Jenna Kay Foertsch: Meeting the Challenge at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

It was a few days before the Intern Photo Challenge submission was due. The interns at NASA’s Johnson Space Center slowly shuffled into our weekly meeting, and you could hear the usual bouts of laughter muffled from the outside. It wasn’t long before someone brought up the Intern Photo Challenge. As a fiercely competitive and creative group, we knew we had to create something unique to clutch Johnson Space Center’s first win. We were in a special position being at our location since many of the suggested photos surrounded Mission Control or other iconic Johnson locations. This was to our advantage, but we thought it would be too simple to settle for the obvious. Additionally, gaining access to Mission Control overnight would be just as grandiose a challenge. A small group of us decided that it would be best to pick a photo that wasn’t originally suggested. Logan Bennett spearheaded the photo search with thoughts that we needed something more eye-catching. After searching through hundreds of photos on NASA commons he had found the one. Logan and Barry Berridge held a brainstorm session on how to tackle this multifaceted photo.

Many questions that needed to be answered included things like, “How do we create the smoke?”, “Where are we going to get the outfits?”, and “How are we going to do this with two days left?” It was clear early on that we were going to need to create a plan. This photo was far too complex to “wing it.” Logan made a dozen phone calls to local party and Halloween stores searching for something to create the orange smoke. He eventually concluded that we were going to need to purchase an actual smoke signal. Alex Kafer handmade the hats, the orange flight suits were purchased at Space Center Houston, and the remaining materials were collected at a local Walmart. We gathered our team and created our plan.

Our team consisted of (me) Jenna Kay Foertsch pictured on the left, Logan Bennett pictured in the middle, Dallas Capozza pictured on the right, Alex Kafer not pictured because he was under water holding us up, Meredith Murray was the genius behind the camera, and Barry Berridge was support.

NASA JSC Interns Jenna Kay Foertsch, Logan Bennett, and Dallas Capozza get comfortable in the water in preparation for taking their challenge photo.

It was time to take the photo. Saying that this “photoshoot” was madness is an understatement. We picked the nearby lake, Clear Lake, as our photo spot. Only, we went to the wrong lake. We somehow ended up at the lake across from Clear Lake infamously known as Mud Lake, or, alligator haven. Of course, we didn’t know we were in Mud Lake until various Johnson employees later saw the picture and all did a double take on our location choice. Regardless, we plunged into the cold water. In the photo, the three astronauts have their legs tangled up. As we were determined to be as accurate as possible, we flailed in the water for quite some time trying to get our legs up. Alex had to eventually dive in and push us up for us to appear as if we were floating.

What followed included a flurry of comedic events. We dealt with a wet flare, hats flying away, and interns floating in opposite directions. We finally pulled it together and lit the flare. I wish I could say that our expressions of discomfort were an imitation of the photo and not a result of us flopping around. We eventually crawled out of the water and proceeded to walk around in our drenched flight suits. Passersby gave us various funny looks. The looks could have been from the wet flight suits, or they could have been that a group of kids just crawled out of Mud Lake, either way there was nothing to see here, just a few interns.

Alex Kafer, left, provided (literal) support from underwater during the photo shoot.

After Alex, Meredith, and Logan enhanced the photo, the true challenge began. Our true creativity came with our efforts to advertise our photo. Many of our interns shared the photo with their friends, families, and colleges. Alex, Logan, and Dallas spent quite some time reaching out to individual people to get attention to the photo. I contacted Space Center Houston, Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, and Citizens for Space Exploration for assistance. Being from the Space City was an advantage that we knew we needed to take advantage of. We also contacted groups such as Space Hipsters on Facebook and other individuals on Twitter and Instagram. I had also previously participated in a NASA Social and posted it in the alumni group. The space community never fails to surprise me with their kindness and support.

NASA JSC Interns who participated in the fall challenge pose at the fall exit ceremony with the first place plaque they received.

We were elated when we found out we had clutched the victory. It was the weekend of our intern beach trip and we ran up and down the shoreline in celebration. In a true NASA fashion, our creativity, hard work, and perseverance paid off.

