Leandro Braga, student and team leader for BCTC's BalloonSat Project talks about NASA, environmental science, and his future plans

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 4, 2016) Leandro Braga, who spent his 20s working in construction, said he would have laughed if someone had told him he would be working with NASA one day. But as it turns out, at age 31, that is exactly what he is going to do.photo of leandro braga

Bluegrass Community and Technical College's (BCTC) BalloonSat Project trains students and faculty to design, build, and fly balloon-borne atmospheric data collection payloads. Braga is a team leader on the project and makes sure all duties are handled in a timely manner. In May, Environmental Science Technology professor Tracy Knowles and Braga will be attending NASA's BalloonSat workshop/launch in Bozeman, Montana alongside some members of the University of Kentucky's team.

Every semester there is a launch, and it is all leading up to a nationwide launch during the solar eclipse expected on August 21, 2017. In April we launched this semester's balloon from Hopkinsville and will be assessing the data over the coming weeks, said Braga. He will help prepare a final report on the project to send to NASA at the end of the semester.

The other program Braga is involved with is NASA's National Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS, which is an interactive online learning opportunity highlighted by a three-day experience at NASA. Selected students are encouraged to study mathematics, science, engineering and computer science by interacting with engineers at different NASA centers, said Braga.

The project includes preliminary interactive Web-based activities and an onsite experience during the spring at a NASA facility. Students from across the nation are chosen to participate through a competitive process. I thank BCTC's Phi Theta Kappa honors society with letting me know about that opportunity. "I figured I didn't have anything to lose applying, and I went for it," said Braga.

"I have completed the initial stages of this program and at the end of May will be flying out to a three-day workshop at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, where I'll be able to shadow a NASA scientist and work on a Mars rover design competition," said Braga.

Dreams of NASA seemed far away when Braga began attending BCTC in Spring 2014. He started out in the Welding Technology program. "I thought it would be a good way to support myself. I am currently working toward my degree in welding, and I love the work." He credits BCTC's Welding Technology Coordinator, Shawn Gannon, with providing excellent welding experience. "He's a great guy," said Braga.

However, looking for a science course, Braga was soon recruited into an Ecology class through BCTC's Environmental Science Technology (EST) program, and his plans underwent a tremendous change. "I realized that a career in EST is much more varied and would provide me with better opportunities in what Im interested in," said Braga.

Environmental Science Technology is a rapidly growing career field that trains technicians to perform laboratory and field tests to monitor the environment and investigate sources of pollution, including those affecting public health. Possible employers of EST technicians include consulting firms, laboratories and industries.

"I'm an outdoor guy," said Braga, who works for Lexington's Parks & Recreation and is based at McConnell Springs. He is also a member of the Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team, which operates in the Red River Gorge. He teaches wilderness survival and permaculture design, and was fascinated by EST's work environment. "As an environmental science technician, I'll have opportunities to do field work in nature, work in a laboratory, and there's a chance to travel," he said.

Currently, Braga is continuing work on earning an Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in Welding Technology and Environmental Science Technology. He will also earn an Associate in Science (A.S.) degree after completing his studies next year.

Since joining the EST program, Braga has begun to look at local companies like RidgeWater or EcoGro, which work to protect watersheds and help urban planners to design better storm water systems. "I would love to work for either of them, or work as a naturalist in a National Park."