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.

Kelly DeRees at Johnson Space Center: Shuttle Inspiration to STEM Dedication

Kelly DeRees knew she wanted a STEM career from the moment she laid eyes on Space Shuttle Endeavor, so she pursued several NASA experiences — and created STEM opportunities of her own — to make it happen.

When you’re standing nose-to-nose with a space shuttle, it’s hard to not want to be part of the team that made it fly.

This is how I felt as a freshman in high school, when I walked beneath Space Shuttle Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center before she flew to California to be in a museum. Now I’m a junior in college, and I’m an intern at Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s been a long journey to get here, and I’ve been fortunate to have many NASA experiences along the way, all of which have taught me something that helped me get to JSC.

In high school, I joined several NASA education programs, including engineering design challenges, job shadows, and a student community that received mentorship from NASA employees. Many of the programs I was part of have since been phased out or replaced, but the lessons I learned from them have stuck with me. If you’re a student interested in being part of the space program, I recommend checking out current NASA student opportunities. If you’re in high school, the Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge program, or OPSPARC, is a great opportunity to exercise your engineering and communication skills while interacting with NASA scientists and engineers. If you’re in college, the Micro-g NExT program will allow you to design and build a tool for astronauts to use during a spacewalk, with the opportunity to test your device in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at JSC.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from NASA is persistence in the face of challenges. I’ve had plenty of chances to stumble on my way to where I am now. Through my NASA experiences, I learned that there is an opportunity within every obstacle. Sometimes I’ve tripped and fallen due to factors beyond my control, and sometimes the obstacles were my own fault. Regardless, learning to find an opportunity within every one of these challenges has built my confidence and problem solving skills. When one of the education programs I was part of in high school was discontinued, I channeled my disappointment into creating opportunities where none existed before. I mentored a middle school girls’ STEM club, scheduled my own job shadows with scientists from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, and started a club for space advocacy in my hometown. It was hard, but it was a valuable lesson to learn and I now apply the same philosophy at JSC and in my personal life. When something doesn’t go my way, I don’t see it as a barrier to success – it’s an opportunity for me to learn or try something new.

In addition to the technical skills I’ve learned with NASA, I also learned the importance of networking. I started building my NASA network in high school, and expanded my network during my first internship at NASA Goddard. My networking at Goddard led directly to an internship in Huntsville, AL with a private company in summer 2017. I also had the opportunity to meet with a U.S. Senator and Goddard leadership because of the network that I built. Learning how to use my connections has played a big a role in getting me to JSC.

My journey to become a NASA engineer, and ultimately an astronaut, is only beginning, but I am grateful for the NASA experiences I have had so far. I’m not sure what my life would have looked like without them, but I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t be at JSC right now had I not had those experiences. For anyone who stands where I stood six years ago, dreaming of space but not knowing how to get there, keep learning, keep trying, and keep pushing forward. Many doors won’t open on the first try, but the victories are well worth the effort.