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UD student begins internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Photos courtesy of Natalie Zimmerman | Photo illustrations by Jeffrey Chase

Natalie Zimmerman shares application experience and early days in Houston

Editor’s note: Natalie Zimmerman, who will be a junior this fall in the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, has an internship this summer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Zimmerman, who is from Scotch Plains, N.J., is an Honors geology major, with minors in computer science and chemistry. Her internship is supported by the UD-based Delaware Space Grant Consortium, which is part of a national program funded by NASA to train students and researchers in areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and geography. This is the first of three planned UDaily stories in which Zimmerman will share her summer internship experiences.

When I applied to the NASA summer internship program, I honestly wasn’t expecting to get accepted. I applied to about 15 different NASA internships through an online application, and I was just proud of myself for going out on a limb and applying for an opportunity that seemed so out of reach.

When I received a voicemail from a NASA internship coordinator telling me that my resume had been selected out of the pile for further consideration, I was extremely excited. I immediately called them back -- astonished that I had done it, thinking I was getting an internship at NASA! And then I promptly had the worst phone interview of my life. I stumbled over my words and gave horrible responses to every question, and when the interviewer finished the phone call with, “We have several other applicants to interview,” I just knew that I had lost the internship. I cried to my friends about how frustrated I was for getting so close and losing it, but decided that in the end I was proud of myself for making it that far.

UD student Natalie Zimmerman, a NASA intern at the Johnson Space Center, in front of rocket boosters on display in the public area of the facility.

When I received the acceptance email, I was sitting in Margherita’s Pizza on Main Street. Since my phone interview the day before, I had been religiously checking my email, waiting for my rejection letter. I was in the middle of my second slice of pizza with friends when the email came in. I immediately opened it and read it. And then re-read it two more times, still not believing my eyes. My immediate first thought was “They sent me the wrong email.” It didn’t really hit me until I read it out loud to my friends and they yelled, “You’re going to work at NASA!” in the middle of the crowded pizza shop.

Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. I also wanted to be a marine scientist and a firefighter and a fashion designer, among other things, but astronaut was always on the list. As I got older, I narrowed down my interests. I fell in love with science and exploration, and my passion for space grew. I thought that my dream of working at NASA was a longshot, though, so I tried to pick a career path with a backup plan. I started my journey at UD as an environmental science major, but after taking a geology course, I fell in love. Geology is perfect because it is such a flexible major - I love doing field work and could see myself being very happy working at a variety of companies, but I also knew when I switched majors that NASA hires geologists as planetary scientists. NASA was always in the back of my mind, but it was something that I figured I would not achieve for a very long time. Now that I had gotten such an amazing opportunity, I knew that I couldn’t let it slip through my fingers; I needed to make the most of my internship.

The following few weeks consisted of finals, trying to find housing in Houston, and constantly feeling in over my head. The more research I did about NASA and the Johnson Space Center, the more certain I became that I was absolutely, 100% not qualified to intern there. My internship title was “Center Operations and Sustainability,” and the description of what I would be doing did not seem to exist. The lack of information about my internship gave me the opportunity to build it up in my mind, and before long I was convinced that once I got there, they would immediately send me home because they realized that I was a fraud.

At orientation, I spent most of the day with the hundred or so other interns, discussing safety and security guidelines that I would have to follow - in case you’re wondering, security at NASA is pretty intense. I also went into one of those giant inflatable planetariums, and immediately had a flashback to sitting in the same one with my kindergarten class. The intern coordinators kept repeating what an amazing summer we would all have, but all I could think about was how anxious I was about my first day of work.

When my first day finally came, my roommate (an extremely nice grad student who I met on Facebook) and I Ubered to work. Neither of us were able to drive to Houston to have our cars, and public transportation is not very common there. I spent a few minutes hiding in the bathroom before working up the courage to walk into my office, where I met my mentor. She was probably one of the kindest and friendliest people I had ever met, and she immediately put me at ease. She introduced me to everyone in Center Operations, and right away I was put to work.

Everyone that I met throughout the day greeted me warmly, and I realized that everyone treated me as an equal. In meetings, employees that had been at JSC for years genuinely listened to my opinion, and I was given projects to complete that had real significance to the maintenance of JSC. While my internship is a short term position (only 10 weeks), I found myself feeling like a real NASA employee. I realized that my own confidence had increased exponentially as well; my fears that everyone would “realize that I’m a fraud” have slipped to the back to my mind. NASA was so built up in my mind that I imagined that everyone here would be an expert in their field - in actuality, the thing that makes NASA scientists and engineers so innovative is their willingness to think outside of the box and learn new things.

As an intern, I’m not expected to know everything, I’m just expected to be able to pick up new processes and innovate new solutions. The buzzword at JSC is “collaboration.” If there is something that I don’t know how to do, there’s someone here that does and who I can work with to get the project done. Interning at NASA is so exciting not only because the projects are so interesting, but also because you spend so much of your time collaborating with others and working on new and innovative things.

One of the other exciting things about working here is, of course, all of the amazing space-related projects happening all around me. Center Operations focuses on improving and maintaining JSC, so I don’t personally work with space-related projects, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely separated from them. I get the opportunity to sit in on lectures by astronauts, tour significant projects and buildings, and meet people doing ground-breaking aerospace work everyday.

Already, I had the opportunity to view the Ascent Abort-2 capsule that is being built for a flight test next spring before being included in the Orion spacecraft, which will take humans on deep-space missions farther than we’ve ever gone before. Johnson Space Center is also home to Mission Control, where NASA personnel conversed with astronauts doing a recent 6-hour spacewalk at the International Space Station. I watched the livestream from just one building away, completely amazed the entire time. Every building here is full of old space suits, or pieces from past spacecraft, or prints of deep-space telescope images, and everyone that works here has a passion for space and space travel. As a self-proclaimed space-nerd, interning at Johnson Space Center is a dream come true for me.

Delaware Space Grant Consortium

The Delaware Space Grant Consortium (DESGC) is funded by NASA in order to train students and researchers in the state of Delaware in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The DESGC is led by the University of Delaware and represents all higher education institutions within the jurisdiction. It supports graduate fellowships, undergraduate tuition scholarships, and summer internships within Delaware and at NASA Centers. For more about DESGC see www.delspace.org.


Natalie Zimmerman at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston at the start of her 10-week summer internship.
Natalie Zimmerman at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston at the start of her 10-week summer internship.

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