Martian Mountains, Amateur Radio and Communications Architecture: Inspiring Interns

NASA internships are about more than completing a final project — they also strive to cultivate learning opportunities for the next generation of NASA professionals through lectures by experts in their fields. 

On June 17, the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project (SIP) at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provided students in the program with two opportunities to learn about space communications from widely different perspectives. The first session was led by Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT) president Joe Spier – the second by Dave Israel, the Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division’s lead architect.

AMSAT president Joe Spier speaks with SIP interns. Photo Credit: NASA intern Emily Cavanagh
AMSAT president Joe Spier speaks with SIP interns. Photo Credit: NASA intern Emily Cavanagh

With Spier, SCaN interns got the chance to learn about AMSAT, a volunteer organization that designs, builds, launches and commands amateur radio payloads on satellites. SCaN intern and “ham” Caitlyn Singam was required to pass a rigorous FCC exam to be given her unique callsign, AC3AG, at the highest level of certification, ‘Amateur Extra-class’. Given her history with amateur radio the talk was particularly inspiring.

“I actually ended up talking to Mr. Spier afterwards about getting involved in AMSAT,” Singam said. “It was really exciting.”

Singam enjoyed learning about Spier’s unconventional route to AMSAT, which she related to in her own academic career. “I’ve had an interesting route myself, with biological sciences and a master’s in systems [engineering] in the fall,” she said.  

Spier’s route took him from a background in geology to becoming a leader in the small satellite community.  He had early dreams of becoming the first to climb Olympus Mons, the highest peak on Mars. Today, he refers to the interns as the ‘Mars generation,’ hoping that an intern today might summit that peak in the near future.

He shared his personal strategy on making big NASA dreams come true: “I always clarified it by saying, ‘If I can’t be that person, I want to help someone else be that person.’”

"If I can't be that person [to summit Olympus Mons,] I want to help someone else be that person."

Joe Spier, AMSAT President

ESC architect Dave Israel speaks with SIP interns. Photo Credit: NASA intern Emily Cavanagh
ESC architect Dave Israel speaks with SIP interns. Photo Credit: NASA intern Emily Cavanagh

In the afternoon, SCaN interns met with ESC’s lead communications architect for an overview of division projects. Israel’s work at NASA spans 30 years. Interns heard about topics ranging from the development of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) in the late 1980s to the Space Mobile Network, a concept for an interplanetary internet that Israel envisions coming to fruition in the near future.

Israel, like Spier, offered the SCaN interns in attendance some advice:

“Never keep any good ideas to yourself, and don’t worry about asking questions from a different perspective,” Israel said. “A question from a different perspective gets people to think about it in a different sort of way.”

"Never keep any good ideas to yourself, and don't worry about asking questions from a different perspective."

Dave Israel, ESC Communications Architect

To Grace McFassel, a SCaN intern who attended the talk, Israel’s story was not only interesting, but inspiring. “He [has] this specific skillset that he dearly loves, and he’s used that to carry himself through by finding niches where he can be useful,” McFassel said. “It’s a good lesson to carry forward.”

SCaN interns attending the lecture given by Dave Israel, ESC communications architect. Photo Credit: NASA intern Emily Cavanagh
SCaN interns attending the lecture given by Dave Israel, ESC communications architect. Photo Credit: NASA intern Emily Cavanagh

To learn more about SIP or SCaN, visit NASA.gov/SCaN. To apply for internships, visit intern.nasa.gov.

By Emily Cavanagh
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.