My internship at a global aerospace technology company

  • Name: Alexand Gibson

    Major: Mechanical engineering

    Where did you intern? I interned with the System Integration Test & Evaluation (SIT&E) team at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Space Park, Redondo Beach, California. Space Park is a historic location for space technology where rocket engines, lasers and advanced satellites have been designed and built. It is also near Manhattan Beach, providing excellent opportunity for after-work activities.

    What did you do there? I worked with the testing team providing measurements for various active projects. The most notable project I worked on was NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope spacecraft bus, which was under final construction and undergoing testing and validation. The spacecraft bus houses various support functions for the telescope including systems dedicated to communication, computing and propulsion. My tasks included helping with the set-up of strain gauges, load cells and torque transducers - all to measure the simulated conditions the satellite will experience. These conditions include launch loads (g-forces), unfolding loads and thermo loads ranging from -388 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit while in space. I also used advanced equipment like the Trillion Optical Measurement System (TOMS) to take precise measurements of devices during testing. The precise measurements allow us to compare the obtained values with predicted values and make sure that everything is within a tolerance that is acceptable.

    How did the work you do connect back to your coursework? Many of my classes provided me with background knowledge needed for my work on a daily basis. Mechatronics, circuits and instrumentation lab were all valuable resources when I was working with stepper motors, strain gauges and circuit systems. Additionally, my knowledge from classes like programming, mechanics of materials and transport phenomena was used often.

    What was the coolest thing about your experience? Entering the high-bay cleanroom of the James Webb Space Telescope for the first time. It was a multistage decontamination process. The first stage was a small room where I had to remove loose garments and debris. I then stepped into an adjacent room where I had to suit up in a “bunny suit.” This was a full-body suit that provides protection from electrostatic discharge (ESD) and foreign debris. For the final stage, I stepped into an air shower airlock. The air shower consisted of about a minute of pulsing air blasted from every direction. I finally entered the bay and was face-to-face with the gigantic satellite. I was in awe. As an intern, I was about to work on something that will bring us closer to understanding the beginning of the early universe and may help detect life on extrasolar planets. Even though time has passed, that feeling has never truly left me.

    What did you learn about yourself? I learned that I can accomplish anything that I set out to do with hard work and determination. A few years ago, I would never have thought I would have worked on something as important as a giant infrared space telescope. I feel this is a lesson that applies to everyone.

    How did you expand your professional network? I worked with many different people during my internship. I was given exposure to different teams involved in various projects, and I participated in a multitude of intern gatherings. Through these experiences, I was able to speak with people working in different sectors and various locations throughout Northrup Grumman.

    What advice do you have for others just starting the internship process? First and foremost, have some fun. For engineers, it is common for internships to be out of state, so find some fellow interns that are willing to do some activities and do them over the weekend. This will improve your entire experience and make your work life meaningful. Finally, when it comes to work, sometimes initiative is necessary. Ask for work when you are done with your own, and don’t be shy to ask for assistance when it’s needed.

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