Electrical and Computer Engineering major Benjamin Busler is representing Rowan University this semester as a Pathways Intern with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Benjamin, a junior from Somerset County, is among a select group of students nationwide in NASA’s Pathways program, which offers internships and a direct avenue to future employment with the space agency. Here, Benjamin walks us through his academics and activities, his internship details and how Rowan prepared him for this opportunity.
Before NASA, you had interned with two other organizations. Can you tell us about those experiences?
At NCube … I was working with large databases, doing a lot of algorithms. And so for that winter, I did a lot of Python, working with SQL. Because I wasn’t there for long, and they knew that I was going back to school, I was there to just clean up a couple of things and look at it from an outside perspective of, “When we’re presenting this to someone, what’s confusing, what do you think should be improved?” So I was there for more of a consultant kind of deal. But it was fun. I learned a lot there.
But then over the summer, I worked for Northrop Grumman. They’re huge. They’re one of the largest contractors for NASA. I was in Mission Systems, working on what’s called electronic warfare. Basically, say we have a plane flying to enemy territory, and they get hit by a radar signal. They take that physical signal, do little computation, mix it and then they can send it back out and fake their location, fake their speed, or make themselves disappear entirely. So that’s the department I was in.
Northrop Grumman built the solid rocket boosters for the Artemis launch. Years ago, they made the Apollo lander and again, the solid rocket boosters for the shuttle missions and for the Saturn V. So they’ve been there in the space industry since the beginning.
How did you discover the NASA opportunity?
I always knew NASA did internships. But it wasn’t until another previous Rowan alumni, Jessica Friz — she was in the mechanical engineering [program] at Rowan University, and now she works at Langley Research Center down in Virginia, came back, I assume, on the request of Dr. Polikar, and gave this presentation. [She said] NASA has this huge presence, and it might be intimidating for engineers to apply. But she said apply anyways. I was timid as well. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And now I’m there. And so it was, basically, inspirational.
And [at first] I applied through their specific intern programs, which are … different from the Pathways internship because the Pathways is like full-time employment. Once you get a certain amount of hours in Pathways, then you can get automatic employment after graduation. That is my goal. But that was the first interaction with NASA internships. I applied, but I got denied from all of them, unfortunately.
I applied to just a bunch of positions. A lot of them. I didn’t even have the basic qualifications of being like a junior or senior for most of them. But I thought I’d shoot my shot.
But now that I have a junior qualification, I applied again, and I got lucky. And honestly, I genuinely think I got lucky, because I know, looking strictly off my GPA, I don’t have the best GPA. And so I guess that can be a little bit of a success story. I work hard. I definitely love doing my projects. I like making things. And I’m very passionate about this.
But to get to the interview process, that is where I definitely got lucky through the interview process. I feel like I’m very confident I can explain what I love and why I love NASA.
Can you walk us through the application process?
First, you have to apply through USA Jobs. If you want to work for the government, you first apply through USA Jobs. And there’s a standardized test that they have you take, so it was an application, standardized test. But [then] they go, “You’re eligible for this. We’re sending your resumes to these locations, which have these positions.” And then a couple of managers picked my resume, [said], “Oh, we like this kid.” And so that’s about it, and they interviewed me.
After the interview process, other than waiting and telling my friends, “Oh, I just had this wonderful internship [interview],” I waited about a week and a half or two weeks for the first one. And then it was about two weeks after every single interview. Each interview was on a Friday.
There were three interviews?
Yes, because it was one interview per department. So the Kennedy Space Center, the one in Florida, they interviewed me for exploration payloads, which is basically anything that goes to the ISS [International Space Station].
And then the next one was power systems and Goddard. And I love Goddard, they do the majority of the engineering there. The James Webb Space Telescope was made in Goddard. At Rowan, I’m on the CubeSat Clinic. And I’m working on the power systems, working on the solar panels. It was a perfect analog straight to what I’ll actually be doing — so small scale, tiny little CubeSat here at Rowan, to massive-scale power systems for who knows what.
And then after that, I interviewed with the instrumentation department, which is cool. But I like power systems. And so that’s what I chose.
What will your semester at the Goddard Space Flight Center entail?
So I’ll be working in power systems, and part of the Pathways Program is you get to choose what department you want to be in next. And so after that, I hope to go and see the electromechanical department, which is basically robotics.
[With] the Mars sample return mission, the current Rover is just picking up samples, doing a little analysis, putting it in a jar and then just dropping it on the ground. But we’re currently working on a mission where we can go to Mars, pick those samples up and then shoot them back in space and get them back on Earth. And so that’s one of the programs we’re working on right now.
