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.

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

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. 🙂

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.

Gabriel Almeida: Helping SOFIA Soar at NASA Armstrong

NASA intern Gabriel Almeida understands that learning new skills is the key to success. With what he’s gained while working on the Strategic Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, there’s no doubt that he’ll soar.

As a college student, sometimes it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As a student at California State University San Bernardino, working towards a degree in Computer Engineering and a minor in Physics, it took an inspiring experience to be reminded that it would all be worth it in the end. For me, my inspiration came in the form of an engineering internship on the SOFIA project at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.

SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a 747 airplane that contains a large infrared telescope located towards the rear of the aircraft. The passenger cabin of the airplane has been converted into what is essentially a flying laboratory, with workstations for the telescope operators, mission directors, scientific instrument engineers, and the many other roles that each mission may require.

Working on SOFIA is a unique learning opportunity because it is a program that is the intersection of so many complicated and exhilarating areas of study. Being a scientific airplane, there are aspects of aeronautics, computer science, astronomy, physics, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. Seeing how all these systems work together is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of the many engineers and scientists who have contributed to the success of the program.

My internship with NASA has given me a priceless opportunity to work and learn alongside extremely intelligent scientists and engineers using real-world knowledge that will help me better understand the skills I will need to be successful in my professional career. My mentor, Matthew Enga, is the SOFIA System Integration and Test Lead Engineer, and has expansive knowledge of the SOFIA subsystems. In addition to the projects he assigned to me, he also allowed me to dive head-first into many different opportunities that only NASA Armstrong can provide. There are so many tasks I could include in this article, but I will just provide some of the highlights:

  • Software Analysis- I have been able to continue to expand my software skills doing analysis of SOFIA archiver extraction software.
  • Categorization of system hardware- I have spent many hours researching and categorizing boxes of flight and non-flight hardware, learning about how each piece of equipment is either used in flight systems or testing of those systems.
  • Armstrong University classes- NASA Armstrong has created a university-style set of classes covering a broad range of subject matter that are available to all NASA Armstrong employees; qualified working professionals in several different fields of expertise at NASA have created courses that help create a work environment which encourages competency, succession, innovation, and job retention (Airworthiness 101, Research and Engineering, Communicating to Connect, and Leadership Principles).
  • Certification courses- I have attended approximately 48 hours of lab instruction to obtain certificates in soldered electrical connections and surface mounted soldering.
  • Increased exposure to NASA and other related aerospace facilities- In addition to an in-depth, behind the scenes walkthrough of the NASA Armstrong facility, the intern coordinator for Armstrong is constantly organizing guided tours and site-seeing opportunities of several industry-related facilities including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA Armstrong’s offsite facility, and the Space Company.
  • Onboard flight observations- I am currently on track to fly on one of the SOFIA science missions. I will have a rare opportunity to watch NASA and DLR scientists in action as they perform the many different tasks that contribute to a successful flight onboard SOFIA.

All of these experiences have successfully immersed me into an environment where I am constantly surrounded by engineers, scientists, and other industry professionals that are working on the frontlines of innovation in aeronautics and aerospace.

I believe that one’s experiences are ultimately shaped by the attitude in which they approach them. With that mindset, I was willing to do whatever it took to be an intern with NASA. I knew that whatever task I was assigned, no matter how uncomfortable or tedious it may have seemed at first, was something that would I could learn from and would ultimately enhance my skill and knowledge level. Most importantly, being at NASA has helped me to put my education in perspective. Because of this experience, I see that personal success will not ultimately be measured by my GPA, but rather the problem-solving skills I have learned and the mentality I need when faced with adversity.

Sarah Vita: An Uncharted Course to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Starting a new career at age 29 may be daunting for some, but Sarah Vita followed her passion… and it led her to NASA.

