Enjoying the ride
Before joining Virgin Hyperloop five years ago, Kristen Hammer never imagined she would be part of the team working to invent the first new mode of mass transportation in more than a century.
Growing up in Delaware, Ohio, Hammer enjoyed helping her dad work on cars and planned to become an automotive engineer. Perhaps, she thought, even working at Ford like her engineer grandfather did.
After first visiting an out-of-state university, Hammer decided to enroll at Ohio State at her parents’ urging.
“It worked out really nicely, my parents being close by. They gave me space to go adventure and do college the way I thought I wanted to, but they were conveniently located,” she said. “My parents were smarter than me at the time as it turns out—which I never would have admitted as an 18-year-old.”
Originally a mechanical engineering major, Hammer switched to welding engineering during her sophomore year after a fellow classmate enrolled in the program and recommended it.
“Welding wasn't really intimidating to me like I think it is to a lot of people. It was just something I checked out and really enjoyed,” explained Hammer, who earned her bachelor’s in welding engineering in 2011.
Intrigued by the chance to learn a variety of welding processes, Hammer joined SpaceX in Los Angeles after graduation.
“There was a lot of opportunity to broaden my knowledge. I thought, first job, it probably makes a lot of sense to go and learn as much as I possibly can. So I moved out to LA and spent almost two years at SpaceX,” she said. “When I left, I was running the electron beam welding team.”
After SpaceX, Hammer spent two more years working in the aerospace industry before hearing that the startup now known as Virgin Hyperloop was looking for welding engineers.
“I went in and interviewed, and they definitely needed a welding engineer. I said, ‘Okay, it's a startup and there's risk involved in that. Startups don't always succeed,” she recalled. “But also, how often does a welding engineer get to work at a startup? It was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up.”
Hammer joined the company, which is working to make hyperloop transportation technology a reality, as senior welding engineer in October 2015.
Virgin Hyperloop’s system is basically a pod—capable of carrying 28 passengers or the equivalent amount of cargo—that travels in a tube at near-vacuum conditions, Hammer said. This reduces aerodynamic drag, allowing it to travel at speeds three times faster than high-speed rail. Hyperloop passengers could make the trip from Columbus to Chicago in less than 45 minutes versus a six-hour car drive.
The hyperloop vehicle uses electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation. It’s also fully autonomous and will offer on-demand, direct transportation.
“It's not like a plane or even a train, where there's a set schedule that you have to follow as a passenger,” Hammer said. “It's much more like a rideshare system where you can adjust and move based on your schedule, and then go and get on our pods.”
As senior welding engineer, Hammer oversaw the welding and inspection at the company’s 500-meter test track—called DevLoop—in Las Vegas. Then, in 2018, she became manager of materials engineering.
“We basically set the groundwork for building a real materials team there,” Hammer said. “There's a lot of structure that goes into helping the rest of the company choose the right materials, making sure those materials are fabricated or processed in the right way.”
Along the way, Hammer also built a reputation as an engineer who excels at and enjoys talking to people. By that time, she estimates, she was spending 40% of her time giving tours or talking to groups and the media.
In 2019, Hammer became a business development manager. In this role, she helped find the location for the recently announced Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia, which will include a six-mile track and testing facilities.
“The certification center will help to prove that the system is safe, reliable, maintainable and efficient,” Hammer said. “This will be a place where we can bring regulators and certifiers and show them the technology.”
In November, Virgin Hyperloop made history when it became the first in the world to successfully test hyperloop technology with passengers.
Now, Hammer said, her main focus is finding where the first route or piece of a route will be built. The company aims to have passengers on the first hyperloop within this decade.
“People who are in the transportation industry hear 10 years for this milestone and they're blown away. That's really fast for them,” she said. “But people who are going to be passengers and are like, “10 years? I want this now!”
Undaunted by new challenges, Hammer is excited by what the future holds as Virgin Hyperloop shifts from proving the legitimacy and safety of their technology to showing that it’s viable commercially.
Hammer also appreciates how the problem-solving education she received at Ohio State has helped her succeed in very different roles and offers some advice for current and future students.
“I learned that you can always change your mind. Don't feel like the decisions you're making are locking you into things, because an engineering degree opens up so many opportunities and so many doors,” she said. “With a little bit of work and the right connections, it's easy to do different things. Having such a huge alumni network, Ohio State offers connections everywhere and a lot of opportunity.”
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org