Marissa D’Alonzo: Inspiration, Education, and Learning to Love STEM at Stennis Space Center

For my entire childhood, I was a good math and science student, but thought it was boring and wanted to be a piano teacher. When my eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Kelly, announced that she was starting a team to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge, I had no interest and did not attend the first meeting. The next day, she pulled me aside and said that the team needed more members and since I was an exceptional science student, I had been drafted. I went to my first meeting simply so that I wouldn’t disappoint her, fully expecting to hate it. To my surprise, I was hooked. Building the rockets didn’t seem like my tedious math and science classes, it was fun. We didn’t place in the competition, but her insistence on my participation introduced me to engineering and how enjoyable it could be.

The summer after the competition, I was accepted into a pre-college music festival. By the end of the program, my musical dreams had been shattered. The incredible amount of work needed to become a classical pianist ruined the music for me. I needed something else to focus on, so I signed up for my high school’s rocket team, hearing Mrs. Kelly in my head telling me I could do it. We were significantly better than my middle school’s team, and at the end of my freshman year, we won a spot in NASA’s Student Launch Projects. I spent my entire sophomore year designing the payload experiment and container, with the experience culminating in an amazing trip to Marshall Space Flight Center. Still, I did not see a career for myself in engineering. NASA is far from my home in New York and I still didn’t understand the full scope of STEM.

Marissa D’Alonzo and fellow interns at Stennis Space Center.

After hearing about my experience, I was approached by my physics teacher, Mr. Paino, about joining his fledgling research program. He wanted me and another team member to write a scientific report about our rocket to submit to the Siemens Science Competition. I agreed, and he dedicated massive amounts of time and energy to make sure I succeeded in the program, as well as pushing me to take his AP Physics class. His dedication to me, even when I didn’t always appreciate it or like him, helped me see that I was capable of pursuing engineering. He recommended Northeastern University to me, thinking that I would enjoy the co-op program, which builds time into the curriculum for three six-month internship opportunities. I was accepted, and am currently in my third year majoring in computer engineering.

Ever since participating in the Student Launch Project, I had been interested in working at NASA. After completing my first co-op at a small medical device company, I began seriously researching NASA for my second co-op. I was offered a position in the Office of Education at Stennis Space Center. This experience has solidified my choice of computer engineering as the field I want to go into, as well as giving me experience in both the aerospace and STEM education fields. When I return to Boston, I plan to continue my aerospace work at MIT Lincoln Labs, and my STEM education efforts through outreach to middle schoolers.

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.

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.

Samuel Mohler at NASA’s Langley Research Center: Greater Than Grades

Grades are important to college students: It usually signifies whether or not the course material is understood. But Samuel Mohler realized his GPA was dictating his life… so he stopped looking at it.

My name is Sam Mohler, and I am in my second internship at NASA. I graduated with a double major in mechanical engineering and mathematics along with a minor in physics from Portland State University. I plan to attend graduate school in the future, but for now I am soaking up as much research experience as I can at NASA. I got to work in numerical optimization at the Glenn Research Center and here at Langley I am working in the Systems Analysis Concept Directorate program to analyze the application tensegrity structures to NASA missions.  I can’t believe I get to say those words. Tensegrity structures are structures made of only rigid bars and tension cables. They are extremely stable and adaptive structures that promise lightweight, cheap, and elegant solutions to many engineering problems.

One thing I love about the NASA centers is the wide ranging background everyone has. Everyone here has their own unique quirk or story. I was asked to share something different about myself and was thrilled to add to the diverse story of NASA.

The one quirk I have that I have never met anyone else with involves grades. I do not know what my GPA is. My first year of college, a lot of stress and unhealthy habits occurred when I religiously began checking every grade, every score, every point. I realized that it was not a feasible way to go through life. I had to do something. My solution was simply to never look. If I got a test back, I would turn it over and recycle it immediately. I knew, everyone knows, during a test what they know and what they don’t know. I didn’t need a number to tell me that. Better than that, I found that it freed me of this concept of ‘knowing everything.’ It also freed me from searching for this classic Hollywood movie moment. There are 5 minutes left on the clock, my hands are sweaty, but just in the nick of time I get this epiphany and figure out the really hard problem. Epiphanies happen randomly and without warning: They are not great to depend on, and you can’t train for them. Real problem solving, real engineering is all about incremental small achievements. NASA has shown me that and it is so inspiring for me. The real achievements are plagued with a much slower story than we want to believe.

Another reason I stopped looking at grades was this lose-lose scenario that always played out because of them. I always hated the fact that if I got a bad grade I would shut down and convince myself I would never know the material, there was no hope, give up now. If I got a really good grade I would convince myself I knew it all, I was the best, and then for the next test I would perform poorly because I thought I didn’t need to study as much. It was a lose-lose game. There was no benefit even if I did get a good grade.

I’ve come to realize, I never want to think I’m a master of anything, especially in science. It is much better to always believe there is so much more to know.  If it wasn’t for this quirk I would not be here today. I survived college because I let go of the grades. It let me understand things on a much deeper level. I was learning from pure passion, enthusiasm, and curiosity. I wasn’t doing it all for grades or social ranking. I wasn’t making some algorithm of necessary points to get an A in my head. I was doing it for me and it paid off. One last thing: If you’re wondering how I still don’t know my GPA after applying for these internships (a required input for the application), I have a friend sworn to secrecy to put that number in for me.

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!