Engineering

How I Scored My Dream Job at NASA

When I started college, I had no idea what engineers did but I knew from patrolling the internet that if I wanted to work at NASA (something I had dreamt about since I was in second grade), then a degree in engineering was probably the way to go. I ended up scoring my first of four NASA internships during my second year of college which led to a full-time job there after graduating. Keep reading to learn how did I did it. But first, enjoy some intern throwback photos!

Real-time Training in Mission Control
Flying on NASA’s Vomit Comet
My Very First Flight Test
Flight Testing My Tablet Mounts in the Super Guppy
  1. I set myself apart. I did a quick internet search of “NASA internship points of contact” to find an actual person I could e-mail at each NASA center rather than just relying on a first impression with a recruiter at a college career fair. You might be surprised how big an impact making a personal connection can have. I just did this internet search again, and you can find NASA Pathways Intern Program points of contact here. Information for all NASA internships can be found here.
  2. I did my research. There’s nothing worse than showing up to an interview without at least a basic understanding of the job you’ve applied to. I made sure I knew what specific functions each NASA center performs and had a general idea of what the organization structure was like (Ex. NASA Johnson has Mission Control, is home to the Astronaut Corps and provides astronaut training, among other things). Some centers focus on research while others are more operationally focused. This knowledge will help with tailoring your applications, making connections in the areas you’re interested in, and with preparing for your interview when the time comes. Also have a general understanding of how the internship program you’re applying for works so that you know how your interning requirements will fit into your graduation plan (Generally NASA’s Pathways Intern Program requires you to intern for a minimum of three semesters).
  3. I am passionate about space and aviation and I made sure the people interviewing me knew it. Know why you want to work at NASA. You want your passion to shine through when you’re applying and interviewing.
  4. I am a team player. Many of my interview questions revolved around how I worked on a team and the type of leader I am. Have some examples of how you’ve overcome difficult situations.
Education, Engineering

What’s Test Pilot School Like?

Similar in nature to traditional military test pilot schools you may have heard of including the United States Naval Test Pilot School and U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, the test pilot school “professional course” I’m currently enrolled in at the National Test Pilot School (NTPS) is an intensive year-long course designed to develop skilled test pilots and flight test engineers. Because I get a lot of questions surrounding what the course is like, I thought I’d give you a brief overview of how the year is structured at NTPS (each test pilot school is going to have their own unique structure).

In another blog post I’ll get into the details of why I’ll be breaking my year into two six-month parts. (Hint: It’s part of my fellowship!)

The year-long professional course is broken down into two halves: the “Systems” phase and “Performance and Flying Qualities” (or P&FQ for short). Each six-month period is comprised of a series of 2-3 week long courses. Systems courses generally occur from January-June and P&FQ classes are held from July-December.

During the Systems phase you’re focusing on the testing of…well, systems. For example, we’ll complete courses learning about and testing GPS and other navigational systems, Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and Head Mounted Displays (HMD), avionics systems, and icing, just to name a few. Many of the flight tests involved in this phase are more qualitative in nature and things like evaluating pilot workload while operating certain systems is particularly important. There are a total of eight courses in the systems phase at NTPS.

As the name suggests, during P&FQ the focus shifts to evaluating the actual flying qualities and performance of aircraft. Some of the courses taken during this phase include takeoff and landing performance, stall theory, supersonic aero, elasticity, modern flight controls, and aircraft dynamics. In general, courses taken during this phase are much more math intensive and theoretical in nature because you need to understand the academics and theory behind the concepts before hopping into the airplane to perform P&FQ flight tests.

Each course generally looks something like this:

Week 1: One week of academic lectures in the classroom for a total of approximately 8 hours a day. On Friday morning you’ll sit for a written exam and will potentially have a short oral exam with an instructor.

Week 2: You’ll fly a demo flight to get familiar with what you’ll be analyzing during the flight test. Then you’ll work in a team of 3-4 students to plan a test and prepare test cards and potentially write a test plan, depending on the course. Sometimes the instructors will bring in relevant companies to explain and demo their products. For example, Thales came by to show us their Scorpion HMD and L3 Harris/Wescam demoed one of their Electro-Optical/Infrared turrets.

Week 3: This week you’ll perform an actual flight test with your team in an airplane, helicopter, or in a simulator (depending on the class), write a daily flight test report following the flight and work to analyze the data you collected. Finally, you’ll work throughout the week to prepare an oral briefing of your flight test and results which you will present on Friday morning either individually or as a team (again, depending on the course).

If you’d like me to explain something in further detail, or you liked this blog post, leave me a comment!

Keep your eyes peeled for a future blog post where I’ll list the minimum requirements for applying to test pilot school.

Ad Astra,

Kate

Note: I don’t speak officially on behalf of NTPS. All opinions here are my own.

Education, Engineering

Part II: Careers in Flight Test Engineering

After announcing my big news that I was selected on a full fellowship to attend the National Test Pilot School, I received a lot of interest from readers wanting to know a whole lot more about flight test engineering and the adventure I’ll be embarking on come January 2022!

This is part two of a three part series on Flight Test Engineering.

You can find part one by clicking here. It gives a brief introduction to flight test engineering, the role flight test engineers play, and why flight test engineering is a crucial step to the development and certification of aircraft and spacecraft.

In part two we’ll discuss the unique skills required of flight test engineers and some examples of where you might work as a Flight Test Engineer.

Finally, in part three I’ll tell you how I scored an opportunity to get paid to attend the National Test Pilot School and how you can apply in the future!

If you’ve decided that flight test engineering sounds like a pretty cool career, it’s helpful to understand some of the skills that make a good Flight Test Engineer. I’ve listed a few below that might help when applying to and interviewing for FTE jobs.

Leadership & Teamwork: As I mentioned in part one, FTEs are responsible for many phases of a flight test program. As such, a Flight Test Engineer must possess the skills required to successfully integrate and coordinate a diverse team that can effectively work together to fulfill the objectives of the test campaign.

Problem Solving & Communication Skills: Flight Test Engineers are able to break down a problem into finite characteristics that can be fixed and succinctly convey their findings in a way that will get the stakeholders to spend money on it. Further, because FTEs must write test plans & reports and present test findings, excellent verbal and written communication skills become even more crucial.

Safety/Risk Management: No matter where you work, safety and the management of risks will undoubtedly be a priority for the company, especially in the aerospace and space industries where almost every decision you make could have dire consequences. As a Flight Test Engineer, you’ll learn how to safely design and execute a test and effectively communicate the results.

Technical Competence & Confidence: Everyone I have spoken to who has been through a flight test engineering program has told me that test pilot school will undoubtedly challenge you in many ways. Mainly, between classes, presentations, flying, etc., you’ll feel like you have more tasks to complete than hours available in a week. It’s important to learn how to prioritize tasks accordingly. The payoff is that you’ll graduate from the program with the expertise to lead with confidence and the technical competence to back it up.

In reality, the skills you acquire as a Flight Test Engineer can be leveraged to make you a great candidate for an incredibly wide range of jobs in nearly any industry. Remember, just because a job doesn’t specifically ask for a flight test engineering certification, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak to the unique skills and experience you can bring to the table. In actuality, the skills learned in a flight test engineering professional course, have the ability to bring depth to many areas of an aerospace/space professional’s career.

Where can you work as a Flight Test Engineer? Here is just a short list of the endless possibilities (in alphabetical order).

Stay tuned for part three and drop a comment here or on Instagram if you liked this post or have any questions!

Kate