About the Author
Jenna Kay Foertsch, a Business and Marketing Education major from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, is a NASA Intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In her internship she helps to manage and improve a co-working space at JSC, utilizing WordPress capabilities, creating data dashboards, and producing strategic content for the Center Operations Directorate.

Margarita Bassil: Transfiguration and Determination at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

I always had a passion for art and science, but was unsure as to what career path would incorporate both interests. After doing some research, I discovered the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields and decided that I wanted to be one of the world’s problem solvers – I wanted to be an Engineer.

When I informed my parents of my decision, my father replied, “Margo, why don’t you do something easy?” Initially convinced that my father doubted my ability to perform well academically, I made sure to inform him of every A I earned throughout my years in high school to demonstrate that I had the ability to succeed as an engineering student. However, it was not until I started my engineering journey at Valencia College in Central Florida that I realized academia was not the only challenge I was going to encounter.

NASA Inters in flight suits at NASA Kennedy
NASA Kennedy’s Jalime Vargas (left) and Margarita Bassil (right) in flight suits standing outside the Operations and Controls building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Walking into my “Introduction to Engineering” course, I was one of approximately twenty women in a large auditorium filled with men. Realizing there was no amount of studying to overcome this surprising statistic, I found myself very discouraged. Looking for words of encouragement, I came across one of John F. Kennedy’s famous quotes during his speech about the Apollo program, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” With those words in mind, I transfigured any feelings of discouragements into motivation and took the lead role for the engineering project assigned to each group. Although there were many hurdles along the way, I discovered that embedded in every failure and mistake is a lesson to learn and a challenge to overcome.

This self-epiphany convinced me to attempt a goal that originally appeared out of reach – interning at NASA. With little to no previous experience besides handling cash, I doubted my first internship would be at one of the world’s most prestigious aerospace agencies. Remembering my passion of opposing challenges, I converted every ounce of doubt into determination and applied to an internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center located in Merritt Island, Florida. I informed my parents that, if given the opportunity, I would accept the offer without hesitation regardless of how far it was from home. To my surprise, I received and accepted the offer on my birthday. Wishes do come true!

Interning at Kennedy Space Center has allowed me to enhance my leadership and problem solving skills with the practice of open communication and collaboration. I also get the opportunity to practice my concept of transfiguration the NASA way by “failing forward” and interpreting mistakes as lessons. Going forward, I will apply this ideology to fuel my passion of becoming an engineer so that I may influence other women to pursue a degree in STEM and continuously improve myself in both academia and life itself.

Amanda Davidek: Engineering Inspiration at NASA’s Langley Research Center

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had very little understanding of what engineering was. I think I held a fairly stereotypical viewpoint of it: it was something that men did and it involved a lot of math. And what it precisely was that they did, I couldn’t say. It was not something I had considered at all up to that point when I considered potential future careers or what I wanted to study in college. It felt like every day I was bouncing from one idea to the next: doctor, architect, marine biologist. Then one day late in the year, my mom told me that she had signed me up for an event called Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day at Purdue University. I went in with no way of knowing the impact it would have on my future path.

Over the course of the day, my eyes were opened to the seemingly endless possibilities of engineering majors and applications of an engineering degree. I also met groups of intelligent and friendly women who were studying engineering and I listened to their stories about how they made that decision. For the first time, I had some association between myself and the engineering field. I could relate to these women and I started to picture myself in their shoes. I began to fall in love with the idea. I had always enjoyed learning about calculus, chemistry, and biology, but I didn’t realize that I could apply these topics in so many different ways. I also didn’t realize engineering was as much about creativity and innovation as it was about hard science and math. I remember leaving the event and spending the whole two hour car ride home telling my parents about what I had learned. I then spent the next several months googling everything I could about different engineering fields. I ultimately landed on biomedical engineering, as it gave me a chance to explore the medical field in a way I hadn’t previously considered. I honestly haven’t looked back since then; I’m now entering my senior year at Florida Institute of Technology and the program has been a great fit for me and my interests. I’ve also really enjoyed learning about all the different applications of biomedical engineering in human spaceflight. That was one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far: you don’t have to sacrifice one passion for another. My love and interest in space could benefit my degree in biomedical engineering, even if the path wasn’t clear cut. This summer, I’m working at NASA Langley on the Exploration Medical Capability project, enhancing a database of medical supplies, devices, and pharmaceuticals for potential use in long-term human spaceflight missions. There is something incredibly rewarding about finally applying classroom knowledge on real world projects that could have great impact in the future.

