Monday, August 24, 2015

A High School Student's Glimpse into NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In recalling my internship experiences in my last blog entry, it occurred to me that my first space-related professional experience was not a formal internship but rather a one-week-long job shadowing experience at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

I was a high school sophomore (10th grade) in Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia, barely 16 years old. My high school offers sophomores and juniors one or two weeks off from school to participate in school-sponsored special projects. By that point, I had gone to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama three times (out of six total) and had been completely bitten by the space bug. I knew that I wanted to work for NASA.

I lived approximately two hours from Greenbelt, Maryland where GSFC is located. At the time and perhaps still now, GSFC's Education Office had a job shadow program. I was accepted into the program and paired with four NASA employees for four days, focusing on one area each day.

I had a very talented and organized late grandmother who scrapbooked the experience for me. Not to dismember her efforts, I've taken photos of the scrapbook as they are, plastic sheet glare and all.

Entering Goddard Space Flight Center - February 2000

Hanging out with the astronaut spacesuit - February 2000

Future astronaut Laura sitting in a mock spacecraft - February 2000

My first day was with Dr. Cindy Hamel, environmental scientist and educator. She taught me some of the instruments and techniques that scientists and engineers use to study the universe around us, a field I now know to be called remote sensing. I distinctly remember that she used bat sonar as an example, though I can't quite remember the analogy.

My second day was with Dr. Herb Frey, planetary scientist and geologist. Pathfinder had just landed on Mars a couple years before and Mars Global Surveyor was in orbit. Both sent back detailed imagery of the red planet. In a world before any of the web tools we have access to today, I had never seen the Martian surface in such detail! Dr. Frey told me that he was working on identifying good landing sites for future Mars missions and allowed me to play with the imagery to see if I could spot a good location.

My third day was with Nick Shur, a satellite engineer. He gave me a tour of GSFC's high bays where satellites were being assembled and tested. I distinctly remember being puzzled by his statement that I would be his boss someday. I have no plans to become center director of GSFC, but I do understand what he meant now. Students who express an interest in a field early and act upon that interest often have a significant leg up compared to peers who enter a field later.

My fourth and final day was with Dr. Shaida Johnston. With her, I learned about the Landsat satellites. She allowed me to play with imagery from Landsat 7, the newest at the time. Again, in a world before Google Earth, I was fascinated by my ability to view the world from space. I zeroed in on areas of interest, including the volcano Mt. Etna in Sicily, which I would visit in person two years later.

Two years following this experience, I was accepted into college to study astrophysics, followed by numerous NASA and other space-related experiences. My career thus far has included all four areas that I was shown during the GSFC program: education and public outreach, planetary science, satellite and spacecraft engineering, and remote sensing. I am so grateful to those who took the time to arrange this experience for a curious high school student! As I was encouraged along the way, I hope to encourage other students who may be just as curious.

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