Jimmy Acevedo - Education Intern Credit: NASA/Megan Miller
NEN, SCaN intern project, NSN, ACCESS 

Driving Toward the Future: ESC Interns Make Big Impact

August 24, 2018

This blog post was written prior to a reorganization of ESC’s projects and networks in support of the agency’s commercialization effort. Though accurate at the time of publication, it is no longer being updated and may contain broken links or outdated information. For more information about the reorganization, click here.

What do graphics and animation have in common with cybersecurity risks? Both were among the many areas studied by the Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division 2018 summer intern cohort.

For the third year running, the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Intern Project (SIP), executed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center by ESC, challenged students from all across the country to elevate their work and professional experience through 10 rigorous weeks of events, trainings, workshops and a final presentation to management. This year, 33 students participated.

SIP is not your standard internship program; ESC interns do much more than fetch coffee. Their work will impact the division’s space communications networks and lead to new innovations.

Among this year’s highlights? Earlier this week, a group of ESC interns released an application called NEN Now, developed to give insight into the real-time status of Near Earth Network (NEN) antennas. These antennas provide space communications to more than 40 NASA missions, in addition to commercial spacecraft.

NEN Now is part of a broader application called Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Now, which currently shows real-time status for both the NEN and the Deep Space Network. A large group of interns, primarily computer science majors, from more than five universities and several high schools, created NEN Now over the course of three years, starting in summer 2016.

“Working in SIP for the past two summers has taught me so much,” said NASA intern, Emily Ragan. “My skills have grown in not just programming, but also design, teamwork and leadership. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with SCaN as I prepare for my career.”

The NEN Now application has multiple uses, from helping the public better understand how space communications work to giving NEN employees situational awareness of their network. In the coming year, these interns will help develop a similar application for NASA’s Space Network, completing the portfolio of SCaN Now.

Another intern group’s work could potentially be applied across the agency. Danielle Fieseler and Tyler Williams spent their summer analyzing how NASA communicates cybersecurity risk. In today’s climate, cybersecurity risks pose significant threats to NASA systems. Communicating these risks in a comprehensive manner is vital to understanding them and to implementing better practices. This intern project was so impactful and timely that the Goddard center director, Chris Scolese, and representatives from the SCaN program office at NASA Headquarters met with the interns to learn about their discoveries and recommendations.

Fieseler and Williams developed a communication hierarchy model that identifies areas where cybersecurity risks are communicated to individuals who are responsible for the risk, but who do not necessarily have the technical background to fully understand the implications of the risk. They used industry and project management formulas to convert the cybersecurity risks to a 5x5 risk chart, which is commonly used at NASA.

Implementation of this system will not only significantly improve the communication of cybersecurity risks, but will also spark conversations and generate understanding of the risks, enabling an improved security posture. Their work could potentially have far-reaching impacts as the agency addresses continuously evolving cybersecurity risks, such as hacking.

These are just two of the more than 25 intern projects completed this summer.

“Every year I am constantly amazed by the fresh ideas and exciting solutions that ESC interns bring to challenges associated with exploration,” said Bob Menrad, associate director for Exploration and Space Communications. “This summer’s intern cohort was no less amazing in terms of the scope and depth by which every single project was approached. From deep machine learning to challenging humankind’s most basic understanding of quantum physics, the interns demonstrated what ESC and NASA seek to live up to every day. Excellence is not our goal, but our standard.”

The quality of the interns’ work speaks to the rigorousness of the program and the high expectations set by the division. However, the program is also intended to support the interns in their professional development. Each intern is paired with a mentor to help develop their deliverables. This enables them to gain unique insight into the topics they study in their degree programs.

Additionally, each intern gains professional experience through program activities like professional development workshops, a collaboration boot camp and final presentations to management.

Some of the division’s most successful interns get the opportunity to join NASA as full-time employees after they receive their degrees. Reese Patillo, an animation intern, was hired following the completion of the program.

 “The SIP program is a true definition of passion, collaboration and innovation,” said Patillo. “Through this program, I was able to strengthen my technical and collaboration skills in animation and graphic design. The people that I have networked with, the opportunities given to me and the projects that I have worked on during SIP confirmed, for me, that the animation and graphic design industry is exactly where I need to be.”

SIP has been so successful that the ESC is planning to expand the intern program. The division has already begun developing a year-round intern pipeline that will give students the opportunity to gain experience at NASA in the fall, winter and spring.

“The interns are a breath of fresh air in our daily work, helping to re-invigorate and inspire the team,” said Sandra Vilevac, ESC’s instructional designer and intern program coordinator. “We can execute ideas effectively and efficiently by having interns as integral members of our teams all year.”

The work produced by these interns has helped drive ESC towards the future of space communications. Spanning from Alaska to Puerto Rico, these interns were a diverse group of innovative thinkers and creators. They came to Goddard with complex ideas and solutions, ready to work.