I’m so thankful that I had learned about engineering when I did. It’s crazy to look back and see that I didn’t even know the field existed until halfway through high school! I most likely wouldn’t be where I am today if not for that one day many years ago. Now, I volunteer at my local Society of Women Engineers’ Introducing Girls to Engineering events and at local elementary schools in the hopes of impacting those girls in the same way I was. I love witnessing the curiosity and wonder that the girls all seem to share when they see videos of massive rockets taking off or hear stories about projects that the volunteers have worked on. I can’t wait to share what I’ve worked on this summer as a NASA intern at future events. Ultimately, I want to continue to help girls see that the world of STEM is much more expansive than they may think, and that it is open to anyone with passion and curiosity.

Apply for NASA Internships by creating a profile at intern.nasa.gov!

Nicholas Bense: Nature & Design at NASA’s Glenn Research Center

To drive forth at the edge of erudition – and indeed physical space itself – is one of the highest pursuits available to humanity and absolutely essential to the growth of our species. This is no small undertaking and it is indeed one that requires a diverse team with diversiform abilities. Although my scientific endeavors have evolved a bit over the years, they have always existed against the backdrop of my ultimate dream to work for NASA.

I began my training in the biological sciences with the intention of attending medical school, however, I have since shifted my interests towards field work involving microbiology and geology to participate in NASA’s exobiology/astrobiology efforts. I am currently applying my data science skills developed through my Master’s program in Bioinformatics and experience with large scale genome wide association studies in clinical cancer research towards my internship at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. This work focuses on the development, analytic tools for Biomimetic engineering.

Life is a methodical architect with the power to devise, improvise, and revise its inventions through millennia into eons. Humanity has long drawn inspiration from the lessons mother nature provides us through the myriad of organisms and the strategies they implement, however the field of Biomimicry as a specialized science is still relatively new and developing.

The purpose of our project at the NASA Glenn is to create a tool to aid in the discovery of elements of nature that apply to specific engineering goals as well as facilitation of the design process. My role in this project utilizes my knowledge of machine learning, database systems and R code to develop and refine our tool, known as the Periodic Table of Life (PeTaL).

NASA’s mission also involves the aggregation of information regarding all the sundry species of the Earth, which provides me the opportunity to further my research of extremophiles and other idiosyncratic life forms. Our team consists of members with a wide variety of different backgrounds including engineering, paleontology, botany and computer science.

The impact of biomimetic research can be observed in many sectors of science, technology and industry. Examples range from the development of the first airplane (supposedly inspired through the observation of lateral control in pigeon flight) to more modern and focused cases including studies concerning spider webs for materials engineering. It is very rewarding to be involved with a project that has the capacity to affect all facets of life and witness firsthand how NASA is working to create technologies that not only push the boundaries of space exploration but serve society as a greater whole.

One great aspect of my internship experience has been how it illustrates the many opportunities at NASA that match any professional career. This has been further reinforced through my involvement with the Pathways Agency Cross Center Connections (PAXC) organization, which is composed of interns with incredibly distinct talents from different NASA Centers. NASA certainly provides many ladders to the stars and they all seem to share quite a beautiful view.

Check out current internship opportunities and more intern stories at intern.nasa.gov.

