My NASA-JPL Internship Story

August 25, 2017

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt

Part I - No Time For Caution

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory hardly needs any introduction. It is one of those dreamy places where barriers are broken and the unthinkable is achieved. During my third semester, I was quite interested in applying for a summer internship at JPL. However, upon reading the eligibility criteria I got disheartened too quickly. It turned out NASA isn’t quite open to foreign nationals (FNs) for internships (it still isn’t). This article on interning at NASA gave me some courage but at that time I felt I had little experience to make the cut. That article also clearly mentions why NASA isn’t so open to international students and how the author, an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, had to go through a lot of trouble to secure an internship at JPL back in summer 2008. Fast forward 9 years to 2017, and things aren’t too bright (if not worse) for FNs looking to intern at JPL. Back in 2008, Caltech SURF allowed funded JPL internships for FNs but now that option is no more. It is restricted to US citizens only.

In my fifth semester, I finally mustered up the courage to apply and I started emailing technologists at JPL as early as October 2016 asking them if they would be willing to host me for an internship. Among the very few replies that I had received, most of them stated that they were not considering FNs due to the insane amount of logistics involved. It was when I had almost lost all hope, I got a positive reply from my mentor who stated that he would be willing to talk more in order to make it work. We had a chat over Skype, he liked my resume and was willing to consider me for the summer. Since SURF was not an option, I pitched the idea of applying via the JPL Graduate Fellowship Program (JPLGF). This fellowship was almost similar to SURF and open to FNs. However, as the name suggests, it was only open to graduate students. Being an undergraduate student I wasn’t eligible, again. My mentor said that he had only one opening for probable summer interns in his group. Like me, many other students had applied for that position too. He said that he would consider me, even as an undergraduate student, if I turned out to be the best among all the applicants and hence he shortlisted me for a second round of interview. This was going to be very difficult considering the fact that graduate students with far more experience would have applied for the position. Even if the chances were very faint, I was willing to risk everything for it.

My second interview was scheduled on January 24, 2017. D-Day. I had faith in myself. We mostly discussed the work I did last summer at AMRL, UMass Amherst. I was able to explain clearly, the research I carried out there and how it was relevant to the project that I would be working on at JPL, had I been selected. I was also able to convince him that I had skill and experience of a graduate student to take on the project. After being interviewed thoroughly for about an hour I remember my mentor finally saying,

I think I’m convinced that you’re the one.

This was one of the happiest moments of my life. I couldn’t believe the fact that I was being considered for the JPLGF program being an undergraduate student! Since that day, every morning I would wake up and check my email to see if my offer letter arrived. On the morning of February 2, I finally saw an email from my mentor on my phone. I hurriedly opened the email expecting to read the good news, but I was caught in disbelief. The email was titled, “Bad news - we cannot bring you to JPL on JPLGF program”. This is an excerpt from the email,

… Education Office has been asked by senior management to discontinue the JPL Graduate Fellowship Program, JPLGF, effective immediately. We will no longer extend mentor-funded internships to foreign interns.

The reason was not conveyed to my mentor, and he presumed that it was probably because of the immigration policies enforced by the US Government at that time (no brownie points for guessing who was behind that)! At that moment I cried uncontrollably. What followed were dark days. During those 4-5 months of constant correspondence with JPL, I had rejected internship offers from other places which included Max Planck Cybernetics and a Bay Area startup. I felt like I hit a new low in life, I couldn’t concentrate on anything and my grades suffered. My parents felt sympathetic about the situation and were willing to give me money for an entire summer stay at Pasadena, California. I felt very thankful for their support but obviously I couldn’t ask for so much money, and moreover self-funded internships at JPL are not possible. My only other option was the JPL Visiting Scholar Research Program (JVSRP) but for that, I had to secure funding from a third party organization like a Government, college, company etc. It wasn’t possible for me to get money from a third party organization so quickly, and in India, it is really hard!

There was one last possibility. It involved Caltech SURF. But how? SURF is closed for FNs applying to JPL. How could I be eligible? The idea was to contact a Caltech professor and apply for a SURF project which had a collaboration with JPL. That way the SURF award would act as a funding source for JVSRP! But it was February 2 already, and the application deadline for SURF was February 22. It was too late to contact professors at Caltech, as most of them would have chosen their prospective interns by then. At this stage, my mentor decided to help me out and I’ll be forever grateful to him for that. He recommended me to two Caltech professors, hoping that at least one of them would take me in. This accelerated the process - in no way it would have worked out had I mailed them on my own. Both of them had projects in collaboration with JPL. One of them was interested and he gave me and my JPL mentor the freedom to draft my SURF project proposal. We did that swiftly. After that, I quickly filled up the other details of the application and got three letters of recommendation from other professors. Getting those letters was a hectic job, as it involved emailing and running after professors, but I’m glad and grateful that I got strong recommendations from all of them. I made sure my application was as perfect as it could be. I double checked everything and made sure that there was not even a single misplaced comma. Simply, too much was at stake!

The SURF results were to be announced a month later. The entire month of March felt like a strange void. Full of anxiety, I kept on fearing for the worst although my mentor said that there is 99% chance that I’ll be selected. The probability held good and I got the confirmation of selection finally. More than being happy, I felt relieved!

Mission Control Center, Space Flight Operations Facility. There is a spot inside the Mission Control Center where on a glass plate, the words "The Center of the Universe" are engraved.

Part II - A Place Among The Stars

SURF/JVSRP was a 10 weeks internship program which was not quite long enough for a research internship but I couldn’t complain, not after what I had to go through to get the internship in the first place! I worked on risk-aware probabilistic motion planning for future Mars Rovers which aims to reduce the conservatism of the present autonomous navigator of the Mars 2020 Rover. In layman terms, I developed a new algorithm that would increase the efficiency of autonomous navigation for Mars Rovers. I was an intern at the Robotic Systems Estimation, Decision, and Control Group (347-E) and I shared my office with my mentor at building 198, the Guidance Laboratory. JPL had more than 900 interns during the summer (because of the Europa and Mars 2020 missions) so there was literally no space left for me - my mentor was kind enough to arrange a small desk in his office. During those 10 weeks, I had the chance to interact and work with some amazing people. I couldn’t ask for a better learning experience. I felt very privileged to be able to contribute to the huge code repositories which have been maintained for more than 10 years by some very famous people in Robotics. I used to test my algorithms on the Athena Rover which is a small-scaled testbed Mars Rover. We used to carry out the testing at the Mars Yard, which is a very touristy spot at JPL. Every now and then a group of tourists would come and see us testing and they would have lots of questions. It was fun and challenging to explain how everything worked to them, and sometimes it would get frustrating. My co-intern was really good at this! Not only did I enjoy working at JPL but also got to travel a lot in and around the beautiful cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles. We had every alternate Fridays off-work which was a nice thing, and on most Fridays, we would either hit Old Town Pasadena for drinks and go bar hopping or relax at the beaches of Santa Monica and Malibu!

This is the Athena Rover that I used for testing.

Whenever I used to step inside JPL for work, there was an unusual charm that made me feel committed to my work and made me believe that even my research will contribute to something greater. The force is really strong there! Seeing places like Mission Control at the Space Flight Operations Facility gave me goosebumps. Previously, I only ever saw those rooms in TV programs and movies. Working with the pioneers of space exploration was like a dream come true! If the Jedi were ever real, then they are at JPL! May the force be with them, forever.

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