It sounds like a reality show: A team of six interns working remotely from their homes across the country given 10 weeks to build a prototype lunar spacecraft that can launch on a balloon over the California desert. But for Christine Yuan, a senior at Cornell University, it was just another engineering challenge.
This summer marked Yuan's second time interning with the Innovation to Flight group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The group brings in a collaborative team of a dozen or more interns each year. Their task is to create and test prototypes of far-flung ideas for spacecraft and space technology over the course of their internship. But this summer, with most of JPL's employees still on mandatory telework and interns required to complete their projects remotely, the team had an even bigger challenge to overcome: How could they build a spacecraft together while hundreds of miles apart?
Yuan flashed back to her days using materials from around the house to build props and costumes from her favorite TV shows and games. It was what made her want to become a mechanical engineer in the first place. She had a 3D printer and tools in the apartment she shares with a friend from school. So it was decided. She would build the spacecraft in her apartment and mail it in parts to the other interns working on electronics and software from their respective homes.
We caught up with Yuan to learn how she and the team took on the challenge of building a spacecraft from home, how her childhood hobby served as inspiration, and to find out whether the test flight was a success.
What are you working on at JPL?
I'm an intern with the Innovation to Flight group, which is a team of interns that works with JPL engineers and scientists to take ideas for new kinds of technology or spacecraft from ideation to flight in one summer. The goal is to quickly develop prototypes to see whether an idea is feasible and increase the technical readiness level of various hardware. I was part of the group last summer, too. This summer, we've been split into two groups. The group I'm working with is exploring whether we might be able to use a constellation of CubeSats [small, low-cost satellites] to support robots and astronauts on the Moon. So we're building prototypes of the CubeSats and the communications and navigation technology.
How might CubeSats support astronauts and robots on the Moon?
The goal is to have a couple of these CubeSats orbiting the Moon that can assist with various surface operations, whether it's a rover or a small robot or an astronaut trying to communicate. There are a couple parts to it. One is localization, the ability to figure out where you are on the Moon – sort of like our GPS on Earth – so different assets know where they are relative to each other. The other part is communication. If you're collecting data, the data could be sent from the surface assets to the CubeSats to another surface asset or ground station. The CubeSats could take away a lot of the onboard processing that needs to happen so assets on the Moon could use less processing power.
You're interning remotely this summer. Are you actually building the CubeSat?
Yeah. On the CubeSat team, there are six of us, so we have a couple of people working on the software and then a few of us are working on building the CubeSat itself. I have a lot of tools and a 3D printer, so I'm working on designing the structure and then prototyping it using the stuff I have at home. The team has been getting materials out to me, and I've been printing stuff on my 3D printer and building it out. Then I've been mailing out parts to our avionics people so they can load it up with all the electronics.
Wow. That's so cool. Are you building all of this at home or in your dorm room? Are the people living with you wondering what you're up to?
I spent the first half of the summer in my parents' house, so I was operating out of their garage. Now that I'm back at school, I work from my apartment. I'm living with one of my friends right now. She's also in the aerospace field so she has an idea of what I'm doing. Most of the time we're just working in our rooms, but I normally have a bit more of a "dynamic" going on in my room.
How has the team adjusted to working remotely?
Half the team is returning from last summer, so we've worked together before. But when we were at JPL, it was easier because we could walk back and forth with parts and hand things off.
When we were planning for the summer, we were talking about the different options that we had. I like to build things in my free time, so I have a bunch of different tools. I'm a mechanical engineer, so I was going to be working on the structure anyway. So I said, "I'll build the structure, ship it in pieces to the rest of the team, and give them a detailed explanation or a CAD model so they can assemble it." Our software and electronics guys are coding everything and sharing their files. Two of the team members are roommates this summer, which is really convenient. They're working on the electronics and avionics out of the basement at one of their family's homes. Then, we're just constantly messaging with each other. We talk at least once a day. It helps that we're a small team.
What's your average day like?