Marissa D’Alonzo: Inspiration, Education, and Learning to Love STEM at Stennis Space Center

For my entire childhood, I was a good math and science student, but thought it was boring and wanted to be a piano teacher. When my eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Kelly, announced that she was starting a team to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, I had no interest and did not attend the first meeting. The next day, she pulled me aside and said that the team needed more members and since I was an exceptional science student, I had been drafted. I went to my first meeting simply so that I wouldn’t disappoint her, fully expecting to hate it. To my surprise, I was hooked. Building the rockets didn’t seem like my tedious math and science classes, it was fun. We didn’t place in the competition, but her insistence on my participation introduced me to engineering and how enjoyable it could be.

The summer after the competition, I was accepted into a pre-college music festival. By the end of the program, my musical dreams had been shattered. The incredible amount of work needed to become a classical pianist ruined the music for me. I needed something else to focus on, so I signed up for my high school’s rocket team, hearing Mrs. Kelly in my head telling me I could do it. We were significantly better than my middle school’s team, and at the end of my freshman year, we won a spot in NASA’s Student Launch Projects. I spent my entire sophomore year designing the payload experiment and container, with the experience culminating in an amazing trip to Marshall Space Flight Center. Still, I did not see a career for myself in engineering. NASA is far from my home in New York and I still didn’t understand the full scope of STEM.

Marissa D’Alonzo and fellow interns at Stennis Space Center.

After hearing about my experience, I was approached by my physics teacher, Mr. Paino, about joining his fledgling research program. He wanted me and another team member to write a scientific report about our rocket to submit to the Siemens Science Competition. I agreed, and he dedicated massive amounts of time and energy to make sure I succeeded in the program, as well as pushing me to take his AP Physics class. His dedication to me, even when I didn’t always appreciate it or like him, helped me see that I was capable of pursuing engineering. He recommended Northeastern University to me, thinking that I would enjoy the co-op program, which builds time into the curriculum for three six-month internship opportunities. I was accepted, and am currently in my third year majoring in computer engineering.

Ever since participating in the Student Launch Project, I had been interested in working at NASA. After completing my first co-op at a small medical device company, I began seriously researching NASA for my second co-op. I was offered a position in the Office of Education at Stennis Space Center. This experience has solidified my choice of computer engineering as the field I want to go into, as well as giving me experience in both the aerospace and STEM education fields. When I return to Boston, I plan to continue my aerospace work at MIT Lincoln Labs, and my STEM education efforts through outreach to middle schoolers.

Esmarline De Leon Peralta: Looking to the Future at Ames Research Center

My name is Esmarline De León Peralta, a future physician-scientist, flight surgeon and astronaut. I am determined to be part of a group of experts and professionals that will develop key technologies for travel to and living on Mars. Furthermore, I would like to assist in developing the systems necessary to support astronauts’ and communities’ adaptability and survival in the environment on Mars. As an aspiring physician, I believe the advancements created as we continue to research what life could be like on Mars could also impact global health by providing healthcare accessibility and point-of-care technologies for both developing countries and under-developed areas.

I began to appreciate the importance of engagement, perseverance and empathy at a young age, largely due to the lack of resources and opportunities in my home country, the Dominican Republic. I grew up in a house made of tin and wood, where water and electricity were not always accessible, and even my home was not accessible during hurricane season. We moved to Puerto Rico when I was ten years old looking for better educational opportunities and a better life. My mother was denied career opportunities in the field of systems and computer engineering because her degree was obtained in a foreign country. Learning about challenges and inequalities was hard at a young age, but these experiences made me stronger and shaped me into an overachiever and passionate dreamer.

Esmarline outside her workplace at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

My journey to NASA has been one of the most inspiring challenges of my life. My immigration status affected my NASA goals but gave me the courage and inspiration to prepare and become not only a U.S. permanent resident, but an official citizen. I am a 2014 NASA Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) scholar, for which I give thanks to Ms. Elizabeth Cartier at ARC for her encouragement and constant support throughout these years.

My NASA interests, along with my desire to address problems in health and understand how chemicals impact the biomedical engineering field made me choose a career in chemical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. Since 2012, I have had experiences researching in biologically-inspired engineering labs at universities and hospitals such as Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Georgia Institute of Technology and Ohio State University. My interest in biomedical sciences and engineering encourages me to get a M.D.-Ph.D. as a physician-scientist in bioastronautics.

