Gavilan College sophomore, Nathan Hebert, recently took a small step out of his comfort zone and a giant leap toward his dream job as an aerospace engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Last month, the 19-year-old Hollister resident and San Benito High School graduate successfully completed NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars Program or NCAS.
“NCAS gives community college STEM students an authentic NASA experience and encourages them to finish a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university to pursue a NASA-related field or career,” according to the space agency’s website.
Hebert (pronounced, á-bear) began the two-part program in late June, initially completing a five-week, online course before being selected to attend a four-day workshop at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.
The online class was divided into three modules that covered NASA’s reach into Mars, its research at the International Space Station, and the myriad ways that planet Earth benefits from its work.
Interested in all things Martian, Hebert said he enjoyed the first module. But what he learned in the third one really surprised him.
“I didn’t realize how important NASA is,” he said in his interview with BenitoLink, adding, “It’s not just about shooting us into space.”
He then shared that the now-retired Space Shuttle program spurred innovations in several areas, including road design.
Searching for a way to minimize hydroplaning on the shuttle’s landing, NASA engineers developed grooved, concrete surfaces. Found on today’s highway off-ramps and airport runways, these crisscross, paved etchings provide drainage for excess water, and according to Hebert are one of NASA’s “most common applications.”
Reading space-related news articles, watching videos of past and present NASA missions, participating in discussion forums, and taking weekly quizzes comprised 60-percent of NCAS’ on-line curriculum.
A final project rounded out Hebert’s grade and qualified him for the experience at Ames. Charting unfamiliar territory, he chose to design a Mars rover using 3D computer graphics software.
“I never designed anything with 3D software, and I wanted to expose myself to something new and to challenge myself,” he said.
Hebert accompanied his design with a five-page paper describing each instrument aboard his rover, including a 3D printer that could fashion tools using the red planet’s soil as ink filler, as well as a NASA-developed technology called an In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) component that theoretically could convert the Martian atmosphere into fuel.
In a phone interview with BenitoLink earlier this month, educational coordinator of the on-site workshop at Ames, Gabriel Dueñas, stated that Hebert’s performance in NCAS’s on-line course put him among the top 40 students from the Bay Area’s junior colleges—and the only participant from Gavilan—who were invited to attend the four-day workshop.
Held from Oct. 17-20 the workshop was “set-up as a competition,” said Dueñas.
He explained that four teams of 10 students were created, each designated by a color—Hebert was a member of the gold team. Based on NASA’s mission protocol, roles and responsibilities were then divvied up.
Stepping out of his comfort zone once again, Hebert volunteered as one of two software engineers.
According to Dueñas, each team had to create a company name, develop and plan a mission, and with a budget of $600 million design a Mars rover, using a LEGO Mindstorms EV3, an educational kit that melds the company’s signature plastic bricks with 21st-Century technology, such as robotics.
Team-designed rovers later faced off in two challenges—rock retrieval and rescuing another rover.
Throughout the competition, students were confronted with “stressors” similar to those experienced by NASA personnel, such as “long hours, how to come together as a team,” and staying under budget, Dueñas said.
Hebert’s time was not all spent playing games. There was plenty of fun mixed in, too.
Students toured the research center’s labs, attended a NASA employee social, listened to a presentation by Mars’ expert Chris McKay, and learned about the space agency’s student, internship programs, including three that Hebert has already applied to.
The coveted NASA contract—the prize awarded to the first place team at the competition’s conclusion—did not go to Hebert and his teammates. But that is not to say Hebert left Ames Research Center empty-handed.
On the workshop’s final day, he earned a NASA lapel pin and a certificate signifying his successful completion of the NCAS program. He also made some lasting friendships with like-minded individuals who hope to defy Earth’s gravity one day.
Moreover, Hebert’s experience provided him with a new-found confidence and a better sense of the trajectory of his future.
“It showed me what I need to work on, and it made me more comfortable in that NASA atmosphere of deadlines, dealing with obstacles as they arise, and working with teams,” he said.
Hebert will soon share some of that knowledge with students from his alma mater. He is scheduled to speak to San Benito High School’s STEM club in December.
His advice to younger, would-be space explorers: Take advantage of NASA’s educational programs. Purchase and tinker around with the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit. And always be willing to learn from others.
—Editor's note: Hebert is Frank Perez's nephew.