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My NASA Internships



By Justin Cross, California Delta (USC)

I can still hardly believe that I worked as an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) twice within the past year. Located in Greenbelt, Maryland, GSFC plays a significant role in furthering space exploration. Currently, it is the assembly site for the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the famous Hubble Space Telescope. I was able to see firsthand the progress that has been made thus far as NASA works toward a 2018 launch date.

After gratefully landing an internship through Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a contractor for NASA, I arrived at GSFC last summer unsure of what to expect. At the time, I was a rising senior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) with an interest in aerospace. I quickly found that my initial anxiety was unwarranted, as my mentor couldn’t have been kinder, taking me under his wing and putting me at ease right away. He assured me that not every task at NASA must be completed by a senior engineer with decades of experience!

During the first few weeks, I completed various training programs and learned the jargon used around the office. I was also granted Clean Facility Access, which allowed me to enter restricted areas where the level of contamination in the air is controlled and minimized via filters. Much of the assembly process of space hardware takes place in these areas (called clean rooms), because a single misplaced hair or particle can freeze in the space environment and cause irreparable or catastrophic damage.

Within minutes of donning protective attire, stepping into a clean room for the first time and witnessing the testing of hardware to be used on the International Space Station, my strong interest in aerospace became a burning passion. I was able to hold in my hand various items that had flown in space and others that would soon fly in space, something that was incredibly thrilling. My mentor, a mechanical engineer himself, showed me the hardware for which he was responsible. Later in the summer, I would assist him in the testing phase.

In addition to many smaller tasks, such as organizing and making an inventory of flight hardware or performing a test and writing a technical report based on the findings, there was one main project that I focused on over the course of the summer. After spending some time on my own learning how to use the 3D CAD software Pro/ENGINEER Creo 2.0, I designed several shipping containers to be used to protect flight hardware as it is transported between NASA facilities. Having been introduced to a similar design package in a course at USC, it was gratifying to apply what I’d learned in the classroom to my work at NASA. This was a crucial task because if my containers failed, the custom-made, expensive parts inside would be damaged and the completion date of the overall component would be delayed. Thus, there was significant pressure on me to create something that worked the first time it was used.

At the end of the summer, I was able to work directly with the machine shop technicians and witness the manufacturing of my shipping containers, an experience that was extremely helpful in enhancing my understanding of the process of turning an idea into a physical object. I later found out that my designs worked perfectly, for which my mentor was quite pleased.

There were other opportunities at NASA in addition to intern work. I was able to interact with former astronauts Michael Hopkins and John Grunsfeld. In June, Hopkins gave a presentation to all GSFC interns about his time on the International Space Station. Later in the summer, Grunsfeld, who is now the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, stopped by my building. While there, he shook my hand and asked about the work I had contributed. This was a man who flew to space five separate times and performed over 50 hours of extravehicular activity, aka “space walking.” He took the time to speak with me, a lowly intern.

Thanks to the excess of work in the fourth quarter along with my wonderful mentor, I was invited back to GSFC this past winter break. Although there were about two dozen interns in the office last summer, this time I was the only one. It was even better than my summer experience, for this time, I had the opportunity to see how various projects had progressed in the time since I had left. I was another semester on in my studies, and I really felt like part of the team and a valued colleague.

I can truly say that without Phi Delta Theta, it is extremely unlikely that I would have been the “last man standing” so to speak. My attendance at the Kleberg Emerging Leaders Institute and experience in Phi Delta Theta overall has given me the confidence and grace under pressure to excel in the workplace. I am convinced that Phi Delta Theta molds men into motivated individuals and I will always be Proud to be a Phi!