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Engineering intern at NASA designs lodging for space travel to Mars

UTRGV student Alexandra Alaniz is shown working with parts for the mock-up of a Deep Space Habitat, shown behind her, during her internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Al. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

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By Cheryl Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – DEC. 26, 2015 – In the not-too-distant future, when astronauts take off from Earth with Mars as their destination, they will need a “home away from home” during the estimated 500-day journey.

Alexandra Alaniz, a student at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, helped prepare for travel to Mars as a human factors engineering intern at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Al.

Alaniz worked on the Space Launch System (SLS) Deep Space Habitat (DSH) that will serve as the astronaut crew quarters.

“My project was to develop a conceptual design volume for the DHS that will be used to conduct assessments and analyses to evaluate how well that concept supports crew activities or tasks for a Mars mission,” said Alaniz, a sophomore mechanical engineering student from Mission.

Part of a group of 13 interns at MSFC this past semester hailing from universities throughout the country, Alaniz said her internship was a childhood dream come true.

“I have always wanted to work for NASA since I was a little girl, and this was such a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I gained so much experience in this field.”

Alaniz’s counterpart, Michael Flores, was a sophomore studying aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech University. They worked in the same habitat, with each having an assigned room and an individual project.

The habitats will be used only during the long flight to Mars. During the time the crew is on the planet, the habitats will remain in Mars orbit, ready to return the crew to Earth. Surface-based habitats for the scientists’ time spent on Mars would be erected on the planet’s surface.

“The DSH will sustain four crew members,” Alaniz said. “It will contain individual crew quarters, a bathroom, a galley/wardroom, an exercise room, and a room to conduct experiments and take care of maintenance. The rest of the habitat will be used for stowage of supplies the crew will use during the mission – items such as food, tools and equipment.”

Alaniz was assigned the galley/wardroom space. Over the semester, Alaniz and Flores went through the many steps of research, design, critique and model building. The model was tested using a host of criteria, such as comfort, practicality and ease of motion.

Drawing upon the analyzed data, Alaniz then created a PowerPoint presentation and a report. 

“All my colleagues – the other interns and the professionals – are all extraordinary. I will always remember them for the knowledge that they shared with me during my time at MSFC,” she said.

“In particular, I appreciate having two wonderful mentors, Charles Dischinger and David Reynolds. They have taught me everything I now know about human factors engineering and they have supported me in every way possible throughout the semester.”

As an MFSC intern, Alaniz had a built-in social group.

“There is so much to do in the Huntsville area,” she said. “Ice-skating, rock climbing, movies, museums. And most importantly, just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company.”

Any other free time was spent reading and catching up on Rocket Launchers at UTRGV, the student organization she started last year with the encouragement of Ricardo Ramirez, the Career Center adviser for the College of Engineering.

“Mr. Ramirez has always inspired and encouraged me to attend career fairs, resume workshops, info sessions, and to start the campus rocket club,” Alaniz said.

The mission of Rocket Launchers at UTRGV is to give members a chance to gain engineering experience with activities related to the assembling of rockets, while also developing communication and leadership skills.

“Alexandra is very determined,” Ramirez said. “I know she will accomplish her goals to become an aerospace engineer.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Alaniz’s dream is to be employed by SpaceX for a few years before going back to school to earn a graduate degree. After that, she hopes to return to her dream career at SpaceX.

“Being an intern at NASA has given me the experience that most engineering companies are looking for in an undergraduate student,” she said. “This also gives me the advantage of knowing how to work in a high-stress environment.”

For more information about the UTRGV School of Engineering and Computer Science, call 956-665-3510 or email

More NASA internship stories:
Internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was key to student’s job offer
Weslaco native Abigail Montalvo Schulze looks forward to this time next year, hoping she and her family will enjoy a white Christmas at their new home in Pennsylvania. Read the full release.
Internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was ‘an amazing experience’
Growing up in Ohio, home state of 23 U.S. astronauts, Aaron Hunsaker “always wanted to be an astronaut.” Read the full Release.

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