Esmarline at work in a NASA ARC lab.

My passion for biomedical devices using 3-D printing was amplified after researching at Massachusetts General Hospital. When accepted at NASA, I felt that my dreams had come true and I was home where I belonged. I am currently a spring intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. I am working in the Entry Systems and Vehicle Development Branch with Dr. Jing Li developing ultra-light weight batteries using 3-D printing technology and nanotechnology. This cutting-edge technology will enable new power and tools for space exploration and building human habitats in space.

During the summer of 2018, I will be interning at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I will be working with a 3-D printer identical to one currently in space, the n-Scrypt 3-D printer, supporting 3-D multi-materials and process parameters for 3-D printing and helping in the fabrication of conductive inks to print small circuits under the mentorship and guidance of Mr. Curtis Hill.

Thank you, NASA, for being my dream, my present and my future. Here is where I belong! I cannot be more grateful. I have no words to express the happiness of my heart to represent minorities, Hispanics, women in STEM and the next generation of Mars and beyond planets’ explorers. God’s faithfulness last forever. Psalm 100:5

Liz Wilk: Getting the Picture at Goddard Space Flight Center

Ten years ago, I never imagined where I would be at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Graduating from high school in the far south suburbs of Chicago, I received my bachelor’s degree in history, taking film production classes along the way. After spending a summer at an archaeology field school deciding what to pursue for graduate school, I became aware and frustrated with the lack of educational, factual engaging media in regards to history. That led me to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Science & Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.

The Science & Natural History Filmmaking program at Montana State University is the first program to offer a Master’s of Fine Arts in the area of science and natural history film. Students and alums work on various projects from blue chip films with BBC, programming for National Geographic, independent films about environmental issues and videos for the National Parks Service, NASA and more. The MFA was founded to teach scientists how to make films in a response to watered down science and pseudo-science programming that became prevalent.

While attending Montana State University, I worked on a multitude of projects from a feature film to smaller documentaries on the wildlife of the greater-Yellowstone ecosystem, geology and more. It was while working on a full-dome planetarium film about gravitational waves when I became interested in interning at NASA. While working on the shoot, I had the opportunity to visit Goddard to film 360 video for the film, Einstein’s Gravity Playlist, where I met and learned about the projects that video producers at NASA work on.

Working in videography at NASA has been a great experience with its own challenges that are rewarding when they are conquered. It is hard to compare to other internships, but doing videography is always interesting. One day I might be interviewing an astronaut, the next day I might be helping to broadcast interviews with scientists across the country, and later that day working on the latest edit of a video we might be working on. It’s always exciting to see what each day brings. One thing I would say to remember or point out with film as part of science communication, is how important it is. Most people tend to only think of science communication as strictly journalism, but there are so many more mediums to communicate through which is why I am drawn toward 360 video and virtual reality to explore how it can be used to communicate in a more immersive way.

While at NASA, I had the opportunity to help with live shots in Goddard’s broadcast studio, and recently finished a video piece for the Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate some of the women who are connected to spacecraft. While working on the film, I met many inspiring women who carry the same message of perseverance paying off.

With only a month left, I will be concentrating on 360 video content for Goddard.

Tanya Gupta: Glider Goals at Armstrong Flight Research Center

Tanya is gliding through her internship at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center while working on just that — a glider, intended to fly across Mars!

Hi there! My name is Tanya Gupta and I am a senior studying Mechanical Engineering at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. This spring, I am serving as the Ops Lead on the PRANDTL-M (Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars) aircraft at Armstrong Flight Research Center.

The mission of the PRANDTL-M is to implement Ludwig Prandtl’s 1933 bird based wing design on an aircraft that is intended to perform the first ever Martian flight. To give some perspective, the Curiosity mission to Mars jettisoned the rover with a 140-pound tungsten weight from its back shell in order to balance the asymmetrical weight of the device. PRANDTL-M hopes to replace this dead weight on future Mars missions with something more useful, like a glider that will acquire data of Martian atmosphere and potentially perform spatial mapping of the surface.

