As a high school student, Deepak Atyam spent two summers as an INSPIRE intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. INSPIRE is a national NASA student program that gives high school students who are interested in science, engineering, technology and mathematics the opportunity to work with accomplished scientists and engineers on real space missions and research projects.
Below, Atyam shares the story of his JPL internships and some of his favorite memories from working at the lab.
Interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the age of 17 was amazing. It was the summer of 2010 and I had just finished my junior year in high school. I was tasked with working on the radar for the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover. The Mars Science Laboratory rover, scheduled to launch Nov. 25, 2011, will go to Mars to assess if a local area of land is suitable for life or if life existed in the past.
My project was to create an Environmental Control System, or ECS, using a jet fuel tank to house the radar for the Curiosity rover. The ECS purged liquid nitrogen to cool the electronics that were controlling the radars' components in the fuel tank.
This system was mounted and tested on an F/A -18 fighter jet in June 2011. It was crazy for me to fathom that some of the brightest minds alive were using a structure that I engineered to complete their tasks. It's just a remarkable feeling when you know you've accomplished something so unique.
After I finished my first great internship at JPL, I continued my high school education. It was a painstakingly long wait before I was able to come back to the place where dreams become a reality. Because of the work I had accomplished as well as my achievements in school I was invited back to JPL to work during the summer of 2011.
The program that brought me to JPL then and now is called INSPIRE, or Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience. INSPIRE is a national NASA program that offers high school students the opportunity to experience what it is like to be an engineer or scientist at NASA.
This time around, I worked on a project in a different spectrum from my norm. I was working in a section of a department called Team X. Team X develops rapid mission concepts for engineers and large organizations to formulate budget costs, material predictions and orbit calculations for space missions. Team X pulled in 11 interns, undergrads and high school students to complete a mission development project.
Our initial goal was to create a database that contained information about past, present and future launch vehicles, instruments, spacecraft and cubesats (miniaturized satellites used for space research). After we compiled that information, we were then asked to formulate an entire mission concept from the data we collected so that we could see how well the database actually worked.
During the third week of my internship, I looked for extra work to satisfy my engineering mind and was presented with two different choices: drive rovers around the Mars Yard -- a simulated Mars environment -- or wire up the Mars 2018 field-test robot. I chose both.
I worked with a fellow intern to do a majority of tests with the engineering model of the Mars Exploration Rover as well as the mobility skeleton of the Curiosity rover, called Scarecrow.
Scarecrow has no instruments or brain, only wheels that exert the same pressure on Earth as they would on Mars to simulate driving on the Red Planet. Our job was to measure how much each rover slipped on the different gradient terrain at variable inclines.
We mounted three GPS units that were able to measure yaw, pitch and roll of the rovers and we learned how to operate the rovers using command lines.
I don't think any other students anywhere in the world had the opportunity to drive engineering models of rovers in simulated environments as part of their internships. I was really lucky to have been offered this project.
These past two years at JPL have been absolutely incredible. I never thought I would be able to do something like this as an undergraduate in college let alone in high school. It was incredible to see the feats of engineering that all of the workers at JPL created. From the mission concept designs at Team X to field test work with the Mechanical Department, nothing ever ceased to awe me.
I am now a freshman studying Aerospace Engineering at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). My experiences at JPL helped me to form a team at UCSD, in collaboration with San Diego State University, to build liquid fueled rockets. I am now leading the production of one of the stages of a two-stage rocket as a freshman.
Working at JPL helped me hone my leadership skills as well as gain a tremendous amount of engineering knowledge I know I would not have be able to gain elsewhere. I couldn't have asked for better experiences as a high school student, but now that I'm in college I hope to go back to JPL for another successful summer. I honestly don't know what I will be working on next summer but I know that with my background of knowledge, whatever I work on will be an awesome engineering task!