I'm on the East Coast, so the time difference hasn't affected me too badly. I wake up, work out, and then I start work. In the morning, I'll check in with different members of the team. I like to have a to-do list, so I normally have one for the week. Depending on what I need to do, my day ranges anywhere from trying to figure out what I need to prototype next to 3D printing something or drilling holes in this or that. I use any downtime to talk to other team members, figure out what they're doing.
How has the remote experience compared with last summer, when you were at JPL in person?
The most disappointing thing was not being able to be at JPL in person with everyone. Last summer, there were about 15 of us all working in the same room together. We'd have big brainstorming meetings, all getting together and working on the white board. It was kind of a chaotic, loud mess, but it was a lot of fun, and we got a lot of work done. I was always moving around, always talking to somebody, always building something or testing something. I really enjoyed working on a team like that. It was very fast-paced.
This summer, it's a little more difficult, because I haven't met half the team members in person, and it's just slower. We're shipping things to one another and some of us are in different time zones. It's just been a little more difficult to get things done as fast. Another big change is that at the end of last summer, we had two flight tests. We launched one of our prototypes on a tethered balloon, and then we tested some of our other projects on a high-altitude balloon. We're not going to get to do that in person this summer.
Do you feel like you still have that team comradery even though you're apart this summer?
Definitely. Half the people are returning from last summer, so we're still pretty tight, and we're all in this together. It may not be as dynamic and as fast-paced as last summer, but we're building something together pretty well and pretty quickly.
What are you studying in school, and what got you interested in that field?
I'm studying mechanical engineering. I got into mechanical engineering for a variety of reasons. When I was younger, I was a huge nerd – I still am. I would spend my summers in my parents' basement, making costumes and props from my favorite movies and TV shows. I realized that I really liked making things. I liked putting things together and seeing them work. I also think space is really cool. I want to be able to tell my future kids and grandkids, "I worked on projects that helped us discover all these things about the universe." There's so much we don't know, and I know I can't learn everything, but I want to be a part of the discovery process. So I took those two things that I'm pretty hyped about, put them together, and decided that I want to be an engineer. I want to build spaceships. I want to help advance science and make new discoveries.
What were some of the props or costumes that you designed as a kid?
I was a big fan of the "Final Fantasy" video game series, so with the little bit of money that I made from tutoring kids, I would go out and buy different materials to recreate some of the props from that game. Lightning's gunblade was one of the things I made that I thought was pretty cool. I'm also a big fan of the "Fire Emblem" series, so I recreated a couple of things from that. I also like making costumes for my friends.
I'm starting to get back into it, because I have a little bit of free time this summer. Me and my friends have plans to make our own lightsabers and just play around with what we can make and what we can do with the budget and tools we have. That's where the challenge is. As a kid, I was so limited by the materials I had available. I thought it was fun figuring out how to make stuff anyway. How can I hammer this out with what I have in my house?
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What brought you to JPL for your internships?
I heard great things from friends who had interned at JPL before. It's one of the best places to be if you want to work on space missions. I'd never been to the West Coast before last summer. I'm from Maryland. I grew up in a town about 20 minutes outside of Baltimore. It was kind of scary [to travel so far from home], but I feel like life's about experiences, so I might as well just do it.
How do you feel you're contributing to NASA missions and science as an intern?
I feel like it's impossible for any one person to make an impact alone. I'm part of a team that's helping assist future lunar missions. In the grand scheme of things, it's a small piece of what humanity is going to achieve in the future, but it's rewarding to know that I'm part of it. I know I'm a small piece in the big machine, but it still feels like a lot, because if you take one piece out of the machine, it can break.
That's a great way of putting it.
When you're not in school or interning, how do you like to spend your time? What are some of your hobbies?
At school, I'm involved with a bunch of different organizations on campus. One of my main extracurriculars is that I build UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. I'm also involved with a lot of the outdoorsy groups on campus.
