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.

Engineering

My First Project as a NASA Engineer: DReAM

Ever thought that engineers just sit at a desk and crunch numbers all day? Think again! I’m here to share the deets on my first project I managed as a full-time engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. First, I have to mention that any good project has to start with a really cool acronym, thus the birth of the DReAM Team. DReAM is an acronym I made up and stands for Domestic REturn Aircraft Modification.

One of two primary missions that NASA Johnson Space Center’s Gulfstream aircraft fly is the direct return of astronauts back to Houston when they land from the International Space Station. Once the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA began flying its astronauts to the ISS exclusively on the Russian Soyuz. The Soyuz returns to Earth over the steppes of Kazakhstan and as you can imagine, a commercial flight back home isn’t exactly the most practical, especially after having become accustomed to a lack of gravity while in space. Additionally, the sooner that medical testing can be accomplished on astronauts after their return, the more scientific data that can be collected about the implications of human spaceflight on the human body. Because the Soyuz only carries three astronauts and at least one is always a Russian, the maximum number of astronauts that ever need a lift back to Houston from Kazakhstan is two.

As the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) spools up, NASA’s commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing will initially be launching four astronauts at a time in their Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft. Although these spacecraft will drop astronauts much closer to home, the Gulfstream aircraft will still be tasked to pick them up.

My first project upon beginning my full-time job at NASA back in 2018 was to outfit these aircraft with the capability to support the return of up to four astronauts back to Houston for the Commercial Crew Program. This included reconfiguring the cabin of the aircraft to optimize space for both the astronauts and essential personnel like their flight doctors. I used existing passenger seating to create the base for mattresses that are installed so they have a place to lay down, mounted medical oxygen bottles under each bed, ensured access to medical-grade outlets for special equipment, selected the color of new carpeting to be installed, and installed curtains for privacy around each bed. Yes, I somewhat jokingly, yet also seriously now consider myself an amateur aircraft interior designer. If you can believe it, I found space for four beds and six additional passengers plus two pilots, a Flight Science Officer and a maintainer on our GV. Whew, that was tricky! This configuration flew for the first time to return the Crew-1 astronauts to Houston after splashdown off the coast of Florida early May 2nd.

The project was incredibly rewarding for several reasons. Not only was this project incredibly hands-on (which I LOVE) but I also had the chance to work with many different offices at Johnson Space Center to ensure that I was meeting everyone’s requirements; the CCP, the flight docs, the astronaut office, etc. Furthermore, although I definitely didn’t complete the project solo, it was a unique project in that I didn’t have a dedicated team working on it like we often do for payload integration projects where often all hands are on deck. In this case I was able to fully participate in the entire project lifecycle which I think is so important for the professional development of an engineer. I was in charge of requirements definition, design, integration and project management along the way and finally I’ll get to see it installed and more than likely even come along as a Flight Science Officer as we fly the design on a future direct return mission!