Planning Committee

Bob Wham

General Chair

Robert Wham is a Ph.D. Chemical Engineer whose research focus is radioisotope production and radiochemical separations including recycle of used nuclear fuel. He currently serves as Program Manager for the Pu-238 Supply Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Prior to that, he managed several radiochemical processing programs at the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center (REDC). His experience in hot cells and radioisotope production comes from working on the production of heavy elements in the Transuranium Element Program, as well as the recovery of plutonium, americium and curium from targets irradiated at the Savannah River Site.

Richard Howard

Assistant General Chair

Richard Howard is a staff engineer and manager of the Irradiation Experiment Thermal Hydraulics Analysis Department at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). He joined the INL in 2020, and was with ORNL for 9 years before that designing and managing irradiation experiments to be performed at the High Flux Isotope Reactor. His works to support the life extension of nuclear reactors, create isotopes for industrial and medical uses, and develop Nuclear Thermal Propulsion technology. To date Dr. Howard has authored or co-authored over 50 refereed journal articles, technical reports and conference papers. He received a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Auburn University, a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering at North Carolina State, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tennessee.

Lawrence Heilbronn

Technical Program Co-Chair

Lawrence Heilbronn is the John D. Tickle Associate Professor and Associate Department Head in the Nuclear Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His expertise is in the field of measuring cross sections and yields of interest in the field of radiation protection and medical physics. His current areas of research include measuring secondary particle production from heavy ion interactions relevant to space radiation protection, radioisotope production for medical applications, and nuclear thermal propulsion systems. Dr. Heilbronn has published over 130 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Heilbronn received a B.S. in physics from the University of Montana, a M.S. in Physics from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. in physics from Michigan State University. He worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 1991 to 2008, and joined the faculty at the University of Tennessee in August of 2008.

Kelsa Palomares

Technical Program Co-Chair

Kelsa Benensky is a senior nuclear engineer in the Advanced Projects Group of Analytical Mechanics Associates (AMA). Kelsa has a background in the design, testing, and experimental investigation of new and novel design concepts for nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) through NTP development programs at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Center for Space Nuclear Research. Activities have included re-design and operation verification of MSFC’s compact fuel element environmental test (CFEET) and co-authoring ORNL/LTR-2017/119, “A Preliminary Nuclear Thermal Propulsion Fuel Qualification Plan”, to guide the production, irradiation testing, and verification of NTP fuel elements for the Department of Energy. She has most recently served as the reactor-subsystem lead for an industry nuclear thermal propulsion flight demonstration study commissioned by NASA and led by AMA. Kelsa has received degrees in Mechanical Engineering (BS), Nuclear Engineering (BS) from the Pennsylvania State University, as well as Materials Science and Engineering (MS) and Nuclear Engineering (Ph.D.) from University of Tennessee.

Michael B. R. Smith

Technical Program Co-Chair

Michael B. R. Smith is a staff member in the Advanced Nuclear System Safety & Licensing Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. His work is largely focused in analytical support of nuclear phenomena related to the national space program. Specifically, he provides analytical and modeling expertise in radioisotope power system (RPS) radiation characteristics and has supported multiple NASA RPS projects reviewing the radiation implications of power system configurations, fuel amounts, lifetime projections, etc. He also serves on multiple projects as a reactor shielding analyst for space-based and terrestrial fission reactors along with estimating radiation effects from naturally occurring radiation sources in spaceflight operations from galactic cosmic rays, solar particle events, and trapped radiation belts around the Earth and Jupiter. He has earned BS and MS degrees in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee.

Scott Wilson

Radioisotopes and Power Conversion Systems Session Chair

Scott Wilson is the Dynamic Power Conversion Technical Lead in the Thermal Energy Conversion Branch in the Power Division at the NASA Glenn Research Center. Scott also serves as the convertor technology development lead engineer for the Dynamic Radioisotope Power Systems (DRPS) Project and is the power conversion lead for the Fission Surface Power Project. Since 2003, he has worked on or led Stirling modeling, testing, and technology development contracts with the goal of using dynamic power conversion to efficiently convert radioisotope or fission reactor heat into electrical power for spacecraft. Specifically, Scott’s career has focused on analysis of Stirling-cycle machines, life and reliability testing of 100-watt class Stirling convertors, maturation of a low-power electrically heated Stirling generator concept for Small RPS applications and developing Stirling systems with contractors. He earned Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Cleveland State University with a focus on computational fluid dynamics analysis of thermal systems.

Paolo Venneri

Nuclear Fission Power and Propulsion Session Chair

Bio coming soon.

Bhavya Lal

Mission Concepts and Policy for Nuclear Space Systems Session Co-chair

Bhavya Lal is acting chief of staff for NASA. As the senior White House appointee at NASA, Lal served as a member of the Biden Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for the agency and oversaw the agency’s transition under the administration of President Joe Biden. Lal brings extensive experience in engineering and space technology, serving as a member of the research staff at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) from 2005 to 2020. There, she led analysis of space technology, strategy, and policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and National Space Council, as well as federal space-oriented organizations, including NASA, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. Lal earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in nuclear engineering, as well as a Master of Science degree in technology and policy, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and holds a doctorate in public policy and public administration from George Washington University. She is a member of both the nuclear engineering and public policy honor societies.

Susannah V. Howieson

Mission Concepts and Policy for Nuclear Space Systems Session Co-chair

Susannah V. Howieson is the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Interagency Coordination under the Principal Deputy Director of the Office of Science. She spent 2019 serving in the office of Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11) as a Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group fellow. From 2010 to 2019, Ms. Howieson conducted science and technology policy analysis for the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), a federally funded research and development center that supports the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and other Federal agencies. At STPI, Ms. Howieson focused on assessments of research organizations and national security. She also has significant experience in strategic planning and policy development, primarily through her work for the National Security and International Affairs Division of OSTP. Ms. Howieson co-led the research team for the Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories (CRENEL) for DOE. Prior to joining STPI, she worked as an attorney at Sidley Austin, LLP in New York, NY, and for the Office of Climate Change Policy and Technology at DOE. Ms. Howieson has a BA from Rice University, a JD from Boston University, and an MEM in Environmental Economics and Policy from Duke University.

Gerald Jackson

Advanced and Emerging Technologies for Nuclear Space Applications Session Co-chair

Bio coming soon.

Steve Howe

Advanced and Emerging Technologies for Nuclear Space Applications Session Co-chair

Bio coming soon.

Chris Robinson

Sponsorship Chair

Bio coming soon.

Student Program Co-Chairs

Taylor Duffin
Taylor Duffin is a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee. His research focuses on molybdenum cermet fuel materials for nuclear thermal propulsion, specifically their high temperature behavior in a hydrogen environment. He received a Master’s in Nuclear Engineering from Penn State in 2017 and a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Utah in 2015.

Neal Gaffin
Neal Gaffin is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee Knoxville studying Nuclear Engineering. He plans on obtaining a Master’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering. He received his undergraduate Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University. He is currently researching the effects of neutron irradiation on ceramic fuel materials for use in nuclear thermal propulsion.

Tyler Steiner is a nuclear engineering Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Tyler is using the In-Pile Experiment Set Apparatus (INSET) to serve two primary research functions. The first use of INSET is to provide a high temperature, subscale, steady state, in-pile experimental testbed for nuclear thermal propulsion related interests. Tyler is also using this high temperature environment for computational thermal radiation heat transfer solution method verification. He received his B.S. in Nuclear Engineering with a minor in Astronomy from Penn State in 2017.