When the weather's nice, which in Upstate New York is not always the case, I like to run. I've run some pretty crazy races – Ragnar races, If you ever heard of those – and a couple of relays around the Finger Lakes. I like to run. I like to hike. There's a lot of beautiful mountains and lakes in the Upstate New York area. I've been trying to explore them. And I like to rock climb. I have a couple of friends at school who are super involved in the rock-climbing community, so they got me into it.
When the weather's not so nice, I like to read. I also started to get back into building props and making costumes, because I finally feel like I have time again to sit down and do that. It's a pretty time-consuming hobby.
Now for a fun question: If you could build a spacecraft to go anywhere and study anything, what would it be?
Theoretically, if you had all the technology to do it, I think it would be cool to see inside a black hole. Send a spacecraft in there, and send data out.
Since we last talked, your team finished the CubeSat and tested it in the desert! Tell us more about that and how it went?
The tests went pretty well given the circumstances. The team performed a lot of our tests remotely. We ran simulations to test some of the software. Our mock lunar surface asset was able to drive autonomously. Some aspects of the tests were successful and others could use more work, but we laid down a good foundation for future Innovation to Flight interns to build on. Hopefully our work helped the researchers we worked with from JPL and the University of Colorado Boulder.
A novel approach to developing rapid prototypes for space exploration, the Innovation to Flight program was created in 2014 by JPL Fellow Leon Alkalai, who continues to oversee and guide activities. Coordinated by Senior Research Scientist Adrian Stoica with support over the years from Chrishma Derewa, David Atkinson, and Miles Pellazar at JPL, the program has brought in more than 50 student interns from across the country. Offering students a uniquely collaborative experience developing technology for the Moon, Mars, and beyond, Innovation to Flight has also served as a career pathway to numerous program alumni now working at JPL.
Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: jpl.nasa.gov/intern
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
Not many interns get the opportunity to study one of humanity's biggest questions: How did life emerge? But mechanical engineering major Jessica Nuñez is having the experience of a lifetime in search of the answer. Nuñez is interning this summer in the Planetary Sciences Section at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
As part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute project led by Isik Kanik, Nuñez constructs and analyzes simulated hydrothermal vents, chimney-like structures that are hypothesized to have been the birthing grounds for the emergence of life. On a daily basis, she examines the chimneys, which she constructs herself through a chemical process, and analyzes them with one of her favorite tools on lab: an electron microscope. "It gets the coolest pictures," she said. "It's awesome to be exposed to technology here at JPL that I wouldn't be exposed to anywhere else." Nuñez observes the chimney's composition to see how its structure changes over periods of time. Along with her cohorts, she is hoping to see a chemical reaction similar to the one that scientists believe produced life on Earth.
Working closely with her mentors, Mike Russell and Laurie Barge, Nuñez is eager to lend a helping hand in research that could answer such an important question. "There are a bunch of different pieces to this big puzzle to see how life could have surfaced," she said.
While Nuñez's ultimate career goal is to work in the engineering field, she is excited about the new challenges and experiences an internship in planetary sciences might offer. "It was kind of intimidating at first, but at the same time I was excited about all the possibilities JPL has and all there is to learn," she said. "I would like to get exposed to as much as possible, so it's exciting for me to get my foot in the door here and see what work I can do in the future."
This fall, the 22-year-old West Covina native is bidding adieu to Citrus Community College in order to sail into new terrains at the University of California, Berkeley. Nuñez believes she will have an edge as she enters a new academic chapter. "In a sense, I think this internship is preparing me to transfer, because I am learning something new every day, so it's nice," she said.
Whether she is taking a run in the neighboring mountains, or investigating the deeply webbed quest of life's emergence, Nuñez is thoroughly enjoying her internship experience. And like many scientists and engineers who venture to JPL, she is already planning for her future endeavors. "I would love to continue working here, maybe even in different areas within JPL or other NASA laboratories," she said.
In the near future, she hopes to participate in developing missions to visit Europa and Enceladus, the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, widely regarded as the next frontiers in the search for life beyond Earth.
Says Nuñez, "I've never been into space or exposed to it, but now that I have, I love it."