Endless Possibilities
Borden stands in front of an entrance marked Dryden Flight Research Center

Mike Borden encourages students who are interested in NASA to pursue agency opportunities. Image Credit: Mike Borden

When his mother first suggested that Mike Borden look into a NASA internship opportunity, he thought it sounded unlikely. Now in his third NASA student project and with a fourth lined up, Borden knows just how much is possible.
In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

My origins within NASA came about in a somewhat unusual way -- I listened to my mother!

During my winter break in the '06-'07 school year, my mother mentioned to me, very casually, that NASA was hiring interns for the coming summer. Looking back on the situation, I know for a fact that I didn't take her comment too seriously; I actually laughed when she told me that. "Like I'm going to be able to get an internship with NASA," I thought sarcastically. But when the break had ended and I arrived back at school, I received an e-mail from my school's Placement Department about a potential internship opportunity with NASA, the Undergraduate Student Research Project. At this point in my educational career, I certainly thought space technology and research was interesting, but I had never considered for a moment that I could get directly involved with it. Regardless, I decided to go for it. The worst thing that could happen is that I wouldn't get it. ...

The result was that I found myself working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. This was truly my foot in the door in the NASA community. But I'm happy to say that the experience did not end there. When I arrived back at the Milwaukee School of Engineering after my experience at Marshall, I became involved in another NASA project. This project was sponsored by NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and was offered as a senior design project through my mechanical engineering department at school. I thus spent the final three quarters of my undergraduate education working on a NASA-sponsored project.

As this came to an end in late May, my most recent NASA endeavor became a reality. Upon the recommendation of my intern coordinator from the previous summer, I had applied and had been accepted into the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration (project) at the Ames Research Center. The (project), which spans 10 weeks throughout the summer of 2008, has thus far proven to be nothing short of the opportunity of a lifetime. But again, the journey does not stop there. I have quickly learned that there is a world of opportunity within NASA for students with a serious interest in space technology and research. After a rigorous application process, I found out in late April that I will be beginning my first year of graduate studies at the University of Arizona with a NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellowship.

Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement, and why this topic is important.

As a summer intern at the MSFC, my research was focused on an innovative method for polishing silicon carbide. Silicon carbide, which is incredibly difficult to manufacture, has the potential to become the material of choice in the next generation of high-performance space optics. The process was called Electrochemical Mechanical Polishing and combined a controlled electrochemical reaction with traditional mechanical polishing. My duties were in regards to the initial conceptual testing of this process. I helped to design the testing procedures and in turn used those procedures to determine the effectiveness of different variable schemes. The surface figure of the material was measured after each trial to determine this effectiveness. By the end of the summer, I had published a NASA technical manuscript on the process and had given a technical presentation about my summer experience at MSFC.

The research that was conducted as a result of my NASA ESMD Senior Design project was in regards to the feasibility of three thermal control system designs for the Altair lunar lander. This research was extremely exciting and highly relevant, as the thermal control system for Altair has yet to be fully designed. This meant that my team and I were working on a challenge that NASA was working on at the same time. The timing was really quite perfect. In addition to this feasibility study, one quarter was spent designing hardware and testing procedures to determine the emissivity and thermal conductivity of the lunar regolith simulant JSC-1a. As these thermal properties were at the time unknown, the relevance of this project was in regards to filling an important gap in fully understanding JSC-1a.

The research that I am currently involved in at the Ames NASA Academy involves the design and fabrication of a night sky imaging apparatus called ASMOS, the All Sky Meteor Orbit Surveillance system. The system will provide video surveillance that will be used to determine the orbits of unestablished meteor showers. In addition, in early September of 2008, I will be involved in an airborne observation mission to image the re-entry of ESA's ATV (the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle), near the island of Tahiti. This airborne imaging mission is extremely valuable in understanding how this deorbiting supply spacecraft will burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

Finally, my research for the coming fall will be focused on the Kinematical Imaging Trailblazer Experiment, KITE, which is a balloon-borne spectrographic telescope. My responsibilities will be in regards to the design of the truss and orientation system for this payload. In addition, I will also be a graduate mentor for a team of undergraduate multidisciplinary engineering students at UA (University of Arizona). I will be offering a senior design project dealing with the design, fabrication and launch of a high-altitude balloon payload capable of space imaging.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

There are so many exciting aspects of doing research with NASA. The technology and research is cutting edge, the potential for traveling to exotic locations on the Earth is certainly available, and the potential to have your work published to the scientific community is both gratifying and exciting. But above the rest, I personally feel that the most exciting aspect of doing research with NASA is that it gives me an opportunity to explore the universe in a whole new way. NASA has given me a means to interact with our world and solar system as I could have never imagined before I arrived here. I truly believe that, through my research, I gain insight and understanding into life and the universe. At the same time, that insight and understanding has a personally profound impact on my life. It's exciting to think that my research with NASA has and will continue to shape who I am, and how I see the world.

What is your educational background and what are your future educational plans?

My technical background is a result of my time spent at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, in Milwaukee, Wis. While there, I focused my education on the study of mechanical engineering, in which I earned a Bachelor of Science in May of 2008. My background in this very broad discipline has given me not only a more thorough understanding of the physical laws of the universe, but it has given me a means to describe the world around me in new and profound ways. Mechanical engineering has certainly changed the way that I see and interact with the world. By taking a few optics classes throughout my mechanical engineering studies, I began to grow fond of the study of optics. Light began to fascinate me more and more as I furthered my knowledge of the subject. This fascination led me to continue my studies into graduate school. In the fall of 2008, I will be attending the University of Arizona where I will be pursuing a Ph.D. in optical science.

