Xander Levinson: Seeing Beyond at NASA’s Ames Research Center

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one of NASA’s most highly-anticipated space-borne telescope projects. Its primary objective will be to directly image the oldest galaxies, planets, exoplanets, protostars, and brown dwarfs. The spacecraft, telescope, and its corresponding data receiving systems are still under development, with the complete observatory itself currently projected to launch in the spring of 2019.

I began my college education pursuing a linguistics degree at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, but withdrew for personal and financial reasons after three years. I joined the workforce with a major international retailer until 2009’s recession, at which point I was laid off (then rehired, then laid off again). At this point, I knew retail was not the life for me. I decided to go all-in and chase my passion: SPACE! I started community college at both Golden West College (GWC) and Orange Coast College (OCC) in Orange County, California. It was at GWC that I was introduced to NASA’s educational outreach programs. I cannot emphasize enough the impact these opportunities have had on my life. Through a series of rigorous applications and elimination processes, I had the double honor of being selected to participate in two community college outreach programs at NASA/JPL: the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Undergraduate Scholars (JPLUS) program in the summer of 2015, followed by the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program in the spring of 2016.

It is absolutely because of my involvement in these programs that I had the confidence to push myself in school, and to apply for this internship at NASA Ames Research Center. I graduated from GWC with an A.A. in Chemistry and an A.S. in Mathematics; and from OCC with an A.S. in Physics and an A.S. in Astronomy – the first such degree ever conferred by that institution. As I pursue a bachelor’s in astrophysics and a minor in Earth and Planetary Sciences nearby at UC Santa Cruz (Go Banana Slugs!), it has become more and more apparent that my dream career will have me involved with exoplanet discovery and classification programs.

Of course, being a major Trekkie, my absolute dream would be to physically travel to these worlds to analyze them personally. However, since that technology is not currently available, I am happy to work with high-quality spectroscopy data in the meantime. Everyone loves pretty pictures, right? So, this opportunity at Ames was one I could not allow to slip through my hands. Thankfully, I was selected and am excited and proud to work with Tom Greene and his team (including my partner intern Stephanie Striegel from San Jose State University) on the James Webb Space Telescope project.

My goals as an intern on this project are to implement and refine the pipeline for incoming data transmissions (once the telescope is launched), facilitate data reduction of received downlink information, and to provide automated statistical analysis of data. In short, my job is to automate the systematic, efficient identification and classification of substellar objects – with much greater clarity and accuracy than ever before. In order to accomplish this seemingly daunting task, my teammate and I run Python scripts to analyze and sort spectroscopic data, which we will eventually use in describing (in great detail) the constructions and atmospheres of extrasolar bodies. Currently, we are calibrating our codes using sample data from a recent batch of tests run on the instrumentation itself. We plan to further refine it using other data reduction codes provided by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in the near future.

I think the most exciting part of this project is that it is very likely that our work will be how we may someday identify “Earth 2.0” out there! This project is both humbling and inspiring. The work comes with a realization of how small and young we truly are, but it also amazes me how much information we are able to glean from a small beam of light from such distant places. Years from now, when I look at the images that JWST will present to us, I will know that I had a part in making it happen. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than the knowledge that my efforts here at NASA Ames will contribute immeasurably to humanity’s quest to understand the universe, as well as our place in it.

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.