For release: 07/30/02
Release #: 02-189
Vietnamese youth with bleak future now holds key to a brighter energy future with NASA invention
Sixteen-year-old Dien Le's future if he had one at all - looked bleak. It was April 1975 and Le and his family were trapped in Saigon. Le, son of a South Vietnamese Army officer who worked with U.S. Army advisors, feared for his life and the lives of his family. Today, Le, now known as Jonathan Lee, is recognized by NASA for inventing a new alloy a new high-strength aluminum-silicon alloy developed at the Marshall Center which promises to lower engine emissions and could improve gas mileage in cars, boats and recreational vehicles.
Photo: Lee (NASA/MSFC)
Sixteen-year-old Dien Le’s future if he had one at all looked bleak.
It was April 1975 and Le and his family were trapped in Saigon. As the last of the United States military was pulling out, North Vietnamese troops more than 150,000 of them had encircled the city. A city left with a mere 60,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to defend it. It was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War.
Le, son of a South Vietnamese Army officer who worked with U.S. Army advisors, feared for his life and the lives of his family.
Today, Le, now known as Jonathan Lee, is a U.S. citizen and structural materials engineer with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He has a family a wife and three daughters and a very bright future as co-inventor of a new alloy that could improve gas mileage in cars, boats and recreational vehicles, all while reducing engine emission.
NASA recently recognized Lee for inventing the new alloy by sharing a percentage of the royalties with him.
But on that April day in 1975, with tens of thousands of Vietnamese clamoring to get out of Saigon, Lee was not sure if he or his family would live let alone ever see America.
Amid the gathering chaos, Lee’s father, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army and a recipient of the U.S. Army Commendation Medal, arrived home mid-day, unexpected. He assembled his family, telling them they must leave their life-long home, taking nothing with them.
The family did just that. No clothes. No mementos. Just Lee, his father, mother, grandmother and brother.
Good fortune enabled the entire Lee family while many Vietnamese families were split to board a plane for Guam and California.
Fate brought Lee and his family to Huntsville, Ala.
While awaiting relocation to New Jersey from a refugee center at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Lee’s father received an unexpected telephone call from a U.S. Army buddy, former Maj. Tom Dark of Huntsville. Dark told him he had been searching refugee camps for the Lees, and wanted the family to move to Huntsville. He arranged for Grace Lutheran Church to co-sponsor the family.
Lee’s family came to Huntsville, and started their lives over.
His father took a job with GTE Telephone Co., and returned to school to earn an industrial engineering degree. His mother took a job with the J.C. Penney Co.
In 1981, each member of the Lee family became a U.S. citizen and adopted “American” names. Lee chose Jonathan, remembering that a friend had compared Lee to the title character in the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, known for his strength and determination.
“Sometimes I can’t believe how fortunate I am – to live here in America and to work for NASA,” says Lee.
As a teenager, Lee remembers watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the Moon, broadcast on South Vietnamese television by U.S. Armed Forces Radio and Television Services. “ “I knew then I wanted to work for NASA,” says Lee. ”But I couldn’t imagine that my family would leave Vietnam as political refugees and end up in Huntsville, home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.”
Lee began earnestly pursuing his interest in science and space in 1979 as a student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). Under the sponsorship of UAH and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Lee conceived and built an apparatus to hold a polymer superconductor crystal growth experiment.
His experiment, which flew on a 1984 Space Shuttle mission, formed the basis of his master’s thesis and thrust him into a career as a systems analyst.
Lee began his science career with BDM Corporation in Huntsville. And in1989, his dream came true. Lee joined NASA’s Marshall Center as a materials engineer and began work on his first project: developing advanced lightweight, high-strength metal composites for use on the International Space Station and advanced propulsion systems.
Today, Lee is both a solid-state physicist and an engineer at the Marshall Center a mixture of two fields that allows him to understand the intricacies of how materials behave on an atomic level, and the technical aspects of how materials work together.
He’s working on the continued development of two new aluminum-silicon alloys called MSFC-398 and MSFC-388 that promise to improve gas mileage in cars, boats, and recreational vehicles, while at the same time lowering engine emissions.
The new alloys are stronger than most cast aluminum-silicon alloys now used in automobile manufacturing. When tested at 600 degrees Fahrenheit, the alloys are three-to-four-times stronger than conventional cast aluminum alloys. And the new alloys can be produced at a projected cost of less than $1 per pound a cost incentive attractive to manufacturers.
The alloys are ideal for high-temperature cast components used in engines from cars and planes to ski jets and lawnmowers. Originally developed in conjunction with a major automobile manufacturer, the alloys have been licensed to three industries that research and manufacture high performance aluminum alloys and metal composites. NASA also holds two U.S. patents and has 25 international patents pending on the new aluminum alloys.
“NASA High-Strength Alloy,” says Lee, “offers greater wear resistance and surface hardness, which enables manufacturers to use less material, reducing the part’s weight and cost and improving gas mileage, engine performance and engine durability.”
Lee also has developed a theory on how hydrogen reacts with metals. Because NASA uses hydrogen as a rocket fuel, Hydrogen Environment Embrittlement, a condition that causes cracking in metals exposed to gaseous hydrogen, poses a threat to its launch vehicles, including the Space Shuttle. By studying this condition, Lee has developed a simple analytical tool that could be used to predict the embrittlement behavior and develop new materials that avoid the damaging effects of hydrogen. This research could impact NASA – making possible the development of hydrogen resistant propulsion hardware – and society, as well –transportation and consumption hydrogen gas as an alternative clean-energy source.
“When I was 10, watching astronauts climb into the space capsules on TV, I never imagined that something this wonderful could happen to me,” says Lee.
“I know the people in America appreciate the importance of their freedom. I know my family and I certainly do.”
Editor’s Note: For a related news release, please see the following Web site
For more information on the Marshall Center’s Technology Transfer program, please visit their Web site at
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