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!

Engineering

What’s NASA’s Astronaut Application Like?

That’s one small step towards my childhood dream. In 2016 a record-setting 18,300+ people applied to be an astronaut. NASA chose 12. How do you like those .066% odds? This year, even with the additional requirement of a Master’s degree, NASA still received over 12,000 applications. One of them was mine. I think this may just be the most competitive job in the universe! Since the application changed a little bit this year, I thought I’d share with you what the application looked like.

Part 1: Build Resume in USAJOBS

This is probably one of the most time consuming parts of the application and can be quite frustrating. Although USAJOBS has an option to import your resume, for certain postings it requires you to use the USAJOBS Resume Builder. This is one of those positions. You will be required to manually enter each of your professional experiences individually and select whether you’d like to allow them to reach out to your supervisor. I would suggest that you only say yes if you are sure they’ll remember you and/or you’ve let them know you put them down. I felt like this process made it a bit difficult to set yourself apart from the crowd, but then again, I’m sure there are others who felt that way as well.

Part 2: Upload Required Transcripts

It’s a good idea to keep electronic copies of your college transcripts on hand because you never know when you’ll need them (ex. job applications, professional certifications like the P.E., etc). In addition to your USAJOBS resume, you will also have to upload and submit transcripts for all degrees you want credit for. If you do not upload these transcripts or other required documents as listed in the job posting, you will likely be disqualified right off the bat. You are not required to upload official transcripts but keep in mind that if selected, you will be required to provide official transcripts.

Part 3: Qualifying Questions

Just when you think you’ve completed the application and say to yourself “Wow, that was surprisingly simple” you submit and are routed to the agency specific section. Don’t worry, this isn’t difficult either. You’ll be asked questions that help further determine if you meet the basic requirements of the job listing and whether you understand the risks of the job, etc.

Part 4: Assessment

The assessment is something new this year. Within about 30 minutes of submitting the application, you will receive a link to the assessment which needs to be completed within 48 hours of the application closing. The assessment contains three parts and it is recommended to take the entire thing in one sitting but you can save it and come back if you’d like. The assessment is management by OPM (Office of Personnel Management), the federal agency responsible for managing the government’s civilian workforce.

Assessment #1: Work Experience Assessment. This one is not timed and about 25 multiple choice questions. The questions ask things like “When asked, your supervisor would explain your work style as” and then gives you a number of choices.

Assessment #2: OPM Essay Test. You will be given 25 minutes to write an essay which the system says will be graded by computer. The prompt I was given related to writing about the pros and cons to a particular subject. Astronauts are often the face of NASA and human spaceflight so I presume this is supposed to assess whether you are able to communicate effectively.

Assessment #3: Work Styles Assessment. This one felt like it went on and on…and on. It is non-timed and forces you to select one of two given options related to what describes you better in a work situation. Sometimes this is incredibly difficult as I often felt like neither choice applied to me and they both sounded like negative attributes to have! The ones I remember most were related to how you react to being stressed at work or how you feel when others at work are stressed out.

A helpful note is that once you have submitted your application, you are able to re-enter the system and make changes up until the application closes. Start your application early because it will likely take you longer to complete than you expect.

The selection process takes the agency approximately one year to complete and NASA plans to announce its next astronaut class sometime during early Summer 2021. I’ve heard a good sign that you may have made it into the running for the final interview round is if you hear that your references have been contacted.

For astronaut selection criteria and tips, click here to read my previous blog post. This post outlines the minimum requirements for NASA astronaut selection.

Godspeed friends,

Kate