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Tom Chouinard, NASA intern 2007

Tom Chouinard, a fresh University graduate in aerospace engineering and mechanics, is working on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury as a NASA summer intern.

The next generation on the star track

Summer internships at NASA help students launch aerospace careers

By Deane Morrison

August 3, 2007

They may not be going to the moon, but several University students are already enjoying the next best thing. As interns at NASA installations around the country, they're living the lives of space scientists and engineers as they work side-by-side with professionals. When the chance came up, they all took a giant leap--for themselves if not for mankind. "In Minnesota there aren't a lot of opportunities to work in the space industry," says Tom Chouinard, a freshly graduated aerospace engineering and mechanics (AEM) student from Andover, Minn., interning at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). He and 10 other students--eight from the University, two from other Minnesota higher education institutions--are spending 10 weeks this summer working on NASA projects as part of NASA's Space Grant Consortium program, a series of 52 grants that bring together colleges and universities in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to train the next generation of space scientists and engineers. "It's NASA's largest educational program," says William Garrard, University professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics and director of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, which receives $580,000 in NASA funding. That money is matched one-to-one by the Institute of Technology dean's office and other contributors, bringing the total budget to more than $1 million. The program also aims to bring more women and students from underrepresented groups into the aerospace field. With 20 to 25 percent of scholarships and fellowships going to minority applicants and 50 percent to women, the Minnesota consortium is more than meeting its goals, Garrard adds.

MESSENGER to Mercury

At this moment, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft is speeding toward Mercury, where its mission includes photographing the poorly known planet's entire surface. Launched in August 2004, the spacecraft has completed one "flyby" of Earth and two of Venus to use the planets' gravity as slingshots to assist its flight. It will perform three flybys of Mercury before settling into orbit. "It has a five-billion-mile [journey]," says Zane Nitzkorski, a senior from Harwood, N.D., majoring in AEM and mathematics now interning at APL along with Chouinard. "We're positioning it for its first Mercury flyby."

"Just being here and talking the lingo with people who have been in the business 10 to 20 years is invaluable, something you can't learn any other way," says Chouinard.

For his part, Chouinard is dealing with the problems of keeping MESSENGER on course, with its antennas pointed correctly, even though fuel sloshing around in its tank keeps changing the spacecraft's center of gravity and momentum.

The moon is a harsh mistress

Future missions to the moon occupy interns like Erik Semrud, an AEM senior from Hugo, Minn. He's working on a project to determine if an unmanned mission to collect lunar samples can be done. The moon shows no sign of cooperating. "The moon has a really messy gravitational field," Semrud explains. "If you put something in orbit around the moon, it will crash." That's because the moon's craters and mountains, plus other irregularities, create local highs and lows in the lunar gravity that are hard to navigate around. But Semrud likes a challenge. He's at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., researching the optimal lunar orbit for such a spacecraft and how to correct an orbit if necessary.

Erik Semrud, NASA intern
Erik Semrud, a senior in aerospace engineering and mechanics, is helping design a possible moon mission as a NASA summer intern.

Nitzkorski is working on mapping the moon's profile. He uses data, dating back to the 1950s, from widely separated observers who watched the moon "graze" stars as it moved across the night sky. The observers recorded the times the stars blinked off and on behind mountains at the edge of the moon as it passed; by triangulating from two or more observations, the positions of the mountains, and thus their sizes, can be estimated. In another project, AEM senior Jamie Wilt, from Rockford, Ill., is at Goddard, where she is calculating optimal orbits for the vehicles of a potential manned moon mission in 2012. She's looking at orbits around both Earth and the moon with an eye toward minimizing fuel consumption and travel time between the two bodies. "I've always liked orbital dynamics and astrophysics, but this is the first chance I've had to work in the field," she says.

Murmurs from Mars

If Erik Axdahl has his way, Mars will be a bit less mysterious after a payload he is helping design lands on the Red Planet. Interning at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., he is working on a computer system to sustain, and process data from, an experiment to record seismic activity. "Seismic activity ranges from shudders due to the cooling of the planet--called Marsquakes--to [the tremors from] impacts," says Axdahl, a newly graduated AEM major from Duluth. Mars has shown no evidence of tectonic plates like the ones in Earth's crust that continually bang into each other, "but we'll be searching for them," he says. The work aims to become "a legacy project" for Space Grant students; Axdahl's group, which includes Space Grant students from several states, is laying the groundwork. All the students raved about their internships. "Just being here and talking the lingo with people who have been in the business 10 to 20 years is invaluable, something you can't learn any other way," says Chouinard.