Tanya Gupta and her mother at Space Center Houston in 2005
A young Tanya Gupta and her mother smile at Space Center Houston in 2005, just the beginning of Tanya’s exciting future with NASA.

From the moment I got to Armstrong, I felt incredibly welcomed and treated with respect. My project mentor and coworkers have made me feel more than qualified and helped me build confidence in my abilities as an engineer. My opinion here is valued just as much as everyone else’s, which I believe to be a rare quality to find in an internship, especially one operating at such a high level. In addition to that, I believe in the value of encouraging women to pursue STEM, recognizing that reinforcement breeds excellence – and I am grateful that NASA shares this sentiment.

One of my many mentors is Al Bowers, who is the expert on Prandtl’s alternative wing theory. Al is the Chief Scientist of Armstrong, which you would imagine would make him incredibly intimidating. To the contrary, he’s made us interns feel right at home from the start. He’s also the coolest person I’ve ever met – which I decided one day when he casually told me about the time he hung out with Buzz Aldrin. If there is anything I would like to take away from my experience with Al, it’s that I hope to be half as dedicated, half as intelligent, and half as passionate about my career as him when I’m his age. And perhaps one day I will – after all, he began his journey at NASA as an intern, too.

Tanya and a Global Hawk airplane
On a tour, Tanya was fortunate to snap a photo in front of her favorite plane, the Global Hawk.

Personally, my ideal career path is to work in the field of virtual and augmented reality. Before coming here, I didn’t know how this internship would necessarily help me in my goal, but I’ve learned that aerospace is in fact a leading industry for this technology. Armstrong also has an amazing set of flight simulators that I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter firsthand – I even got to do a couple of barrel rolls on an F-15! Since PRANDTL-M is a Unmanned Aircraft Systems project, I’ve learned about the potential benefits of VR components on unmanned missions. Imagine a totally unmanned spacecraft, millions of miles into space, controlled virtually. We might soon find that fact is, truly, stranger than science fiction. I can’t wait to see what NASA does with this emerging technology.

I’ll end with the coolest thing about my internship: the sonic booms. We hear them every day in our office and rate them based on how much our building shakes. If the mug on my desk falls over, it’s a 10. 🙂

Alys Averette: New Experiences at NASA Glenn Research Center

Alys Averette never thought she’d attend college. But eight years after graduating high school, she found a way to make it happen… and ended up receiving the opportunity of a lifetime to intern at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

I never thought I was going to go to college – let alone have the opportunity to intern with NASA. After graduating high school at sixteen from a boarding school for troubled youth, I immediately went into the workforce. I spent years working in fast food and retail, with no expectation that I would go to college. After working my way up the retail ladder, I landed a general management position that allowed me to finally pay for myself to attend college classes part-time.

Fast forward two years from that point: I have fallen in love with biology and chemistry, and one day I stumbled across the NASA online internship application. Because I planned to pursue a degree in astrobiology and I was anxious to develop some experience in the field (rather than continue down my path in retail), I thought NASA would be the perfect place for me to apply for an internship. I thought, “Wouldn’t this be incredibly cool if I actually got to say that I’m going to work for NASA?” So, I filled out an internship application and I waited.

Nine months went by and I had almost forgotten about that application – until I had a missed phone call and a voicemail saying “Hello, this is Mary Ann from NASA Glenn calling about a possible internship opportunity…”

I called her back immediately. As she explained to me who she was and the kind of work she does, I kept thinking, “This is impossible, this can’t be real, this can’t be happening!” Even though I had no idea what aerogels were at the time, when my soon-to-be mentor asked if I was interested in the project, I said “Yes, of course, but… are you sure you want me? I’m a bit of a non-traditional student. I’m 24 and only a sophomore in undergrad.” She explained to me that she’s had older students, as well as less-experienced students and they have all been successful in this internship. I had five business days to accept or decline the offer and I knew that if I turned it down, I would be disappointed in myself for who knows how long. So, I accepted the offer.

