Depending on your age and what you may have lived through, NASA may represent the pioneering era of space travel and moon exploration, catastrophic shuttle failures, to the hopes and dreams you might have of colonizing Mars. Whatever your perspective, the brave men and women of NASA have, for many years, pushed the boundaries of human understanding of space and aeronautics to the benefit of the human race.
I had the honour of interviewing Lea Chandler, a junior at California Polytechnic State University, who is majoring in aerospace engineering. Lea also worked briefly at NASA. As a young woman in STEM, Lea is a role model for young girls interested in space and science, and represents the future o space exploration and mechanics.
What are you studying right now?
I’m currently a Junior at Cal Poly, SLO studying aerospace engineering. Aerospace engineers design and build machines that travel without touching the ground, and there are two concentrations. Aeronautics focuses on aircraft that operate within Earth’s atmosphere, and astronautics focuses on spacecraft that operate outside Earth’s atmosphere. I chose to concentrate in astronautics because I wanted to work in an industry that is constantly growing and pushing the boundaries of innovation.
What are some challenges you face in your program?
Although they’re interesting to me, the engineering classes I’m taking are challenging and each one barely scratches the surface of topic. There’s so much more to be learned from upper division classes, graduate school, and working in industry. Maintaining balance between my school, work, and personal life is also difficult.
Do you feel there is an imbalance between the genders in your classes?
There are definitely fewer women studying engineering than men, and fewer female professors in the College of Engineering. My aerospace class has about 15 women out of over 100 students. However, there are many great organizations on campus for women such as Women Involved in Software & Hardware (WISH) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE).
I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about humans travelling to Mars. In your opinion, is this a realistic goal in my lifetime?
I definitely think this is a realistic goal in your lifetime. NASA is aiming to put an astronaut on Mars by the 2030s, while SpaceX is more ambitious, with a goal of 2024. Both NASA and SpaceX are currently developing large rockets capable of traveling the distance: the Space Launch System (SLS) and the BFR respectively. With SpaceX’s successful Falcon Heavy test flight making it the most powerful operational rocket, the future of space travel looks promising and exciting.
What was the application for your job at NASA? What did you do there?
Through a site called OSSI, you upload your resume, answer a few questions about yourself and your experience, and complete recommendation letters. There are ten NASA centers across the US, and the application process lets you apply for up to 15 different positions at any of the locations. I worked at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. I used a numerical computing software to visualize and analyze data on air traffic flight times for a project in conjunction with the San Francisco International Airport. I also had the opportunity to tour facilities on the Ames campus, attend talks by subject matter experts, and attend social events with other interns.
What are your next steps after school? What are your career goals?
Along with my aerospace engineering degree, I’m also working towards a computer science minor. Ultimately, I want to work on guidance and navigation systems on satellites, which rely almost exclusively on computers. Going on to complete my master’s degree is also an option for me, whether it’s immediately after I finish my undergraduate degree or after I have spent some time working in industry.
Some would say we should not invest in space exploration but rather focus on investing in technology to solve world hunger and fresh water access or other earthly issues. How do you view space exploration?
I sometimes find people with the mentality that humanity can only focus on one problem or solution at a time. I think it’s beneficial to technological progress to continue working towards a solution to, for example, world hunger, AND increased space exploration. In fact, the world already grows enough food to feed its entire population, so it’s unlikely that the issue is rooted in money. NASA as a whole only uses 0.5% of the yearly US budget, and privatized space exploration companies with specific goals use their funds more to achieve them. Also, much of the technology developed in the aerospace industry actually affects life here on Earth. Why else would satellites be pointing back down to ground? A personal favorite is the Aqua satellite, which orbits Earth collecting valuable data such as ocean evaporation, atmospheric water content, soil moisture, and snow cover. If you’re interested further in this topic, a former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory made a short video on it.
Would you go to Mars if you could?
I’m personally very fond of Earth, so my Mars trip would have to include a return voyage!