— Christen McWithey is sitting in front of a 3-D printer the size of a microwave, figuring out how to turn computer graphics into model satellites and telescopes to support a NASA mission.
Christen McWithey is 19 years old.
McWithey, who just completed her freshman year at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she's "blown away" by the opportunities she's had as an intern at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
She's producing the models to help engineers and scientists visualize the creation of a satellite they're working to launch in eight years.
"It's fun; it's really hands-on," said McWithey, who is from Laurel. "When I came into this internship, I was hoping I would get to do that. It's really a great feeling to see I just finished one year of college, and the work I am doing is going to impact this project.
"It makes you feel important. They value you as an intern."
The Goddard center, which builds spacecraft, instruments and technology to study the Earth, sun, solar system and universe, is working to prepare future aerospace engineers and scientists, said Dean Kern, the institution's deputy director for education. The Center hired about 475 interns this summer.
Kern said the program is intended to prepare students for careers.
"They're incredible — not only the skills and talents that they are bringing, but their fresh perspectives to the projects that they're working on," he said.
"They are bringing a lot of enthusiasm and energy. They are assisting in meaningful work. They are contributing to the science and research at Goddard Space Flight Center."
The college and high school interns were selected from a pool of 6,000 applicants for the six- and 10-week placements. College students receive $6,000 for the summer; high school students get $1,800.
To qualify, Kern said, a student must be at least at 16, hold U.S. citizenship and maintain a high grade point average.
The students apply for specific projects; interns are selected by mentors. The bulk work in Greenbelt; others take positions at Goddard facilities in New York, Virginia and West Virginia.
Fifty-seven percent are male; 43 percent are female. Forty percent are minorities or have disabilities.
Kern said the interns interact daily with scientists and engineers and play an active role in their projects.
"They're looking at real-time data," Kern said. "They're looking at real-time formulas and design. They're looking at real-time consumption for building. Goddard builds satellites through conception to launching, and these interns have the opportunity to participate in all levels of that, which is pretty amazing."
Most internships are based in science or engineering, but Kern said Goddard offers a small number in other fields, such as communications or safety code enforcement.
Angel Mills, who graduated last month from Howard University, landed an internship in the center's communications office.
"I never thought about interning at NASA before, and I didn't know that they had internships outside of science and technology," said Mills, 21.
The Detroit woman plans to study intercultural communication at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Mills said her interactions with the diverse people at Goddard and the remarkable experiences they've had should prepare her for a career as an international correspondent.
One highlight was meeting an astronaut and hearing first-hand about his time in space.
"Every day is something new," Mills said. "I am not a person who grew up loving space or even thought about, as a journalist, working in this type of environment. For me, it's been a very good experience."
Shannon Gravette did grow up thinking about space.
Gravette, a rising junior at University of Maryland, College Park, is back for his fourth summer at Goddard.
"I've always been a space nerd," said Gravette, 20, who grew up in Waldorf. "When I was younger I had a huge telescope. I was like 4. It cost $1,000 for my entire family to get me."
Gravette is spending the summer as an instrumentation engineer. He is working to set up a very small ion gun that sits on a platform and emulates an instrument that would collect ions as it orbits the Earth.
"It's to mimic a space-like atmosphere," he said.
His previous internships at Goddard included computer modeling, developing laser transponders, analyzing data from a lunar reconnaissance mission and advancing cryogenic propellants.
This summer is Kierra Harrison's first at Goddard.
Harrison, a rising sophomore at Capitol College in Laurel, has an internship in programming. She is trying to get used to the "space lingo and jargon."
"They'll do space jokes, and I just sit there," said Harrison, who grew up on Fort Meade. "But if they do a computer joke, I can join in. So I am struggling with the terms they are using and the equations.
"I feel like I have to learn a completely different math than calculus."
Harrison is translating a computer language and equations used in space to create a computer application to cut the time it takes to track satellites once they break through the atmosphere.
"I never saw myself working at NASA, because I only pictured astronauts," she said. Now she said, the program "has given me an edge on other students who are just looking in the books and learning theory and won't be able to experience hands-on until their junior or senior year."