Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Service Academies Research Associates

Military academies come to Los Alamos for a summer of science.
October 9, 2015
West Point cadets at the National Security Science Building at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

West Point cadets at the National Security Science Building at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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SARA interns use science and engineering to meet challenges to national security.

SARA: not what you’d expect

Through the Service Academies Research Associates (SARA), Los Alamos National Lab hosts cadets and midshipmen from U.S. military academies so they can get practical experience doing science for national security. As interns, they work at the Lab for four to six weeks. The National Nuclear Security Administration  funds the SARA program.

Trent, a junior at West Point, came to Los Alamos National Laboratory to explore the applications of science and engineering to national security. The materials he works with are destined for use in experiments at the Laboratory’s Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT, pronounced “dart”) facility.

David Vaniman
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SARA Program at Los Alamos

DARHT consists of two of the world’s most powerful linear accelerators, set at right angles to each other, that focus electron beams on a single, thin tantalum-metal target. The beams’ high energy blasts a hole through the target, creating x-rays that are used to take 3D images of a non plutonium mock-up of a nuclear weapon primary as it implodes inside a giant containment vessel.

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An Air Force cadet works at his computer for the Laboratory's Space Science and Applications Group, which is developing a new type of instrument to measure plasma (gases of charged particles) in space. (Photo: Los Alamos)

Real work at Los Alamos

With plenty of hands-on, national security-focused work to be done, the Laboratory is the perfect place for cadets and midshipmen from U.S. military academies to spend part of their summer. Los Alamos hosts them through the Service Academies Research Associates (SARA) program, in which they get practical experience doing science for national security. Interns work at the Laboratory for four to six weeks.

“The purpose of the SARA program is to help create more scientifically aware military decision-makers who will then understand and appreciate the science and engineering capabilities of the Lab,” says Jon Ventura, who leads the Laboratory’s SARA program.

When interns come to the Laboratory, they enter a lab environment where they can take on real-world, unsolved problems that impact national security.

“We put them to work on problems that have a direct bearing on each intern’s academic program—and on the work of the Laboratory,” says Ventura.

You get to work on WHAT?

Phillip, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, works in the Shock and Detonation Physics group. He plans to serve on ballistic missile submarines armed with the nuclear weapons designed by Los Alamos.

Steven, a cadet at the Air Force Academy, says the SARA program helps him understand the complexities and complications of nuclear stockpile stewardship. “It’s such an enlightening experience to be around this sort of brain power in this sort of environment. You can ask whatever questions you want and learn more here in a week than in six months anywhere else.”

Todd, a junior at West Point, works with the life-extension program for the B61, a Los Alamos-designed thermonuclear bomb. The B61, like all weapons in the stockpile, is getting progressively older, and Los Alamos staff work to help ensure the bomb remains safe, secure, and reliable.

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A SARA intern from West Point (left) and a  Los Alamos researcher in the Bioscience Division work on ways to measure the lipids harvested from algal cells. (Photo: Los Alamos)

SQUIDs on the battlefield?

Nicholas, a midshipman from Annapolis, works on the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID) team. SQUIDs are small devices that measure ultralow magnetic fields. (See "Battlefield SQUIDs" sidebar.)

You get to go WHERE?

SARA interns can tour the Strategic Computing Complex that houses the Lab’s supercomputing capabilities like The Cave. The Cave is an immersive viewing room that allows researchers to walk around 3D visualizations of their supercomputer simulations and interact with them.

Interns may also visit the nation’s Center of Excellence for plutonium science, the Lab’s Plutonium Facility.

Some interns visit the Nevada National Security Site, where they perform experiments in the Device Assembly. They spend time touring and visiting craters created by underground nuclear tests, which ended in 1992. There they can also visit the site’s U1a underground test facility, where subcritical (no nuclear yield) tests are conducted.

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A West Point cadet, his LANL mentor, and a LANL staff member stand at the Sedan Crater at the Nevada National Security Site. The Sedan Crater, the largest man-made crater in the United States, is the result of the July 6, 1962, Sedan nuclear test. The crater is over 300 feet deep and 1,280 feet in diameter. (Photo: Los Alamos)

Interns can attend lectures about the Lab’s work on HIV vaccine development, or on its ChemCam, the laser on the Mars Curiosity rover. The laser vaporizes small rock or soil samples so their elemental composition's can be determined.

Interns meet with Laboratory Director Charlie McMillan. “In the military, the director of the Laboratory would be considered a four-star general,” says Nicholas, “but the Lab is casual and you can call him Charlie. That’s cool.”

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Annapolis midshipmen stand at the summit of Wheeler Peak. At 13,167 feet it is the highest point in New Mexico.

You get to do WHAT?

The SARA program strives to give interns opportunities to go out and learn about beautiful Los Alamos and New Mexico. Interns can climb nearby Wheeler Peak (at over 13,000 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in New Mexico), try  mountain biking and hiking in the surrounding mountains, raft the Rio Grande River, explore the Taos Ski Valley, and enjoy local hot springs. Interns can also explore New Mexico’s rich Native American history and culture by visiting nearby archeological sites like Bandelier National Monument and Taos Pueblo, a Native American community that is over 1,000 years old.

"We hope that, based on their summer experience, SARA interns will consider working here after their military service,” says Ventura. “It’s a terrific way to continue to serve the nation.”

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General Robin Rand, Commander, Global Strike Command visited Los Alamos on May 23, 2016. He met with several of the 2016 SARA interns.


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SARA interns and Los Alamos staff members before heading 963 feet underground into the U1a experimental complex at the Nevada National Security Site. Subcritical experiments are conducted there in support of U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship efforts. From left to right: Cameron Bates (LANL), Matt Snowball (LANL), Tim Goorley (LANL), Daniel Mauldin (USMA), Christopher White (USNA), and Christina Bouvier (USMA).


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Click here for more information about Nonproliferation Summer School at Los Alamos National Laboratory»


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