There’s another one called OSAM-1, which is like satellite refueling, which is just an idea and it’s just another project that the electromechanical department is working on.
I like robots, but [with] power systems, I get to touch every single project. Basically like it’s all the project: all the satellites, all the rovers, they need solar panels or radioactive generators, and they need ways to store it and to distribute it. And so I get to do a whole bunch of things.
Can you explain what power systems engineering is about?
So power systems is everything from generation to storage to distribution of basically your power to control things or allow things to move. So there’s two ways that power is usually generated on satellites, through solar panels, or they’re called RTGs, which is radioisotope thermoelectric generator. It’s basically a little radioactive mass, and the heat coming off of it, basically just generates electricity through heat. And so those are on the not the current Mars Rover, but I think Curiosity has RTG generates, they’re huge, but they only generate like 100 watts. So it’s more for if you don’t have access to a lot of power, or through solar power, then you use an RTG, because it’s going to give you a constant stream of energy, no matter what.
And then for storage, usually just storing in batteries. Nowadays, we use lithium ion batteries. And then distribution is just managing the different power levels. So say you need 100 watts going to one system and 200 watts going to another system. It’s just how do you split that up? How do you manage it and say something dies, you always need to have redundancy … just in case something dies.
One of my professors, Adam Fifth, I’ve learned a lot through him because he used to work in the space industry for Boeing. He’s the advisor for CubeSat. And so a lot of the stuff that I know specifically about power systems, I’ve learned through him.
Will you still study at Rowan while interning with NASA?
I’m taking the two main Electrical and Computer Engineering courses, which are Digital Signal Processing and Systems and Control, remotely. Part of it will also be an independent study. So I’ll be recording what I’ll be doing for work, and when I come back, I’ll be doing a presentation.
And something I’m excited about is Prof. Fifth, he started this new course called Space Systems. And I really wanted to take it, but it was full. But now actually, he said I can come back and talk about, throughout the semester, just things that I’ve been working on, give them a presentation. And that’ll be fun, because they’re my peers, and I get to show them what I’m working on.
Are there faculty at Rowan who have helped you with this opportunity?
So of course, Dr. Polikar, he’s the department head. He’s the one who’s okayed this, helped me actually do the internship, do classes and still graduate in four years, which I’m very thankful for. That was honestly, that was the biggest thing I wanted. I didn’t want to take any more time in school. I want to go work, I want to go do things. So Dr. Polikar, he gave me the okay.
Dr. Schmalzel. He’s a big space guy. Right on his door, there is a “Mars, Here We Come” sticker next to it. He’s going to be my advisor, he’ll be my point of contact throughout the semester.
And then I also wanted to thank, again, Prof. Fifth. He’s very knowledgeable. I absolutely love him. Super personable, helped me a with lot of stuff. And honestly, without having the CubeSat Clinic on my resume, I don’t think that I would have an internship.
What happens after the completion of the internship portion of the Pathways Program? At that point, you will be a rising senior. What then happens between your senior year and graduation?
I know that a lot of the interns have the ability to work remotely. So if that opportunity is relatively available to me, I’ll take it, I’ll gladly do a couple hours of work a week. And then once I graduate, hopefully, I’ll be working for NASA as a full-time employee.
One of the questions that we often ask students in our Beyond the Classroom series is “How will this internship help you achieve your career goals?” It sounds as if the Pathways Program is designed to tie into your career goals.
It really is. The Pathways Program is designed for people to go work for NASA full-time. And I’m very thankful that I got the chance to be a part of it.
Actually during the interviews, they asked me about career goals. And I assumed they wanted to hear students say, “I’m going to get a master’s right after and go get a Ph.D.” But I was honest. I want to go work, I want to go get my hands dirty, and I want to go make things.
I definitely see myself in five, six years, going back, getting a master’s, either in electrical engineering or systems engineering, so I can get a much more broad view of engineering. And then I’ll go work for, continue working for NASA. And after that, I want to definitely do what a lot of my professors did, my high school professors. I’m going to go teach and I want to kind of tell these cool stories and help them learn about physics and engineering and comp sci. Do all the cool things that my professors did for me back in high school.
What advice do you have for future students interested in interning for NASA?
You can never do it alone, all my current and past projects have been worked on with help from others. NASA wants to see that you can ask for help, they don’t do anything alone and neither should you.
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