Press Release

How I Spent My Summer, NASA-Style: ‘Inspire’ Interns Help Design Next-Generation Space Fleet, Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

By SpaceRef Editor
July 30, 2008
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How I Spent My Summer, NASA-Style: ‘Inspire’ Interns Help Design Next-Generation Space Fleet, Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – When high school and college students around the country are toiling back in the classroom over those “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essays in coming weeks, some will have unique stories to share. For instead of tanning at the beach or holding down traditional summer jobs, they’ve spent two months conducting cutting-edge research and working to send American astronauts to the moon and beyond.

More than 150 students from 23 states and Puerto Rico took part this summer in a new NASA education project called “INSPIRE” – the Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience. Nearly 400 students applied for the internships at NASA’s 10 field centers.

At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., 18 high school seniors and college freshmen from Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee spent two months immersed in the real-world work of the U.S. space program. They pored over computer models and mission-critical design data, designed and created content for NASA Web sites, and built and tested scale rocket engines and full-sized components and hardware.

Some even helped NASA engineers and scientists lay the groundwork for building the Ares I rocket, slated to begin test flights in 2009. Ares I is the first flight vehicle in NASA’s Constellation Program, tasked with developing a new generation of vehicles, hardware and infrastructure needed to support science on the International Space Station, create permanent research stations on the moon and permit new exploration of Mars and worlds beyond.

Laboratories and test sites. Rubbing shoulders with astronauts and prize-winning scientists, while learning the ropes of dormitory life on the nearby campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Not your typical summer job with pay — INSPIRE interns earn a stipend for participating – but all of them agree it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“There aren’t many programs out there that cater to students at this level in their education, nor let them contribute to real projects,” said 17-year-old Brenna Dittmar of Franklin, Tenn. She spent her summer at the Marshall Center designing robotic test platforms to study an innovative, reconfigurable computer chip — practical experience she’ll take with her this fall as a freshman studying chemical engineering at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn.

“I realized early that I was interested in space exploration, and I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of what’s really involved in science and engineering careers,” said Yiwei Cheng, a 16-year-old Huntsville native preparing for her senior year at Huntsville’s Grissom High School. The INSPIRE project put her to work in Marshall’s Vehicle Systems Design and Integration Branch, calculating spacecraft data to assess possible future Mars missions — the next ambitious step after NASA returns explorers to the moon.

It’s not just the students that benefit. “Our INSPIRE students are helping NASA achieve mission-critical goals to usher in the Constellation era of American space exploration and discovery,” said Tammy Rowan, manager of the Academic Affairs Office at Marshall. “And in addition to the near-term benefits they bring us, we hope their experience will lead them to come work for NASA after college, sustaining America’s technical workforce as we head deeper into the 21st century — and deeper into the solar system.”

Cheng’s INSPIRE mentor, David Teare, an engineer working on Ares I in the Vehicle Systems Design and Integration Branch, said the project helps spotlight the importance of studies in the “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Programs such as INSPIRE demonstrate to young people the level of meticulous design and planning that go into every detail of a space mission or technology development program,” Teare said.

Fellow mentor Steve Richardson, integrated assembly lead for the Ares I Upper Stage Project, agreed. “Students not only advance their technical knowledge, but also learn it takes extensive communication to properly accomplish project goals, and that making a contribution to a large program such as Ares can be extremely rewarding,” he said. “If we match them with activities in which they can excel, they’ll return to their schools and share with others the exciting work being conducted at NASA — helping spur further interest in space exploration.”

The INSPIRE project is open to students in grades 9-12, including high school graduates preparing for their first year of college. Interested students first must apply for entry into the INSPIRE online community, NASA’s education resource for students, parents and teachers. Students must be U.S. citizens and have at least an overall 2.5 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. Once selected for INSPIRE, they may compete for internships and other opportunities.

To participate in the summer project, students must maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average, submit an essay about their interest in NASA and the space program, and include two letters of recommendation from teachers or adult mentors with their application. NASA education officials assess all submissions, seeking candidates who demonstrate teamwork, leadership potential and career aspirations in fields related to math, science and engineering.

Through the INSPIRE online community, NASA provides resources and activities that help parents champion their students’ goals. NASA also contributes to classrooms, providing teaching modules and resources designed to capture students’ imaginations and enhance their technical and problem-solving skills.

Most importantly, said Steve Chance, who manages the INSPIRE project at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., INSPIRE gives students, parents and teachers a mechanism for interacting with one another. They ask questions, share knowledge and build “a community of practice” that NASA hopes will lead them to pursue careers in fields critical to NASA and the nation, Chance said.

Count on it, said many of Marshall’s INSPIRE interns. “I love everything about space,” said 18-year-old Megan Owen of Sioux City, Iowa, who helped NASA this summer troubleshoot and solve engineering design challenges for the Ares I rocket design. Owen, headed to Iowa State University in Ames this fall to study aerospace engineering, added, “I can’t think of a better place to work than NASA.”

High school senior Marcus Robertson, 17, of Empire, Ala., is aiming even higher. After a summer spent working in the Marshall Center’s test area, where engineers soon will begin test-firing the next-generation engines that will propel explorers to other worlds, Robertson intends to be one of them.

“I am going to be an astronaut,” he said with confidence, “and I am definitely going to the moon.”

The Marshall Center conducts dozens of educational projects and initiatives to help attract and inspire America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers. For more information about INSPIRE and other NASA education projects, visit:

SpaceRef staff editor.