Even though I had wanted to be involved with NASA since I was a kid, I never imagined it would actually be possible — especially after going to a boarding school that nobody’s heard of, working at Taco Bell for several years, and starting college eight years after high school. Yet, here I am, writing this story in my office at NASA Glenn Research Center.

I’ve spent my time here working on synthesizing polyimide aerogels, which are a unique material that serve many purposes for NASA in missions requiring exceptional thermal or acoustic insulation. Even though I did not know much about these materials when I started, I have learned how they are made and what they can be used for, such as conformal antennae substrates, extravehicular suits and habitats, and inflatable decelerators for atmospheric re-entry. It has been a fascinating project and an unbelievable learning experience. I still can’t believe I have been granted this opportunity.

I want people to know my story because I’ve learned firsthand that it’s never too late to be a part of something meaningful or to do something you’ve always wanted to do. This internship with NASA has helped me to understand that and has provided me with a foundation for pursuing all kinds of goals I never thought I could. I hope my story as an intern at NASA can inspire hope in others who, like me, might have thought they were too nontraditional, inexperienced, or different to pursue their dreams and, instead, realize that it’s never too late.

Xavier Morgan-Lange: The Journey to NASA’s Johnson Space Center

The phone call students receive when offered an internship is life-changing, but it’s only a brief moment in their journey to becoming a NASA intern. Xavier worked tirelessly for years with his goal in mind, and receiving his internship offer made everything worth it.

The day that I received the call from the Johnson Space Center will forever remain one of the defining moments of my life. The disbelief, excitement, anxiousness, nervousness, joy, and sense of accomplishment all compiled at once. It was a moment that I did not need to look back in hindsight to realize just how momentous it truly was. Finally, the sleepless nights, words of encouragement, and struggles endured, are paying off. I knew what I was capable of, and now nothing could stand in the way of me achieving my dreams.

My journey began entering middle school. I quickly found myself as a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, and at the age of eleven I flew my first plane. The rest of my time consisted of engaging in emergency service exercises, learning fundamental aerospace concepts, and learning how to fly. By the end of the eighth grade I had earned the rank of Cadet Second Lieutenant.

Starting high school, certain that I wanted to have a future in aerospace, I had my sights set on the Air Force Academy. Consequently, I attended Rancho High School, enrolling in both the Private Pilot and Aerospace Engineering programs. Rancho exposed me to a plethora of new experiences ranging from becoming a varsity wrestler to learning the Russian language. I also met my wonderful teacher and mentor, Mrs. Sara J. Quintana, who opened my eyes to the possibilities and beauty of engineering. Upon graduation from Rancho, I earned my Private Pilot License, worked as an aircraft mechanic, earned twenty-seven credit hours of college credit, and was accepted into the United States Air Force Preparatory Academy. However, I found that my interest in a career with the Air Force waned. I declined my admission offer and attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).

My time at UNLV has been nothing short of extravagant. During my first year I joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). As a member of AIAA, I joined a team tasked with designing and building a solar-powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to be flown approximately 340 miles away. This beckoned me for I loved all things aviation and maintain a deep love for the environment. Within NSBE, I began giving back to my community through educational outreach events devoted to encouraging secondary school students to pursue higher education. Then, things ceased to prosper.

While staffing an outreach event I encountered a former high school instructor who told me I would never make it to NASA. I was in a state of disbelief to hear this, however it only motivated me. With fervor, I made it a mission to prove him wrong. Shortly thereafter, I was elected president of my university’s NSBE chapter. While this restored a fair amount of my confidence, I soon found myself in a deeper rut after suffering the loss of a close friend and the former NSBE president before me. Stricken by grief and confusion, I was overwhelmed in an unprecedented manner. Months passed and as the community began to heal, I found a new motivation. One that was no longer just about myself, but rather my community at large.

Pressed with school, work, and emails, I finally got a call during my lab. I rushed out to answer it, and once I heard who it was from, the world fell silent. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “It’s finally happening.” A journey truly out of this world had just begun.