So I’m working for NASA.
Just writing that gives me chills. Anyone who knows me knows that I have many dreams, but this has been a dream of mine since I knew what NASA was and since I was a little girl and used to float in my dark pool at night, staring up at the cosmos to simulate the feeling of floating in space. Well now I’m here…. In Huntsville, Alabama.
Before arriving in Huntsville, I had heard that this is the “Christian-right center of America”. I was mentally preparing myself for a huge culture shock, coming from diverse, liberal Los Angeles. Well, it’s only been a week, but so far I have been pleasantly surprised by Huntsville’s charm, beauty, livability, and friendliness. Since my arrival I was also told that Huntsville has the largest concentration of PhD’s per capita, so there’s that. This is a ROCKET TOWN. Like, these people are proud and excited about rockets. There are museums dedicated to them, parks named after astronauts, pieces of rocket engines strewn about not so different from art installations in L.A parks. Most people here either work for NASA or are engineers of some kind. It’s a funny little nerdy oasis in the middle of the Bible Belt; and there are good people here.
Just some of the rocket bits strewn about Huntsville – these are on the arsenal outside the building that I’ll be taking a ‘Solid Rocket Propulsion Design’ course in.
But I’ll start with Airplane Girl. My connecting flight from Atlanta to Huntsville was a speedy 40 minutes. I sat down in my aisle seat and a young woman took her assigned middle seat next to me. We soon realized the window seat was most likely empty, so Airplane Girl (as she was affectionately named on our flight) assured me she would move so we could both have more room. Needless to say, no one came for that window seat, we got to chatting, and Airplane Girl never moved over. She was really my first introduction to Huntsville and I was happy to find that we had so much in common despite growing up in completely different environments. Before I knew it, Airplane Girl offered to give me a ride to my new Huntsville home so I didn’t’ have to Uber, despite the fact that her family was waiting for her at home to watch the football game. (Football is HUGE in Huntsville. Like…. So big). I would most likely never take a ride from a stranger in LA, but Airplane Girl was so friendly and we hit it off so well, I trusted her! (Famous last words, I know). Southern hospitality is real, y’all. Since that fateful plane ride, I have met Airplane Girl and her parents for dinner at none other than Cracker Barrell! ‘It’s slap yo’ momma good!’ – Airplane Girl. I have found my adopted Alabama family, and I couldn’t be happier. They really are the cutest and I’m looking forward to all of the adventures we have planned for my time here (weekend trips to Nashville, Dollywood, Chattanooga, historic trolley tours of Huntsville, train rides, home cooked Southern meals!) I’ve found my Southern sister!
My new Alabama family is so happy to feed me delicious Southern food!
Usually when I start something new, I’m overcome with almost crippling anxiety that manifests itself in stomach knots. A new job, an audition, sometimes even a new social situation will illicit inner chaos. But not this time. Somehow I knew this is where I’m supposed to be right now and it just felt exciting more than anything. This is probably one of the biggest things I’ve ever done, and I walked into NASA on Tuesday morning feeling confident and calm. This past year has been a big one of emotional learning and growth for me – I’ve learned how to manage my stress better, welcome change better, trust the universe… and myself.
I am very excited about my project so far. I will be analyzing data we receive from a probe on the ISS (International Space Station) to understand how space weather affects the electromagnetic nature of the space station, astronauts, and space shuttles. What’s cool about NASA internships is that we’re doing REAL work for real things in space. And my project is open ended. By that I mean there are unanswered questions to things that NASA doesn’t understand and they’re leaving it to an intern to take a stab at solving the problem. To quote JPL’s motto, I am here to ‘dare mighty things’.
My building aka new home for the next 14 weeks.
On my first day my mentor, Emily, took me around to meet everyone on the project. Unsurprisingly, all were exceedingly welcoming and nice. That’s the thing about NASA, it’s a family, and everywhere you go, you will feel at home and find people who are excited and willing to share their work with you and answer your questions. But it wasn’t long before I was reminded that I am indeed, in Alabama. I met one of the team leads who, in addition to working as a rocket scientist and branch director (no big deal) is a hobby farmer and storm chaser. My heart cried with happiness when I heard this. Storm chaser? Like the 1996 Helen Hunt/Bill Paxton blockbuster film, ‘Twister’?! Everyone who works at NASA is so interesting and multi-faceted. These are not your typical pocket protector computer nerds. To give you a visual, aforementioned storm-chaser/rocket scientist, has a life-size cardboard standee of a cow outside his office. It’s just wonderful.
The daily commute to the arsenal (NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is located on Redstone Arsenal, a U.S. army base) is beautiful, all of the buildings are surrounded by stretches of green plains, trees, and ponds. This first week has already been jam-packed with ‘stuff’. That’s the fast-paced Los Angeleno in me, but I’ve just gotta see it all! I’ve visited a ‘Super Target’, eaten at Cracker Barrel, was met with open arms by the Huntsville swing dancing scene, went to a cool bar downtown, traveled to Georgia for a 7.5 mile hike that led to a beautiful waterfall, and took a Sunday drive today after visiting the only coffee shop in town open on Sundays. It’s been a great first week.
One of the thoroughfares on the Arsenal.
Hiking in Cloudland Canyon State Park.
Cracker Barrel! I sat on one of these chairs (they’re for sale!) with Airplane Girl and chatted after devouring a delicious meal. True southern style.
Honest Coffee! The only coffee house in town open on Sunday. Guaranteed to run into someone you know here.
I’ve always been an explorer, an adventurer, seeking perspective through new cultures and experiences. I think that’s why NASA has always been so attractive to me. Space is the ultimate frontier, and NASA is full of people like me who are working to understand our universe and who get so excited about space exploration. I’ve also been trying to be more intentional about putting my own good energy out into the universe to see what it throws back at me. And I’ll tell you, the universe has dealt me a pretty good hand right now. I never thought I’d spend three and a half months in Huntsville, Alabama, but I’m looking forward to the thunderstorms, cicadas buzzing in the trees, and doing life just a little bit slower. Stay tuned.