Sreya Kumpatla, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, traveled west for the summer of 2022 to Pasadena, California, for an internship with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Kumpatla interned for Payloads and Small Spacecraft Mechanical Engineering Section within the Mechanical Engineering, Fabrication, and Test Division. She shares a day from her experience, which led to a full-time job as a systems engineer at JPL following her 2023 graduation.
Armed with a banana and my first cup of coffee, I would spend the first hour sifting through my emails, going through the many Post-it notes from the day before, and catching up with my co-workers. I worked on the end effector of the robotic arm transfer system, which is a part of the capture, containment, and return system of the Earth return orbiter, a mission under the larger campaign called Mars Sample Return, which aims to transport samples the Perseverance rover collects on the Martian surface back to Earth. I worked on a lot on the specifics, and being so “down in the weeds,” as industry people tend to call it, gave me a lot of appreciation for how many different teams collaborate to make the entire mission come together and work in conjunction.
Some days, we had a 10 a.m. meeting, and I prepared by opening up the CAD model of the end effector to see how it’s changed from the previous day. That way, I’d be prepared in meetings if it came up. The meetings were a great way to catch up with other members, and we talked about how the design of our mechanism was evolving. I always enjoyed seeing how creative and analytical our team was. It’s such a good glimpse into how an engineering team operates.
After getting out of a meeting, invigorated and inspired, I would go straight to my desk and pick back up on my task. I often had multiple tasks running in parallel so that when one finished, I could hop onto another without losing momentum.
Most JPLers break exactly at noon for lunch and head over to the Mall, a beautiful, wide-open space with a coffee cart, dozens of tables, and green spaces. It’s opposite to the cafeteria, which has so many food options—a custom pizza station, taco bowls, a multicultural grill, sushi, and poke bowls. Some interns designated a few of the tables as the mega-intern table, so I would grab my lunch and head there to catch up, chat, and joke around with interns from across JPL. It’s a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed that quality time to bond with other students from across the country and the world.
Usually after lunch, there’s not any meetings immediately afterwards,
and that’s a nice open slot for interns! We were very much encouraged to explore the lab and see the all the cool exhibits as part of the public-access museums, as well as any tours of cool facilities! My favorite tours were the Mars Yard, where they have twin rovers of Curiosity and Perseverance that they drive around in order to test activities before sending those commands to the actual rovers on Mars, and the tour on the floor of the high bay, where I got to dress up in a clean suit in order to safely enter and view the NISAR spacecraft up close with all the integration and test engineers!
JPL enjoys informing its own members about different aspects of proposed or current missions, and puts on really cool talks! Usually I attended at least one every week. The talks range widely from topic to topic, including Voyager’s end game, the evolution of the sample return helicopters as a part of Mars Sample Return, and even a talk given by astronaut Christina Koch in order to celebrate the fourth anniversary of JPL’s Cold Atom Lab, which is currently aboard the International Space Station.
Usually there’s one last meeting. Often it would be a one-on-one meeting with someone on my team or another engineer who could help me with my tasks. While a lot of my internship was testing my own abilities to problem solve, my favorite thing about JPL is how willing people are to guide you and help you learn rather than make you fend for yourself. I got to meet with incredibly talented and wise engineers that helped me understand any issues I had and helped me think of viable solutions I could investigate further.
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