What inspired you to choose the education/career field you did?

I can attribute my first interest in optics back to one lecture in an undergraduate physics of heat and optics course. On the very last day of the course, my professor entertained the class with a slideshow of optical phenomenon that appear in the sky. Some events, such as sun dogs and double rainbows, are a bit less common, while phenomenon such as single rainbows and sun halos are more frequently seen. The beauty that was being naturally created by sunlight right here on Earth was stunning. I remember leaving class that day thinking, "I would love to study that for a living."

What do you think will be the most important things you'll take away from your involvement with NASA?

The two most important things that I hope to take from my involvement with NASA are worldly understanding and life experience. Thus far, through the research, the people and the places, I've been continuously learning about our place in the world. I've learned how far human ingenuity has taken us, and I've seen where next we intend to go. A career with NASA provides an environment that is uniquely stimulating to the mind. The people working at NASA are experts in their fields, and the passion that they have for their work is almost always evident. So while I am involved with NASA in such a direct way, I think it's extremely important to challenge my mind to continuously grow in worldly understanding.

The other aspect of my involvement with NASA that I hope to take with me is life experience. Throughout my engineering education, I always knew that I did not want to get locked into a run-of-the-mill engineering job. I was, and still am, looking for a career that is dynamic and exciting. The research and science that NASA is involved with is cutting edge and often profound. The opportunities for networking and travel are unparalleled. Working for NASA brings together the brightest minds to some of the most exotic places on the planet and beyond. These experiences are so valuable in shaping the kind of person that we become. Through the experiences provided in a job with NASA, each individual has all the opportunity in the world to live and experience the excitement that goes along with the dynamic space industry.

How do you think your NASA involvement will affect your future?

I think that my past and current involvement with NASA will continue to open doors for me, both professionally and personally. The NASA (projects) that I've participated in, such as the USRP, ESMD and the Academy, have all directly led to additional opportunities within NASA. The (projects) seem to build on one another. My network of friends and professional contacts continues to grow and strengthen. My experience with NASA research has also grown as I become more technically sound in the field of optics. Both aspects will continue to have an impact on my future. The personal connections that I make and the research that I become involved with will likely be the most significant professional results. On a personal level, the knowledge, understanding and truth that can be achieved through the study of space and the world around us will continue to have a profound impact on my life. These are all things that have, and will continue to, shape and benefit my life and my connection to the world.

What are your future career plans?

As I will be pursuing a graduate degree in optical science, I would like to become directly involved with the field of ground- and space-based telescopes. I am a firm believer that human understanding of the universe has been driven by the telescope. Among many other profound discoveries, we've learned that the Earth is not the center of the universe and that there are other planets in our galaxy that could potentially host life. The effect these discoveries have had on the ideas and beliefs of humanity have been staggering. Some of our most core beliefs, on a theological, cosmological and even philosophical basis, have been rattled into transformation. The telescope has truly shaped the way we as humans see ourselves and our role in the universe. As I strive to become more involved in the field of telescopes and space imaging, I am driven by the thought that the next profound discovery could be just around the corner. I truly believe that telescopes have the potential to aid in the progression of human thought as well as to contribute to the human experience as a whole. I am enthusiastic to be involved in such a career.

In addition to the contributions I hope to make in the field of space imaging, I aspire to become an American astronaut as a specialist in space optics. I believe that there is no other career that so purely epitomizes the ideas of exploration, ambition and the pursuit of truth.

What advice would you have for other students who are interested in becoming involved with, or working for, NASA?

As a student looking to get involved with NASA, there is truly a world of opportunity just waiting to be discovered. Before I started my first NASA internship, I laughed at the idea that I could work for NASA. It seemed so unachievable for me. I applied for my first internship with the mentality, "Well, you never know." After I had completed that internship, my mentality about getting involved in the space industry had drastically changed. NASA was not the unattainable, impenetrable fortress that it once seemed. In fact, NASA was, and still is, actively seeking enthusiastic young students. When I looked around at the people working on these incredibly exciting space projects, my imagination ran wild. I couldn't help but think, "Somebody has to design the next-generation rockets that will take us to the moon and Mars. Somebody has to build and launch the next big space telescopes. Somebody has to pioneer the science necessary to prove or disprove the possibility for life in our galaxy." My final conclusion quickly became, "Well, why can't that somebody be me!"

Now over a year later, after significant involvement with NASA and their mission, I still stand firmly by this mentality. NASA is looking for you to be this next generation of space technology or science specialist. All it takes is a bit of ambition and enthusiasm to get involved with NASA's mission. The opportunities are out there. Look into what kinds of internships are available for students. I was shocked when I found out just how many there really are! Inquire about NASA internship opportunities to your state's Space Grant Consortium. The sole purpose of these organizations is to help students get involved with NASA and the space industry; they are truly a powerful resource. Above all, know that you can get involved. The next generation of space technology and science is in our hands. Somebody has to lead NASA and the U.S. space industry into the future. The real question is, why can't that somebody be you?
NASA's student opportunity projects are designed to increase the number of scholastically well-suited, highly qualified, diverse students achieving degrees in engineering, mathematics, science or related fields. They support NASA's goal of strengthening NASA's and the nation's future workforce.

Related Resources
NASA Education Web Site   →
Ames Research Center
Marshall Space Flight Center
Undergraduate Student Research Project
ESMD Space Grant Student Project   →
NASA Academy   →
National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services