Innovator Spotlight: Allen Parker

Allen Parker

Allen Parker, Research Engineer, Embedded Systems and Sensor Research & Development Group

Tell us a little bit about your background. What drew you to electrical engineering?

I’ve been interested in science and electronics since I was about 12 years old. My mom and dad saw this in me as I was growing up—that I enjoyed science and engineering—and so my mom would always say, “My son is going to be an engineer for NASA.” And I thought that was a pipe dream, because back then, from my perspective, I didn’t see any black men working for NASA. So I thought it was impossible for a black man to become a NASA engineer.

When did you realize that working for NASA wasn’t impossible?

My dad managed to get me signed up to take a tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and Charles Bolden, to my recollection, had just gotten there for the astronaut training program. He was the one giving me the tour! And then I was able to see, here’s a black man who was working for NASA and was part of the astronaut program. And I thought, If he can do it, why can’t I? That prompted me to get an engineering degree.

How did you make your way to NASA?

While I was at college (Prairie View A&M University), I had an opportunity to interview with Charlie Brown, yet another black engineer at NASA. This was the interview that led me to getting an intern position at Armstrong (then Dryden) and that really sparked the start of my career here. I fell in love with working at NASA. That was in 1988—the same year I bought my first truck, a Ford Bronco—and I’ve been here ever since.

What is the focus of your work at NASA?

My primary focus is in the field of fiber optics used for instrumentation. I’ve been conducting research with fiber optics since the late ’90s, specifically their use as sensing elements to monitor the structural health of aircraft. I’m on the team that developed NASA’s Fiber Optic Sensing System (FOSS) technology, which can be used to determine several critical parameters in real time—such as strain, shape deformation, temperature, liquid level, strength, and operational loads—for a wide variety of structures.

And FOSS is really making waves in this field, yes?

Yes, definitely. FOSS is really a game changer in the field of sensing because it can process information from up to eight fibers simultaneously at rates up to 100 times per second, giving engineers a whole new view of the health of the entire structure at far higher spatial densities than other convention technologies. Each of the hair-like optical fibers can be as long as 40 feet and have up to 2,000 measurement points. It’s truly revolutionary.

What excites you about the work that the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) is doing to promote NASA technologies?

Being on the cutting edge of technology at NASA, it’s a privilege to be a part of a team that is developing new and exciting technologies to push the boundaries. In the process of developing these new technologies it’s typically targeting a specific application within NASA. The TTO has been invaluable in helping us broaden our scope of applications beyond NASA. We have found that as we are solving our own technology challenges, the same solutions can be applied elsewhere.

What has been your experience with technology transfer?

The TTO has been just awesome in helping us change the way we think. It really is a paradigm shift. Not just thinking differently about the work we’re doing, but also the guidance they provide to take NASA's technologies beyond our own applications. They don’t leave this to us to accomplish alone. They pursue other opportunities and really look at every angle to transfer NASA technologies to industry. The work they do really makes NASA as a whole shine. They provide that conduit between NASA's technical staff and industry, which is so beneficial.