Supreet Kaur: From NCAS Student to NASA Intern (and more!) at NASA’s Ames Research Center

I am not a traditional high school to college student. My family and I came to this country as refugees. As immigrants we focused more on the day-to-day survival, so a higher education was never in the works for me, nor was it ever encouraged. The predetermined plan was that I would graduate high school and follow the traditional path of an arranged marriage.

I am the first woman in my family to choose an education and a career in STEM over what was expected of me. Deciding who I wanted to be was the easy part, the execution and risk it involved was another story. My education and independence had a very rocky beginning; I didn’t have any support or the faintest idea of what direction to go in. So I spent several years taking classes at a local community college to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. I explored various subjects; microbiology, anatomy, women in art history, political science, etc., learned what the path to higher education looks like, and built the self-confidence I needed to thrive on my own. During that journey I met many people who became my allies, mentors, and support system. They encouraged me to dream big, and so I applied to the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar (NCAS) program. And that is how I first came to NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC).

As part of NASA’s Women’s History Month – Past, Present, and Future feature, Supreet Kaur is highlighted as part of NASA’s commitment to STEM education and career awareness.

I first came to NASA ARC as a NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar. It was a very concentrated experience – the tours, lectures from esteemed researchers, the rover competition – I’d never experienced anything like that before. And I was hooked! I knew from that experience I wanted to return. I wanted to be a part of the NASA culture, and to be around some of the most brilliant individuals who are working passionately towards something they believe in.

When I came to NASA ARC as a Systems Engineer summer intern, for the Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 (ATD-2) project, I had no prior knowledge of Air Traffic Management (ATM). So you can imagine my surprise when in the first week of my internship I had the opportunity to participate as a pseudo ramp controller in a Human-in-the-loop (HITL) simulation alongside professional pilots and air traffic controllers to test scenarios using the Integrated Arrival, Departure, and Surface (IADS) software. I was diving into the deep end of the pool without any floaties. Although I was nervous, every single person in that simulation had so much faith that I would get the hang of it, I began to believe it too. With every passing day my education kicked in and I felt my self-confidence rise. By the end of the simulation I not only understood the role NASA plays in the ATD-2 project, but it allowed me to the visualize the problem we are trying to solve.

Supreet Kaur is currently a Spring 2019 Systems Engineer intern, for the Airspace Technology Demonstration 2 (ATD-2) project at NASA ARC.

An important lesson I’ve learned from my mentor, Andrew Ging, is how to stay calm and be agile in the midst of the unknown. Unforeseen things can happen in experimental settings; systems crash or behave unexpectedly, sometimes plan A and B are no longer feasible, or we find ourselves in uncharted territory. I’ve learned to approach problems with a holistic approach by designing strategic and tactical plans. Thus, I’ve learned to better prioritize which problem needs to be addressed first, determine if the problem needs a short term or a long term solution, think about the outcome of the solutions I implement. When you dissect a problem through abstract thinking, and start defining all the unknowns, the problem itself becomes less intimidating making it easier to stay calm.

Professionally, this internship has sharpened my systems thinking skills. I know I can walk into any situation, find the problem, and propose several solutions to resolve that problem. I am no longer intimidated by the things I do not know, instead I’ve learned to use my inexperience as an asset – sometimes a problem needs an outside perspective, without preconceived ideas. Personally, being a NASA intern and returning as a NCAS Mentor has given me insight about what I want out of a career. I now understand the value of work-life balance and being part of a broader community.

Through outreach I am able to connect and relate to community college students who are finding their own path in the STEM industry. This internship allows me to give back to the community which has fostered my personal and professional growth.

Supreet Kaur will end her internship at NASA ARC this Spring 2019 but will join the Brooke Owens Fellowship for Summer 2019.

About the Author
Supreet Kaur is a current student at San Jose State University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Industrial & Systems Engineering. Supreet recently became one of the recipients for the Brooke Owens Fellowship Class of 2019. The fellowship is designed to connect women in aerospace with a purpose driven summer internship, a leadership summit, and mentorship with pioneers in the industry. This summer, she will be working at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) as a research intern in the Aerospace Security Project.

To learn more about NASA Internships, please visit intern.nasa.gov. Start your journey today! #NASAinterns

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.

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.

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.

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.