Over the last few months, Nicole Schoenstein has flown a T-38 simulator (where astronauts train), sat inside an Orion spacecraft mockup, met the second person to walk on the moon (New Jerseyan Buzz Aldrin), tested exercise equipment used by astronauts in space, tasted a half dozen potential space foods and rode in the chariot lunar truck at the Planetary Analog Site, which is a multi-acre testing ground that mimics the surface of other planets.
Schoenstein, of Mays Landing, goes by the name @OdysseyofSpace on Twitter, which couldn’t be any more fitting for the senior Psychology major who spent the summer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas as an intern and is back for a second internship this fall. She joined Twitter to chronicle her NASA journey.
Not many college students, let alone humans, have these experiences during a lifetime. Schoenstein worked hard to earn these opportunities.
She competed against 80 applicants for her 10-week summer internship position with Johnson Space Center’s Office of Education where she worked to share the International Space Station (ISS) One-Year Crew’s story.
ISS is a microgravity laboratory, powered by an acre of solar panels, which orbits our planet every 90 minutes with an international, six-person crew on board to conduct research in space. Most ISS expeditions last four to six months, but the One-Year Crew Mission doubles that total to help researchers better understand how humans respond to long exposure to zero gravity, part of a long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.
“My primary One-Year Crew project was the development of a series of educational kits related to the ISS One-Year Crew Mission. The kits will be distributed to each NASA Center and will help NASA Education staff members share the ISS story, its onboard research, and its role in the journey to Mars,” Schoenstein explained.
The kits that she helped to develop contain hands-on activities and lesson plans and are flexible enough to use to involve learners in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at all grade levels.
Another project allowed her to “revitalize the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, which is where my journey with NASA began,” she explained.
Prior to Stockton, Schoenstein studied at Atlantic Cape Community College and participated in the NCAS program, an interactive online learning opportunity highlighted by a three-day experience at NASA, as well as NASA’s 2012 Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, where her team, IllumiNation, built and flew their reduced gravity experiment, “Nanostructured Metallic Foams Created through Self-Propagating High Temperature Synthesis.”
During her summer internship, she was also a lead volunteer for two science outreach events for children at a domestic violence shelter, served as a panelist and student mentor at a NASA Intern Night at a Texas university and was a mentor for the High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS) Program and the Micro-g NExT program. At the end of the internship, she was selected as an honorable mention recipient for the Outstanding Intern Award.
Schoenstein has always loved science, but she never imagined she’d end up at NASA. “I am a naturally curious person, and I am intrigued by the unknown,” she said.
“I believe that through exploration comes knowledge and lessons, which can then be applied to both space exploration and to problems on earth. Despite my interests, I never thought I would be involved with the space industry. It was actually the NCAS program that really hooked me,” she said.
At the start of this semester, Schoenstein tweeted, “Found out that I will have the opportunity to train like an astronaut during my internship. Talk about living the dream!”
During her fall internship, Schoenstein is working with the ISS Flight Crew Integration (FCI) Operational Habitability (OpsHab) team. She explains, “This is a human factors position, and so the team I am working with strives to learn about and document information relating to the capabilities and limitations of astronauts and how they live and interact in their environment. They use the knowledge they gain to help improve the lives of astronauts on board the ISS and beyond.”
Schoenstein has attended debriefing with crew members from ISS and the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), which sends groups of astronauts, engineers and scientists to live in Aquarius, the world’s only undersea research station, for up to three weeks at a time.
She is training like an astronaut to better understand life in confined quarters in outer space. “This training also allows the instructors to practice their training on a test subject (me) so as to see if adjustments need to be made,” she said.
During planning meetings, she shares input from a human factors and habitability perspective on equipment currently being designed for ISS and Orion.
Soon she will serve as an NCAS mentor and panelist on an NCAS Alumni Panel for the Fall 2015 NCAS Onsite Workshop, and she will volunteer at Astronomy Day at George Observatory, a satellite facility of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as a NASA representative. She is currently serving as chair of the NASA on Campus Elementary and Middle School Committee and leading the development of NASA space lesson plans that include experiments and demonstrations, which she will then present at Texas schools.
Schoenstein’s hard work is already paying off. She recently secured her third NASA internship for the spring semester. Her goal is to work for NASA as a civil servant or as a contractor.
When she’s not at NASA, she is actively engaged on campus. She is a peer mentor for the C.A.R.E. program, the outgoing president of Golden Key International Honour Society and vice president of Psi Chi.
Her keys to success are taking chances, working hard, being a leader, building relationships, giving respect and not making excuses.
She thanks Dr. Jessica Fleck, associate professor of Psychology, for “sharing so much knowledge with me, in and out of the classroom, about cognitive psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and the purpose and importance of research.”
Schoenstein’s words of advice are to “experience and learn as much as you can. You may never truly know your passion until you try something new or something you thought you could never do.”
She more of Schoenstein’s photos on Flickr.