Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Student's Life Changed at NASA Academy MSFC

I was accepted into my first official NASA internship during the summer of 2005 after my junior year of undergrad. There are many amazing internship programs to choose from, but the one that caught my attention was NASA Academy. I loved the combination of research and leadership training. At the time, there were only three NASA Academy programs, and I was thrilled to have been accepted to the one at Marshall Space Flight Center. For ten weeks, 13 students (including 10 females – very unusual!) lived, worked, and played in Huntsville, Alabama, Rocket City USA. I had reached my dream of semi working for NASA! I was thrilled.

I was so excited to work at NASA, I took a screenshot of my listing in the NASA directory. All contact info is long expired.

The majority of my time was spent researching gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) with a MSFC team at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) located adjacent to the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Along with the rest of the students, I was also badged to access NASA MSFC located in Redstone Arsenal. We also spent a surprising amount of time traveling to different NASA centers and places of interest. We also had the privilege of privately meeting and hearing talks from several top people in the area. It was a packed summer!

I worked with one other student researching GRBs with our two mentors, Chryssa and Sandy. We analyzed X-ray and gamma-ray data from the Swift space observatory. Perhaps because of my prior research experience, I seemed to pick up on the work quickly and enjoyed teaching my fellow research student. As is typical with short-term internships, there was only so much that we could accomplish in the 10 week program. I ended up returning the following summer to continue my research and obtain my master's degree at UAH working on GRB research. I will write more on this later.

An astrophysicist-in-training at work - NSSFC, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

One of the first special activities we did was weekend adult Space Camp at the US Space & Rocket Center. I had attended Space Camp twice in middle school and twice in high school, so I knew what to expect, but this was an abridged and more advanced version! For our first mission, I served as CAPCOM in mission control. For the second mission, I was an astronaut on an EVA to fix a broken satellite. We used the Aviation Challenge flight simulators to dog fight. We participated in a mock helicopter rescue from a lake. It was so fun!

Spelling out NASA in our flight suits - US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

Working mission control - US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

EVA wave - US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL, June 2005

Next we traveled to Houston to visit Johnson Space Center. We met the JSC director, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, and a few flight directors. We were taken on tours of the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, the Robonaut lab, the International Space Station training mock-up, the Mission Simulator and Training Facility, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket lab, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and the X-38 high bay. We watched the movie Apollo 13 on the big screen in the Apollo Mission Control room.

Apollo Mission Control Room, JSC, Houston, TX, June 2005

We traveled to Washington, D.C. and Maryland to visit NASA Headquarters and Goddard Space Flight Center. There we attended a series of lectures by professionals including NASA exploration, legislative affairs, international programs, NASA's values, the James Webb Space Telescope, and various science topics. We toured GSFC and visited the National Zoo and some of the Smithsonian museums. We witnessed the Deep Impact collision of the comet Tempel 1 at the University of Maryland where the mission PI was from. We watched Independence Day fireworks at the National Mall.

Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles, VA, July 2005

Group shot at NASA Headquarters - Washington, D.C., July 2005

Astronaut Laura - GSFC, Greenbelt, MD, July 2005
Before and after the Deep Impact comet collision - University of Maryland, July 2005

As the resident Floridian, I organized a trip to Kennedy Space Center around the time of the Return to Flight space shuttle launch. We saw Space Shuttle Discovery on the launch pad, got a tour of the SRB Assembly Refurbishment Facility and the historic sites at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and watched Space Shuttle Atlantis roll into the Vehicle Assembly Building. We met with KSC director Jim Kennedy. We relaxed on the beach. We watched the space shuttle launch from the VIP section of Banana Creek along with several secret service agents protecting First Lady Laura Bush who was watching with Governor Jeb Bush.

Group shot at Pad B with Space Shuttle Discovery - KSC, Florida, July 2005

One of the best launch shots I've ever taken - Discovery Return to Flight STS-114, July 2005

We toured Huntsville locations of interest as well, of course. At MSFC we toured the Propulsion Research Laboratory, the Space Environment and Effects lab where I held a piece of solar sail material, the X-Ray Cryogenic Facility where the James Webb Space Telescope was being worked on, the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab, the Robotics Flat Floor facility, the International Space Station Science Control rooms, and the NSSTC where I worked. Outside of MSFC we toured the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the the Von Braun Observatory on top of Monte Sano. We went also ice skating, sky diving, and cave exploring.

I jumped out of a plane and survived! - Cullman, AL, summer 2005

We met with a number of great locals or visiting professionals as well, such as MSFC director David King, astronauts Owen Garriott, Leroy Chiao, and astronaut Tony Antonelli with his T-38. We attended a number of lectures on rocket propulsion, NASA administration, lightning research, environmental control and life support systems, in-situ resource utilization, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and space weather monitoring.

Checking out the T-38 with astronaut Tony Antonelli - Huntsville, AL, summer 2005

By the middle of the summer, we gave poster presentations of our research for all of MSFC to see. By the end of the summer, we gave short talks on our research. By the end of the summer, I had analyzed six GRBs by modeling their lightcurves and spectra and discovering a few flares. As a group, we created educational documents for the US Space & Rocket Center. I was awarded the Von Braun Leadership Award.

Research presentation - MSFC, Huntsville, AL, August 2005

Group shot in front of the Wernher von Braun bust - MSFC, Huntsville, AL, summer 2005

My NASA Academy experience was one of the best in my life and I'm so grateful to all who were a part of it. I returned to Huntsville the following summer to help staff NASA Academy and continue my research. I also joined the NASA Academy Alumni Association, which unfortunately is currently inactive, but I hope that one of the newer classes will restart it. I still occasionally keep in touch with some of the NASA Academy alumni who I met during those two summers who are still involved in the space industry. My NASA Academy summer had a tremendous influence on my career goals and direction and inspired me to keep moving forward no matter what it took. I highly recommend the program to interested undergraduate and graduate students.


  1. That sounds like a fun summer! I never went to the Space Camp at Huntsville. Only the day one at KSC. It was still fun though!

    And I love how cute your hair looks!

    1. I never went to the Space Camp at KSC, but some of my classmates worked there as counselors. So fun that you got to go!

      Thanks! I cut it short in high school and let it grow back throughout undergrad.

  2. I had the privilege of serving as Program Support/ISU Liaison at the 2002 Goddard Academy, which was a phenomenal experience. In addition to a plunge into the DDF research for the Tech Transfer Office, I arranged a trip to Capitol Hill for both the Goddard and Ames NASA Academies where they met Admin. O'Keefe, and a live webcast of the ISU Astrobiology Conference while Ames was visiting. I also started the tradition of taking a group photo with a model rocket camera at the Alumni/family gatherings.

    My one regret was that we weren't able to visit the Moon Rock lab while doing the tour of JSC. The idiot interns had recently run off with a safe of them, so security denied us a visit. The one chance I'll likely have ever had...

    NASA Academy is an incredible experience, and well-recommended.

    1. Excellent! The NASA Academy programs are great experiences. Sorry about the moon rock lab. We didn't get to see that either. I hope that future generations of Academites will be able to experience what we experienced and more!