Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.
During Spring Semester 2019, I worked as an intern for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I worked on safety critical software that will directly support the launch of the SLS rocket. The project that I developed provides a new way to test the displays that engineers in the Launch Control Center will use.
What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
I understand NASA’s overall mission better, and have a better view of what is happening at various parts of NASA, as well as where the rest of the Space industry is moving towards. I saw some of the different types of tradeoffs people and managers had to do to get things done. While there are some extraordinary geniuses at NASA, I realized most of the employees are just regular people who like space. I also realized that most people’s paths to get to NASA were not straightforward. They didn’t go through the traditional process of a single undergrad engineering degree to be there. Many people I met there came from Community College, or the Military, or even did an a bachelors in something not STEM related.
I also had to adapt to a different culture at NASA and in Florida. Work generally moved slowly for us there for various reasons. There was still a lot of work to do, but setting up took a while, and a lot of the work was fixing difficult and non-intuitive problems. While I was in Florida I also had to learn how to live with a lot of animals and a difficult roommate that I was responsible for driving. Living in this unfamiliar situation caused me to rely on the friends I made there a lot more than I would have otherwise, and I consequently made some lifelong friends.
What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
There is a definite tradeoff between quality and maintainability of software, and getting a product out. One of the new full time software engineers there saw a lack of quality in the structure of my code due to an existing structure. While some of the other engineers thought it would be a waste of time (“painting the bikeshed”) to fix the structure of the code to make it faster and more useable in the future, the new full timer made a case that he could refactor it efficiently, and succeeded. I saw variations of these types of discussions play out in various projects within the office. There were some people, like the software architect that would consistantly push for good practices over speed, while others would push back for various reasons.
NASA is an organization that operates on a long timeline, and there were a lot of older technologies and paradigms in use there. Many of the designs for buildings, rockets, other machines, and software was repurposed from past missions in past eras with specifications that conflicted with future requirements. The technology I worked with was generally pretty old for software and the question ‘Why do we use X?’ sometimes gave confusing answers rooted in multiple changes in administrative priority and bureaucracy. There was a stated business casual dress code (which in tech is outdated) with collared shirts and long pants, but nobody seemed to care if you followed it or not. Because such a high priority was put on safety, nearly everything was tested, and it seemed like more priority was placed on testing than on features at many times. Much of the work we had to do was aimed at making the jobs of the people doing the testing easier.
Although this work was important, due to the massive scope and timeframe of the entire SLS (Space Launch System) program it sometimes felt as if the work I was doing had little impact. However, when the farther along my project got, the more people asked about it, and would come to rely on it. Although my project had importance to the organization, I felt that I was not learning as much as I wanted to technically working on it. I learned a lot when I was working alongside an engineer during projects, or speaking to my mentor about the history of NASA, but when it came time to sit alone and develop software, I felt kind of stagnant. Reading through documentation and trying random things until they work can be frustrating.
There is definitely something special about NASA that you wouldn’t get at most workplaces. When you go into work through the gate, you’re greeted by space shuttle booster engines. Out of the corner of your eye, you can spot the vehicle assembly building. As you drive in further, the scale of the building is finally clear. It is one of the largest buildings in the world by volume, and where NASA has constructed their rockets for the past 50 years. Getting a close up view of that building every day made me proud to work at NASA, and gave me a sense of how big, difficult, unique and amazing the things going on at NASA were. Regardless of what I had to work on, NASA’s overall mission, the collective goal to expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity, is incredible.
To accomplish incredible goals you need incredible people, and the some of the people who worked at NASA were a big part of what made it special. My mentors were great, interesting, and motivated people, and although they didn’t take a deep dive into my project technically, they were really welcoming. They organized lunches and a tour to see the the crawler, and came into our room periodically to talk rockets and careers with us. One of my mentors went out of her way to take us to her makerspace, where we got to meet interesting Orlando makers and make out own laser cut drinking glasses. Some of the other engineers had the ability to make even mundane things exciting. The engineers who specifically took an interest in helping me made a big difference by giving my work purpose.
During my internship I made friends with people from across the country and around the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds. I went fishing, went climbing, played basketball, watched movies, and went on a road trip to Key West with them. I learned a lot of things I would otherwise not have known from them because everyone had different interests and was from different places. We grew very close, and I ended up meeting people I will probably be lifelong friends with. Being out of the house and constantly coordinating the next adventure with them exposed me to many different perspectives and made me a happier, more extroverted person.
Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
My NASA internship helped build valuable software engineering and testing skills by having me complete an independent project from start to finish. I built skills using different tools, testing software, and communicating problems to a large team that will help me in future software engineering positions. I also learned about the space program, its history, and about the various spacecraft and people who made it work.
Working at NASA also made me reconsider what I value long term. The people who I looked up to the most at NASA were always learning new things and finding ways to apply new ideas in and out of work. They reaffirmed that I should constantly be learning and trying new things, as well as teaching others. On a related note, most of the people I talked to advised me to go onto grad school straight out of undergrad, which makes me more sure in my plan to do so.
Me in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building night/day.