Exploring the Future
One of the neat things about student internships at NASA is the opportunity students are given to contribute to actual research projects that are crucial to the agency's missions. Students support hands-on science research, the development of new materials and technologies, and the design of new spacecraft. Interns learn by doing, and they get to work with professionals in a NASA environment.

Aleksandr Aravkin standing beside a robot

Aleksandr Aravkin worked two summers on NASA's future robotic missions as an intern with Ames' Intelligent Robotics Group. Image Credit: Aleksandr Aravkin

"Whatever project you're working on, the project is really fun," said Aleksandr Aravkin, a former intern, who worked two summers at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. "Space exploration is an exciting goal, but beyond that it also causes people to tackle really hard problems that have tons of other applications."

NASA has many internship opportunities for college and university students. Working with industry, or at a NASA center, students gain experience doing relevant mission work. Student internships support NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's workforce.

Aravkin participated in the Higher Education Project in NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. The project partners with the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program.

Leading the agency in space technology, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is responsible for the construction of a new fleet of space exploration vehicles -- the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, the Orion crew vehicle, and the Altair lunar lander -- as part of the Constellation Program to take humans to the moon and beyond. The directorate is managing the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions, scheduled to launch in 2009. The directorate also is managing supportive technologies, including developing new spacesuits, rovers and other robotics to be used on the lunar surface.

As an intern, Aravkin was assigned to Ames' Intelligent Robotics Group, where he was a member of an interdisciplinary team. With bachelor's degrees in mathematics and computer science from the University of Washington in Seattle, he applied optimization methods to some of NASA's future robotic missions. He also worked with the team to create a three-dimensional landscape model using a collection of images taken by cameras on a helicopter. The result was a 3-D model of Ames' Marscape rover testing site. Currently, Aravkin is finishing a master's degree in statistics and a doctorate in mathematics. He continues to collaborate with the Intelligent Robotics Group as an Ames Associate.

"It is very motivating when people are interested in using math in the real world, in particular to speed up and improve space-related applications," Aravkin said. "Working on these problems inspired me to learn a lot of new areas in optimization as well as new applications that I hadn't even heard of before coming to Ames. ... It was mind-blowing to see the opportunities that were available, and then it occurred to me that there were many applications of my research to space exploration, and I became excited about the possibilities."

Jim Gealy standing in front of windows with a spacecraft in the background

While at Goddard Space Flight Center, intern Jim Gealy got to experience NASA mission preparation firsthand. In the clean room behind Gealy, technicians are working on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that is scheduled to launch to the moon in 2009. Image Credit: Jim Gealy

Another Exploration Systems Mission Directorate intern, Jim Gealy, worked in the Flight Dynamics Branch at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. As an electrical engineering student, he documented the open-source software for the General Mission Analysis Tool, or GMAT, project. GMAT is an orbital mapping software that uses a wiki tool. The wiki allows collaboration between the outside community and NASA.

Gealy and three other interns documented the software's ability to determine the escape velocity, given the orbits, to the moon, Mars and other places in the solar system. For both hypothetical and real missions, Gealy tested the editing and plotting capability for the spacecraft parameters and thrusters using GMAT.

"Most other interns will work on a specific project ... and we were a little bit different in that the four of us were covering a very broad subject area -- many missions -- and a concept of what was required to accomplish those missions," Gealy explained.

The grandson of an engineer and the son of an electrician, Gealy said he had an early aptitude for engineering and enjoyed building with erector sets. As a third-grader he wanted to become an astronaut. Having earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of New Hampshire, he is now working on his master's degree. He described his internship as "a dream come true to work with anything NASA-related."

"It's been a great fit for me so far because it (engineering) comes natural for me," Gealy said. "(Space) just always piqued my interests. I've always loved reading about it, hearing about it and the Apollo-era astronauts, and their adventures to the moon. It always intrigued me that we can do such things."

Agnieszka Rys and Jon Brame standing in front of a building

NASA interns Agnieszka Rys and Jon Brame spent the summer of 2008 working on projects at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Image Credit: Jon Brame

Senior physics major Jon Brame also worked at Goddard as an Exploration Systems Mission Directorate intern. A student at Brigham Young University, Brame was assigned to the Materials Engineering Branch. He worked on the early research for instruments to be used by future robotics missions to Mars. He made various sensors out of nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes and silicon nanowires. The nanosensors are made to sense electric fields and chemicals. Brame's responsibilities included fabricating the various sensors and testing their detection abilities.

"It's been a huge impact," Brame said of the NASA experience. "It's definitely nice on the resumé, but more important than that, having the experience of being in the lab with the NASA scientists and managing a project from creation to completion -- those are skills I'll take with me the rest of my life."

He plans to enter graduate school this fall. Future plans include government research and eventually teaching and mentoring students.

"The things I've learned and the people I've met and the experience I've had have been a once in a lifetime experience and has jump-started my education and my career in a way that nothing else could have," Brame said.

"I especially enjoyed working at NASA and seeing the NASA vision and feeling like I was a part of a team that's working toward these goals to go back to the moon and go to Mars and learn about the solar system and the Earth and our place in it. It's just fascinating being a part of that environment."

Related Resources
Exploration Systems Mission Directorate
Constellation Program
Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Internships   →
NASA's Ames Research Center
NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group   →
General Mission Analysis Tool   →
NASA's Goddard Research Center

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services