My journey to Marshall Space Flight Center was a circuitous one. I like to think of myself as an atypical intern… in the best way possible. I graduated from the University of Southern California in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, and two minors in French and Neuroscience. The look on people’s faces here when I tell them that is about what you’d expect. So how did I get here? It wasn’t luck, I’ll tell you that. I had to work really hard and, at 29-years old, have made some sacrifices that put me at a different ‘sign-post’ in life than most of my friends who maybe already own homes, finished medical school, or are thinking about having children. But that’s OK. My life has been a wonderful adventure. And now I’m here, working for NASA!

I have always been extremely fascinated by space exploration and astronomical science, but never really thought I could make it my career. After a string of jobs post-graduation that left me unfulfilled, I went to live in northern Thailand for a year to travel and volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. It was the definition of wanderlust and I loved every minute of it. When I came back to the United States, I began taking pre-requisite courses for veterinary school which included math and physics. After a couple of semesters of STEM classes I realized, hey, I’m pretty good at this, and I really enjoy it. My dream of working for NASA began to seem more like a feasible reality.

I was taking my engineering pre-requisites at Santa Monica College, a community college in Southern California a mere two miles from the beach. I joined the Physics Club and scoured the NASA website for internship and job opportunities. I found out about the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, an educational outreach program geared specifically towards community college STEM students and quickly applied to the JPL branch. The NCAS program is really where everything started to fall into place for me. NCAS provides an authentic NASA experience to community college STEM students and encourages them to apply to graduate programs or transfer to 4-year universities. I’ve honestly never felt so inspired in my life than during my week at NCAS JPL. One of the biggest things I learned from NCAS was that anything is possible, and no dream is too big. NCAS is a very unique experience in that it allows students to get real hands on engineering experience much like a traditional internship program, but because it’s catered specifically for community college students who don’t have degrees yet, a large part of the program is focused on how to take those next steps to get into a full-time program. We were introduced to NCAS graduates who were now studying at top universities, attended inspiring talks from JPL employees, toured the campus (JPL has a Mars yard!), and were given resources that extended beyond the program’s end date. It is definitely because of NCAS that I am here today, interning at Marshall. Eddie Gonzalez and Roslyn Soto run NCAS JPL and are truly two of the most hardworking, passionate, and motivating people at NASA. I owe much of my success in getting here to them as they are constantly inspiring students and make themselves available for questions and assistance when applying to other NASA internships or schools. They made me realize that my dream of working for NASA was attainable and helped me do it.

A few more semesters of classes later, and after a stint as a full-time technical consultant, I went to see astronaut Jose Hernandez speak at Generation 1st Degree Pico Rivera, a community program with a mission to provide resources to minorities to get college degrees. Along with Jose’s inspiring and moving story, I was able to meet other NASA engineers who had varying backgrounds, overcame struggles, and ultimately made it to NASA. At 29, the thought of starting over in school, especially in something as rigorous as engineering, is often overwhelming. But every time I hear one of these NASA icons, like Jose, tell their story, a fire is ignited in me and I am reminded that it is possible and so worth it. I went home that day and applied for every NASA internship I qualified for. I didn’t hear back for months and just assumed it wasn’t going to happen this year. What now? Do I continue my coursework, apply for a second bachelor’s degree program or a master’s program? Do something else? And then the email came. On August 14, a cool two weeks before the fall internship session began, I received an email from Marshall Space Flight Center, inviting me to intern with NASA this semester. It was a cosmic sign.

So I packed my bags and traveled all the way from Los Angeles to Huntsville to start my journey. And that about brings us up to speed. I am currently interning with the Space Environments team within the Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department at Marshall Space Flight Center. I analyze the space environment (with a focus on plasma) and how it impacts space systems like the International Space Station and the astronauts on it! My team is absolutely amazing and I am learning new things every day. The internship program here really allows us to get the full Marshall experience with site tours so we can see all of the other cool things that go on at Marshall, weekly talks with engineers, and weekend barbecues! I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for me next!