aerospace materials by incorporating these nanoscale geometries into their, into them.


Similarly, we can imagine to design a single material that can function with multiple, it can function in multiple ways. One such example is you can create a structural component for a satellite that simultaneously operates as a battery.

Since we can imagine to create materials to behave in predictable ways, we can imagine to create smart materials. An existing idea is you could create an integrated nanoscale electrical network inside of a structure such that when damage occurs there is a break in the electrical network, and thus you have information regarding the time and the location of that break. Instead of having an astronaut, let’s say, go outside of the spacecraft and see, “Oh! Whoops. There’s a hole.”

So I also learned in the world of bio nanotechnology that they are creating entire nanoscale systems known as smart drugs. In contrast, the space shuttle represents 4.5 million pound giant spacecraft to take us into space. So imagine if we could build a spacecraft with these nanoscale dimensions.

We already know from the limits of 19th-century physics that if we could make a spacecraft with such small dimensions, we could send that spacecraft almost close to the speed of light and reach another star, perhaps even within a human lifetime. But the catch is you may never even be able to communicate or know that such a spacecraft even reached the other star. But the principle of it remains. For the first time we could imagine doing it.

In the world of computer electronics, I learned that we’re used to manufacturing billions of transistors on a single circuit in high redundancy with low cost. Imagine if we can manufacture thousands of satellites, instead of one 450-million-dollar space shuttle mission, thousands of these spacecraft to explore into the space. If we could manufacture thousands of spacecraft, how might we imagine to explore space differently? Could we imagine to explore space instead based on statistics and precision rather than relying on a single, highly robust system? Could we instead imagine to shift the burden of design from the software — excuse me, from the hardware to the software?

In this way potentially we could excite many new players into the aerospace market and perhaps accelerate us ever faster towards conquering the heavens. Thus it has been my experience that by undertaking the effort to leave my field for some time, I became overwhelmed with the exciting developments and ideas in the worlds of biology and electronics in particular that I hope to one day bring back to my field in aerospace engineering.

Instead of considering how to build the world’s largest spacecraft ever, can we instead also imagine how we might create the world’s smallest spacecraft ever?

And thus, having taken this time to leave my field, I became enriched by choosing to go into another.

So I would like to challenge you to consider how you might change your field in order to learn something new. Thank you.