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.

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.

Madison Melton: Launching Her Future at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

“Age is but a number” is a phrase familiar to NASA Kennedy intern Madison Melton. Pursuing NASA opportunities in high school led her to receive a fall 2017 internship at the age of 18.

Growing up, I watched the movie Apollo 13 and experienced the adrenaline of “go for launch.” I was captivated by the enormous power and massiveness of rockets, awed by the roar and thrill of blast off, and intrigued by the vastness of space. For me, this is what my dreams were made of.

Now, I’m a NASA intern and living my dream. Although it was hard getting here, the journey was a labor of love. Along the way, I’ve had much help from my mentor, Scott Pleasants, and my parents, LB and Frieda Melton. These people taught me that no one is ever too young to pursue his or her dreams, and encouraged me to pursue my own. Scott, along with my parents, taught me to trust in the doors that God opens, and soon after that my dream of working at NASA became a reality.

During my junior year of high school at the age of 15, I participated in a class held by NASA called Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars (VASTS). This experience ignited my passion for aerospace and validated my direction and that my dreams are attainable. Graduating as a top VASTS scholar, I was offered the opportunity to go to NASA Langley Summer Academy for a week to develop a mission to Mars. Here, I was with other like-minded students and professionals, pushed myself in new areas, and submerged myself in my dream. Leaving Langley, I was even more determined and focused on becoming an engineer and earning a chance to work at NASA.

After completing several other engineering internships, my chance at NASA came. During the spring semester of my first year of college, my current mentor at NASA, Carlos Alvarado, called to interview me for an internship for fall 2017. I can’t begin to say how honored I am to have been chosen as an intern for NASA. From orientation to tours to seeing rockets being built in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), I feel like I am a part of something bigger than myself, and that really drives me to work as hard as I can. Just knowing that I can contribute and help advance humankind by ultimately working towards sending a spacecraft to Mars motivates me to diligently work and excel with the material entrusted to me.

For my internship, I am working with the Launch Services Program (LSP) in the Avionics branch. I evaluate vehicle data from commercial launch providers (i.e. ULA, Space X, and Orbital Sciences) and model that information on IRIS and Winplot scripts/pages. The IRIS system and Winplot telemetry monitoring system are in-house developed applications and serve as the primary tools within LSP for real-time vehicle monitoring during launch vehicle operations, launch day countdowns, and data review. The development of IRIS screens and Winplot scripts is intended to capture recent avionics modifications implemented on current launch providers systems. I support a crew of senior engineers to develop an understanding of launch vehicle system/sub-systems, launch vehicle telemetry, data collection, problem solving, and programming. Also, I monitor launch countdowns, test operations for the rockets, and assess anomalies and issues.

Madison Melton and the "Places We'll Go" banner
At age 18, Madison spend her fall 2017 semester working with the Launch Services Program in the Avionics branch at Kennedy Space Center, where she evaluated and modeled vehicle data from commercial launch providers.

Working with such immense talents and bright minds is inspiring and humbling as well. At eighteen years old, I am the youngest intern in our group for this semester and the youngest in the Launch Services Program Avionics department. I am honored to be here and ready to give NASA my best. Every day, I go to work with a smile on my face, because I think I have the best job in the world.

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.