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JPL Interns Put to Work on NASA's Flagship Missions

JPL Interns Put to Work on NASA's Flagship Missions More than 300 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral summer interns arrived at Southern California's NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in June to begin work on various missions and operations. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When Montana-native Andrew Crawford arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for his summer internship, he was put straight to work. His first order of business: help transport the next Mars rover to Florida in preparation for its launch.

“When I got the call from JPL that I’d been chosen as an intern, I either wanted to faint, cry or jump for joy,” said Crawford of his internship in JPL’s Deep Space Network Antenna Mechanical group, where he’ll be creating a 3-D model of a next-generation antenna to be used in spacecraft communication. “I thought it was going to be cool. But I didn’t know it was going to be this cool.”

Crawford joins more than 300 student interns who were accepted into dozens of JPL programs offered each summer. Ranging from high school and college students to graduate and doctoral students, the interns work on projects like “chemistry of exoplanet atmospheres,” “lunar dynamics” and “robot control for sampling” all while getting hands-on experience with real JPL missions and operations.

This summer, in particular, interns will have the opportunity to be front and center for major mission events like the launch of the twin GRAIL probes designed to measure gravity of Earth’s moon as well as the launch of the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter and Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity to Mars.

“A lot of students have been hired to work on the Mars Science Laboratory,” said Linda Rodgers, the university programs coordinator for JPL’s Education Office. “They’re not just observing. They’re doing hands-on work. That’s required.”  

For about the next 10 weeks, students will be busy with tasks like developing laser communications technology, collecting and analyzing data from spacecraft and researching propulsion systems. These tasks are all guided by a JPL mentor who will not only oversee each student’s progress, but also teach them new concepts and project management skills.

During a time when several missions are ramping up for launches and arrivals, mentor Wafa Aldiwan, who works on flight software for the Juno mission, due to launch in early August, says hiring an intern is a win-win.

“Juno is a flagship mission and we’re showing this student things that are directly in his major,” said Aldiwan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aerospace major who will be assisting the team with risk-reduction reports. “We’re really busy, so it’s helping us, and it’s helping him.”

Already, 183 undergraduate interns and 93 graduate and doctoral students have arrived at the lab to begin work, after traveling from their hometowns across the country. In the final week of June, JPL welcomed 39 more pre-college interns, many of whom competed against hundreds of applicants for just a handful of opportunities.

Crawford, for one, is already setting his sights on returning next year. “I’d like to help promote the things that are happening here and hopefully inspire other kids to get involved.”