My internship at NASA Ames – What is NASA

In 2014, I undertook a 3-months internship at NASA Ames Research Center, California. This was to the same place that the New Zealand Government – New Zealand Space Agency, together with the US Embassy, announced four scholarships to last month. There were media outlets in New Zealand that publicised this as an astronaut training opportunity, but this internship is no astronaut training school, although it might lead an inspired intern to pursuing a career to become one. My experience, and the knowledge that you don’t need to be an astronaut to work in the space industry, prompted me to want to share what I learned from my time at NASA and give an overview of what to realistically expect from these internships.

What is NASA?

It might seem like a silly heading but many people don’t realise what NASA is: NASA is the United States’ government department in charge of science and technology development, related to civilian air and space exploration – the equivalent of a ‘Ministry for Space’ or a ‘Space Agency’. NASA is the acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Before NASA there was NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics founded in 1915. Then NASA, its successor, was established on 29th of July 1958.

Just like any serious ministry, NASA operates from many places in the United States, out of which NASA Ames is one of them. The headquarters of NASA are in Washington D.C.

Who works for NASA?

More than 18,000 people work for NASA. Again what is less known is that many more people (about 60,000) work with the agency as government contractors. So that makes 75% of the NASA employees contractors. Out of all these 80,000 people who work for NASA, as of August 2018, there were 39 active astronauts and 18 “management astronauts”, who are “employed at NASA but are no longer eligible for flight assignment”. In case you were wondering, the highest number of active astronauts at one time, was in 2000 when there were 149.

So out of 80,000 employees, only 39 are active astronauts. What do the other do?

They work to “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.” The agency considers working there as a “chance to change the history of humanity. For more than 50 years, NASA has been breaking barriers to achieve the seemingly impossible—from walking on the Moon to pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight farther than ever before.”

NASA Ames Research Center

NASA Ames gate
There is always police at the gate checking the documents as you go in and as you go out. Protective Services Office (Code JP) Personnel On Duty. Main Gate Guards Rubin Cablgas and Robert Burja.

NASA Ames Research Center, also known as NASA Ames, is a major NASA research centre 🙂 at Moffett Federal Airfield in California’s Silicon Valley. It was founded in 1939 as the second National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics laboratory. NASA Ames is named in honour of Joseph Sweetman Ames, a physicist and one of the founding members of NACA, which is why Ames is not an acronym but a real name.

The Ames Research Center contributes to virtually every major NASA mission and initiative via expertise in the following core areas: Entry systems, Advanced Computing & IT Systems, Aerosciences, Air Traffic Management, Astrobiology and Life Science, Cost-Effective Space Missions, Intelligent/Adaptive Systems, Space and Earth Science

My internship was with the Astrobiology and Life Science department.

Credit: Jitze Couperus, Aerial view of NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Airfield, California.

At the time I was doing my Masters in International Security at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University and was interested in planetary protection, which is biosecurity in space. Back in New Zealand I was employed at the Ministry for Primary Industries as Biosecurity Risk Analyst.

When I arrived, NASA Ames was celebrating 75 years of existence and there was a big party, people were queuing to sign the banners provided. I did too.

The late David Willson, signing the banner.

I also got offered free cake, which I accepted, and this is how my adventure at NASA Ames started.

The author at the 75th celebration of NASA Ames. Photo David Willson.

Stay tuned for the next blog to hear more about what is an internship at NASA Ames.