After my summer at NASA, what now?
Photos courtesy of Natalie Zimmerman, NASA | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase July 15, 2019
UD student reflects on opportunity, wonders about next step, offers advice
Editor’s note: Natalie Zimmerman, who will be a senior in Fall 2019 in the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, was an intern during the summer of 2018 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 was 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 last of three UDaily stories in which Zimmerman shares her summer internship experiences. Links to the two earlier stories at the end of this installment.
Leaving Johnson Space Center and coming back to Delaware felt like leaving a fantasy to come back to the real world. Though interning at NASA was a job and I did have work to do while there, I was also living out a dream. Everyone there loves what they do and is so wholeheartedly motivated, it’s hard to feel like you’re doing any real work. When I talked to other interns or employees, the question was always, “When are you planning to intern again?” not “Are you planning to intern again?” It is so unthinkable that someone could have a taste and not chase after a full-time job.
After this internship, I’m still not sure of the answer to either question. I don’t know when I am going back or if I am going back. It’s complicated. Interning at Johnson Space Center was, yes, an otherworldly experience. I learned so much and got to see so many amazing things, and I know that it will impact me for the rest of my life. I’d love to go back and work there full time, and I want to do everything in my power to make that dream a reality. At the same time, I know that there are so many other amazing experiences that I want to have.
I met so many employees who were hired immediately out of college — NASA has a special program in place specifically for this hiring process because it is the most common way people are hired. These employees will mostly likely work there until they retire, and NASA will be all that they know. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that — the work environment at JSC is unlike any other I’ve experienced, and NASA has consistently been voted the best place to work in the federal government. Personally, though, I wonder if broadening my horizons and gaining more experience may be better. I stumbled upon this internship at NASA — I may stumble upon another opportunity in the future. This internship gave me clarity and experience in so many ways that are hard to explain — I may not know exactly what I want to do after college, but I know the environment that I want to work in, and that environment is at NASA.
Now that I’m back in Delaware, everyone has been asking how my internship was. I don’t really know how to answer the question beyond, “It was absolutely amazing,” and it was, but that also doesn’t completely encompass it. So much of my experience is so unique to me and the moment and the place, that outside of the context of Johnson Space Center it loses meaning. Being immersed in the culture there allowed me to get excited about every little thing that happened and to learn the significance behind every event I attended, person I met, place I visited.
I lived in this bubble of excitement where the other interns and I would nerd out over things that would mean nothing to the average person. I was able to have so many unique experiences, like playing kickball with astronaut and astronaut candidates, and attending the announcement of the first commercial astronauts for the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. While these are things that I will always remember, I will also cherish memories like friends that I made and advice I was given. The experience was so amazing, not only for the science and engineering that I was exposed to, but also for the more sentimental moments and relationships I made. Being back in the real world makes that opportunity hard to describe, but I am so happy that I was able to experience it.
Speaking as a former (and hopefully future) intern — if you are reading this article and are even slightly interested, I encourage you to apply to an internship at NASA. They have so many projects and such a diverse workforce, that even if you don’t think you are “NASA material,” you may be wrong. You don’t need to be a STEM major to work there — I met communication majors, graphic designers, business majors, you-name-it interning there, and I’m sure that their experiences were just as amazing as mine. I never thought that I would be accepted to this internship when I applied, but as I learned during my summer in Houston, you’ll never know if you don’t try.
Second story: Soaking up knowledge during NASA internship