HUNTSVILLE, Ala -12 October 11
Kassandra Stephens: Marshall Intern Blasts Off!
By: Heather L. Ogletree
Unlike many of her fellow interns, Kassandra Stephens, a senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT), did not imagine that one day she would work at NASA. “I thought I wanted to be a vet,” stated Stephens. Then she went to Space Camp at SciTrek’s Challenger Learning Center in Atlanta, Ga., and the seed was planted. She said, “I had an absolute blast.” However, she was still set on being a veterinarian. It was not until Stephens got closer to attending college that she began to think veterinary school was not for her. Then when Stephens decided to “research other options,” she remembered how much fun she had at space camp, and Voila! – the path of aerospace engineering “popped into [her] head” as the obvious choice. She revealed, “Ever since I decided to pursue aerospace engineering, I knew I wanted to work for the absolute best, the ‘top dog’: NASA.”
During the spring, the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP) selected Stephens to work with NASA Mentor Mark Phillips on a project involving OTIS, or Optimal Trajectories by Implicit Simulation.”
She said, “When I received the offer for this internship, I was ecstatic, to say the least. I’d finally gotten my dream job.” As a participant in GT’s co-op program, Stephens tried for three years to get an internship with no luck. However, upon the advice of her co-op advisor, she applied to USRP and, finally, she found herself “in” the world of NASA, gaining hands-on experience.
But this was only the beginning. USRP projects are designed to challenge and develop tomorrow’s workforce. For Stephens, the main challenge came with OTIS. She stressed, “OTIS and I definitely butted heads a lot in the beginning, because I didn’t understand how to tell it what I wanted and it didn’t know what I was telling it to do. But, under the guidance of my mentor, working with OTIS was not as daunting.”
According to the OTIS website, “Programs, such as OTIS, are used to predict how a vehicle will perform or to determine how to best fly a given vehicle. The resulting data allow a variety of studies to be accomplished including vehicle and sub-system design trades, guidance studies, error analyses and mission planning.”
It was Stephen’s responsibility to create a MATLAB function which could automate OTIS, saving NASA countless man-hours. She maintained, “Processing one case may take a day, or even a week, when done ‘manually.’ But, with my function, running through these cases is a lot less ‘hands-on’ and takes a lot less time. For example, when testing my function on a basic Two Stage to Orbit (TSTO) case study, it ran 53 cases in 31 minutes. Doing this ‘manually’ would probably take many days.”
During her 15 week experience, Stephens also had the opportunity to go see Discovery’s final launch. Here she got to see her work in action. “While watching [Discovery] lift off into the sky for the last time, I could identify several of the trajectory phases...I had programmed into...my cases being performed right before my eyes,” declared Stephens. “I could now identify what the orbiter was doing as it lifted off and why it was doing what it did.”When asked about her future plans, Stephens indicated two possibilities: working in STEM or graduate school. Moreover, she has also accepted a co-op position at Marshall working in the same branch this fall, so she is well on her way to working in STEM. In relation to NASA, NASA Mentor Phillips noted that Stephens was an “excellent student” and he “would recommend this individual for employment upon graduation,” giving her high marks across the board. Stephens concluded, “I have definitely enjoyed gaining “real world” experience in a corporate setting. It has given me a peek at what my future work atmosphere will possibly be like.”