After an invigorating summer gaining work experience at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, some of the outgoing interns attended a culminating event at Space Center Houston, Johnson’s
official visitor center, with other students completing a summer tour with Houston Exponential.
Space Center Houston hosted a
panel discussion for the group, with the panelists offering advice ranging from NASA career
paths and STEM education to teamwork and favorite stories from the trenches of
human space exploration.
Moderated by Space Center University Director Kaci Heins, the
panel featured Dan Surber, International Space Station flight controller;
Cheryl Slyter, technical manager for the Software, Robotics and Simulation Division
within the Engineering Directorate; and Lauren Maples, a dive operations
specialist at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). The trio from NASA had an array of helpful advice for the next-generation
Image credit: NASA
Maples feels that working closely
with NASA and aerospace gave her an edge in becoming an NBL diver.
“I attribute my knowledge and experience in the aerospace
industry to Space Center Houston’s Education Department, as [that experience] allowed
me to reach my goals,” Maples said. “I worked in the Space Center Houston Education
Department from ages 19 to 25 with the Space U program. Space U immerses
students in learning experiences tied to various areas of aerospace engineering,
including scuba diving. I became scuba certified and began teaching the
students basic scuba skills, and then the students would build a project underwater—similar
to astronaut training at the NBL. It had been a longtime dream of mine to
become a diver at the NBL. I reached my dream in 2015, and I’m humbled by
it every day.”
Sometimes, though, roads less traveled still lead back to
NASA. It did for Surber.
“I work in mission control, but I had a roundabout way of
getting here,” Surber said. “Some people apply immediately after college and
are lucky enough for this to be their first job. I put in some time as an
active duty military officer while working on advanced degrees. The goal was
always to end up here, but—I want to emphasize—that’s not the most efficient
way to become a flight controller!”
Meanwhile, Slyter encouraged the interns to speak up to offer
their own unique insight for NASA’s missions.
“Don’t be afraid to bring your new ideas to the projects you
are working,” Slyter said. “You have a unique and valuable set of skills
and perspectives. NASA needs fresh ways of looking at problems, and you
can provide that.”
Surber echoed, “Spaceflight isn’t easy. It’s technically
challenging, and you have new problems to solve every day. Working toward a
STEM degree is very similar. You get the opportunity to solve unique problems,
think critically and approach things from a different point of view. Flight
operations requires all of those skills, and getting that exposure early in my
academic career has helped me to embrace the kind of challenges that we face
In addition to the panel event, the
Houston Exponential guests also visited other cutting-edge employers—like TIRR Memorial Hermann
Research and Rehabilitation and DOW—to observe more STEM career opportunities
in the Houston area.
However, for college graduates
who want to end up at the best place to work in the federal government,
sometimes a little more is wanted than just the requisite STEM foundation. The “right
stuff” is always in high demand.
“Network with people,” Surber said. “Let them know how
passionate you are about the space program. Work on design projects, become proficient
with tools—basically anything to get your hands dirty. It will all pay
dividends when you can add these things to your resume.”
Interns listen in rapt attention during the STEM Pathways to Aerospace panel discussion at Space Center Houston. Image Credit: NASA
After the panel event, summer interns gather for a group photo. Image Credit: NASA