Internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was ‘an amazing experience’

Aaron Hunsaker, a mechanical engineering junior at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, took a major step toward a career with the U.S. space program, as an intern at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

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By Cheryl Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – DEC. 29, 2015 – When Aaron Hunsaker was growing up in Ohio, home state of 23 U.S. astronauts, he “always wanted to be an astronaut.” That boyhood kinship with astronauts was heightened knowing he and Neil Armstrong were born just 16 miles apart.

Hunsaker, a mechanical engineering junior at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, took a major step toward a career with the space program over the past summer as an intern at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

His job at the flight center was to design and assess a crew quarters concept for the Space Launch System (SLS) Deep Space Habitat (DSH).

“I had to first identify design requirements using task analysis techniques and research through old technical documents provided by NASA,” Hunsaker said. “Then, I created a 3-D model of the design concept using 3-D modeling software called Creo Parametric 2.0.”

Simultaneously, he devised a test plan to assess the functionality of his proposed crew quarters design.

“After passing the design review, I constructed a full-scale, low-fidelity mockup for the volumetric assessment,” he said. “Testers include NASA employees, interns, volunteers and astronauts, if they are available. They offer feedback about the size, feel and look of the space, along with their ability to perform essential tasks associated with that area.”

The final step was compilation and interpretation of the data to be presented at a poster competition at the end of the internship.

Always fascinated with science, engineering and technology, Hunsaker said the twists and turns of life led him to a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio Northern University. He came to the Rio Grande Valley knowing he could live with an old friend while working on his master’s degree at The University of Texas Pan American.

More than halfway along on a master’s in school psychology, his academic focus took at sharp turn when he helped a friend with his manufacturing engineering thesis project.

“After working with Ben Peters and Dr. Alley Butler (UTRGV professor, manufacturing and industrial engineering) on that project I knew engineering was my calling and I was wasting my talents with psychology,” he said.

He credits Butler and Peters for helping him see his potential. He left the master’s program and started pursuing a second bachelor’s degree, this time in mechanical engineering.

“Dr. Butler has been there to help me in any way possible, including writing my letter of recommendation to NASA,” Hunsaker said.

Realizing his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut is unrealistic at this point in his life – he is 32 – Hunsaker said he still intends to reach for the stars.

“I have always wanted to work for NASA, and even if I can’t be the one who flies into space, I can still work for NASA and do great things to help the advancement of mankind,” he said.

After his summer internship at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Hunsaker’s determination is stronger than ever.

“An amazing experience,” he said. “The culture at NASA, and especially at MSFC, is one of acceptance, kindness, helpfulness and learning,” he said. “Everyone took the time to explain what they work on, or to help you with questions about whatever you were working on. Everyone at MSFC was exceptional in their own way.”

Hunsaker believes he was particularly lucky to have Charles Dischinger, team lead for the Human Factors Engineering Department, as his mentor.

“Charlie was always there to guide me and to help when I was stuck in my research,” he said. “He also embraced the learning aspect of the internship and would take small groups of interns on private tours of some of the historical sites on the base, telling us about the people, the buildings and the equipment – all fascinating.”

Another supporter was Jack Stokes, a retired “old-school” human factors engineer who does contract work at MSFC.

“A kind and caring man, Jack worked on Skylab and the Hubble Space Telescope,” Hunsaker said. “He went out of his way to help me and answer my questions. He showed me all the old technical documents to research design requirements for my project. I found myself working hard to make him proud.”

Hunsaker said the internship will give him access to more opportunities within NASA, and he is applying for a spring semester co-op internship opportunity at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Ca.

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

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Internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was key to student’s job offer
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