Life outside class: Students snag NASA internships

Even with a stipend of up to $5,000, the best part of the job is the experience it offers.

by Andy Mannix

In 1995, Tom Hanks gracefully floated across the big screen in theaters around the world in the film “Apollo 13.” It was then that a seed was planted for 10-year-old Mark Stole.

Twelve years later, Stole, an aerospace engineering senior, helped design the engine for the Lunar Surface Access Module – a spacecraft being constructed by NASA.

Now flash forward about 12 more years into the future, and if all goes as planned, that same spacecraft will be landing on the surface of the Moon as part of NASA’s Constellation program.

Stole, along with 10 other University students, spent last summer working for NASA through an internship program.

Stole worked on the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

In addition to designing an injector for the LSAM engine, Stole also analyzed data results from another engine that is being designed for the Ares rockets.

The Ares rockets are being built to transport astronauts back to Earth from the moon, and then one day go to Mars.

“Seeing how things are done out there away from the textbooks, away from the classroom, it’s definitely really helpful and really informative,” Stole said.

Stole’s post-college aspiration is to pursue the astronaut training program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and become an instructor, he said.

However, he hasn’t ruled out the idea of becoming an astronaut.

“I probably won’t actively pursue being an astronaut,” Stole said with a laugh. “But if the opportunity ever presented itself, I don’t think I could pass it up.”

With a few months of hands-on experience with NASA under his belt, the chances of Stole breaking into the competitive business of aerospace is a lot more likely, Gary Balas, aerospace engineering and mechanics professor, said.

The experience a student gets through an internship with NASA is possibly the largest step they can take toward getting a job in the industry after graduation, Balas said.

Abdul “Azeem” Khan graduated from the University last spring with a degree in electrical engineering and computer engineering.

Now Khan is working as a software engineer for Rockwell-Collins, developing next-generation avionics for flight display, he said.

Khan attributes a lot of his success in his new job to a NASA internship he participated in at the space department of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

“We are using the same kind of approaches as NASA,” he said. “So it was pretty helpful.”

Getting into the internship program, however, is no easy task.

To participate in the internship, students apply to specific NASA programs they are interested in working with, Balas said.

NASA then looks to the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium – the Minnesota chapter of a nationwide NASA-funded program created by Congress – to select the candidates they deem worthy, Bill Garrard, Minnesota Space Consortium director and University professor, said.

With an approximate 25 percent acceptance rate for the MSGC, the NASA internship program is extremely competitive, Garrard said.

“If somebody’s not a pretty good student or has some talents that are of interest to NASA, it’s kind of a waste of time for them to apply,” he said. “That being said, we have a lot of really good applicants.”

In addition to an impressive boost to their résumés, the students who are accepted receive a stipend that usually ranges from $4,000 to $5,000 for the whole summer, Garrard said.

But for most students who get the chance to participate in the internship, the biggest reward is the work itself, he said.

“For those of us that love this stuff, I mean that’s just great,” Garrard said. “You’re surprised that someone is paying you to do it. You’d pay them practically.”