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Ryan Ligon
June 14, 2013

EDITOR'S NOTE: Each June, NASA's Langley Research Center welcomes hundreds of student interns who are studying majors that lend support to NASA's mission. For the fifth year, NASA Langley is presenting some of their stories throughout the 10-week summer session.


After 10 years, I still get chills watching the scene of the movie, October Sky, where a small model rocket pierces the bright blue skies of Coalwood, W.V. I grew up in the small town of Ladysmith – far from the smoke-filled skies of coal country. My hometown was nothing like Coalwood, but still isolated enough to give my sister and I ample room to explore in this yet unurbanized area of northeastern Virginia.

My first encounter with rockets happened while I was a member of Cub Scouts. My dad was the Cub Scout team leader and was a technical education teacher at one of the local high schools. My dad knew the basic ins-and-outs of launching a small, 12-inch model rocket. When our team had events, my dad would provide fun educational activities for us, the best involving makeshift rockets. I thought it was fascinating to go out to the wide-open field in the front of my neighborhood and launch the equivalent of a cardboard paper towel roll a couple of hundred feet into the air. Of course, the breeze above the tree line which blew the parachuting projectile out of reach into the nearby tree tops did nothing to enhance the excitement for a group of boys in Cub Scouts.


It wasn't until I watched October Sky for the first time that I truly began to grasp that there was something up there. The moon and the stars were more than just a stark facade – they were actually tangible. There were those from Earth that had actually walked on that bright, pockmarked disk in the sky. I started to ask myself questions: What did it feel like? Smell like? Sound like? What was it like to be in space? Only a few hundred out of billions of people knew the answers to those questions. It was the stuff of dreams, and I was hooked.

I've always been a good student in school, so no one doubted that I would get into engineering school. However, I always felt like a job at NASA, the Mount Olympus of space science and engineering, would be just out of reach; at least until I completed some outstanding research in undergraduate or graduate school. 

With the exception of the expanded freedom that college naturally brings, my freshman year at the engineering school of Virginia Tech came and went, similar to the previous 13 years of public school. Our engineering exploration professors suggested we go to the fall internship fair, but braced us for the fact that no one really hires first-year engineering students. I was stuck in a rut. Here I was, at one of the premier engineering schools in the country, and I still had to put off any hope of interning at NASA for at least one more year. Then, during my sophomore year, my professors seemed to echo the same chorus yet again – not many hire second-year engineering students. This was no help for my growing impatient disposition to acquire an internship at NASA.

Finally, a glimmer of hope arose in the form of a visit to NASA Langley during winter break of sophomore year, with a family friend who works at the center. It was awesome to see some of the groundbreaking research going on at Langley; but I was still a sophomore. I didn’t get my hopes up for an internship at NASA.

Then, shortly before my birthday, I received an email informing me that I’d been selected to intern with the LARSS (Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars) program for the summer. I could not have been more excited. My fourteen years of hard work and determination in school was paying off.

So far, interning at NASA Langley has been nothing short of a dream summer job. I'm now working in Game Changing Development, doing trade studies on solar panels for use in solar electric propulsion systems. The first week involved reading numerous technical papers and reports in order to gain valuable background knowledge to help me in my work; and I’I'll be working with some other engineers at Langley later this summer to learn more about the orbital drag characteristics of certain solar array shapes.

The Cub Scout version of me knew nothing about solar cell efficiency, differential equations or orbital mechanics, but he did know something about dreams. The unique thing about aerospace engineering, or rocket science as I like to call it, is that you can’t accurately picture much of what you’re working on. Space is an environment, quite foreign to those of us without the good fortune to travel through it. When you’re designing a new satellite, new rocket engine or a new crew module, the fine line between what you know as reality and what you can envision in your dreams becomes blurred. Your dreams are the architect of your work almost as much as your work is the architect of your dreams. That’s what I love about working at NASA, everyone here seems to have that little kid still inside of them that looked up at the stars one summer night and became intoxicated by their own dreams of spaceflight.

Ryan Ligon
Virginia Tech

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Ryan Ligon
Ryan Ligon is a LARSS (Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars) intern from Virginia Tech who is working for NASA Langley's Game Changing Development Program Office.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Bob Allen