In early August 2013, I almost missed my first phone call from NASA.
Stuck on the couch with my eyes glued shut from strabismus surgery, I unknowingly missed the call and didn’t check the message from the NASA Education Office until a few days later. By then, the position was filled.
With the Space Shuttle program canceled five years prior, I pictured Johnson Space Center as a large office building with a couple of monitors keeping tabs on the Hubble Space Telescope and gathering the latest galaxy imagery. I barely knew anything about the International Space Station, let alone its existence. I didn’t know there were other space centers besides Johnson and Kennedy. I didn’t realize there were still astronauts in space.
As an 18-year-old high school senior with dozens of applications awaiting replies, I was bummed for a few days about the missed opportunity, but NASA never topped my list. I simply didn’t know anything about it.
I thank my lucky stars today that the Education Office called back with another internship opportunity a week later. They explained the technical details of the job, and it made no sense to me, but it was an opportunity to get paid and be independent. And it sounded cool. So I accepted.
For this reason, I often felt like a hypocrite when people told me that NASA was their dream career. There were thousands of other people who were smarter, more engineering-oriented, more deserving of the internship than me. I held leadership positions in my high school honor society and in Girl Scouts, and I took dual credit courses, but I had barely any STEM experience. I applied with a computer engineering degree in mind, but I didn’t know that Java was anything but coffee.
Just like that, I was thrown from my sheltered homeschooled high school life into the world known as NASA.
On August 26, 2013, as if it was my first day of Kindergarten, my mother began her routine of dropping me off at Johnson Space Center with our soccer-mom minivan. “Be safe!” as she always tells me. Ironic, considering she was leaving me with the Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate. Literally one of the safest and securest places on Earth.
Out of 25 interns with the NASA Education Office in fall 2013, I was one of five females, one of three high school students, and definitely the only homeschooler. I also found out that we were 25 out of about 600 applicants. I felt a deep sense of the imposter syndrome. But I was a stubborn young’un, and I was determined to prove that I belonged there.
Failure… was not an option.
I was a bit startled when I first met my mentor. We visited Rudy’s Barbecue for lunch, and as mentors trickled in to sit and visit with their new interns, mine was the last to arrive. Bill McAllister, branch chief of the ISS Avionics and Software branch in Safety and Mission Assurance at Johnson Space Center, rushed in from behind me, firmly shook my hand, and shouted, “NATALIE! HOW THE HELL ARE YA?” Then we proceeded to discover that his daughter was close friends with my ex-boyfriend. You can’t just make this stuff up.
He always tried to convince me that IBM stood for “I’m Bill McAllister.” For the longest time, I was afraid to ask what IBM really stood for.
And then, one memorable moment occurred that day in Rocket Park, the first experience that really hit me that I was doing something special. As we were touring the giant Saturn V rocket within the enclosing and mixing in with Space Center Houston visitors, one woman from my hometown came up and asked us who we were. I ended up talking to her and told her more about myself. It blew her away that I was a local high school girl interning at NASA, and then proceeded to take a photo with us. She praised us as if we were really changing the world. That was the first time that I ever inspired somebody.
From a background of self-esteem issues and battling anxiety my whole life, NASA is personal to me because it completely changed me, as if I grew up there. I was in a place where I could share my intelligence without feeling ashamed, where I could network with engineers, where I could share cool things going on with my family and friends that I never could before. I was a part of something greater than myself, which is something I still love about it.
I made it my mission to learn about all the wonderful projects from NASA and share them with people who still think NASA is “canceled,” because it frustrates me how little I used to know about it. I’ve met people working for the International Space Station, engineers working in Mission Operations, astronauts, flight directors, center directors, people who have worked on Shuttle, and even people who worked on the Apollo program.
So, those were some takeaways from my first internship at NASA. My project consisted of coding a data retrieval tool with Visual Basic for the Computer Safety Working Group, and I loved the people I worked with in Safety. I appreciated every second of every day interning there as a high school student.
Next week, I’ll be returning to Johnson Space Center for my fifth internship and first Pathways tour as a senior at Texas A&M University. The Pathways program is the Co-op program at NASA – the next level – and is something I’ve worked towards since that first internship, which is what inspired this post. I can’t believe how blessed I am that I’m still there, I’m working at a place that I love, and that I’m taking on this next step of my unexpected dream career.