Guest Post: Inside the NASA Langley Research Center

This is a guest blog post by Craig Schmidt, a fourth-​​year under­grad­uate stu­dent in the Col­lege of Engi­neering and recip­ient of the pres­ti­gious Ver­tical Flight Foun­da­tion Schol­ar­ship. This summer he’s par­tic­i­pating in a unique intern­ship pro­gram at the NASA Lan­gley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.


Preparing a mil­i­tary heli­copter for a crash test is a strange expe­ri­ence. You spend three months designing equip­ment, fab­ri­cating parts and preparing instru­men­ta­tion, only to crash it all into the ground at 40 miles per hour. The phys­ical prod­ucts of the effort are a set of high speed videos, crash impulse data and a destroyed heap of metal and glass.  The prac­tical impli­ca­tions of the test, how­ever, are more sub­stan­tial. Inside the air­frame lie three inno­v­a­tive energy absorbers, designed by NASA and the U.S. Army. Made of com­posite mate­rials, these energy absorbers are designed to cushion pas­sen­gers from hard impacts and decrease the like­li­hood of injury.

For me, working at a NASA research facility came with a cer­tain expec­ta­tion: sci­en­tists in white coats, rockets and top secret projects that no one can talk about. As I finish my sev­enth week, I’ve real­ized most of my assump­tions were dead wrong. The office is full of casual dis­cus­sions and the occa­sional over­head “buzz” of an F-​​22 Raptor coming in for landing at Lan­gley Air Force Base. I was most sur­prised at how acces­sible the labs and research projects were, espe­cially for summer stu­dents. My first week, I heard rumors that a scale model of the Mars SLS (Space Launch System) rocket would be tested in a super­sonic wind tunnel. Amaz­ingly, when I asked my super­visor is this was true, he non­cha­lantly said, “Yea, do you want to watch?” NASA Langley’s campus is an inter­ac­tive aero­nau­tics exhibit. Wind tun­nels line the main road, heli­copters and jets circle the skies around the air force base and people walk the side­walks with flight hard­ware in hand.

The research phi­los­ophy is con­sis­tently, “Play around with it,” or “Figure it out.” While this is a daunting idea at first, it is in large part respon­sible for NASA’s cul­ture of inno­va­tion and explo­ration. Dis­cov­eries are often made that would have been out of the scope of a tra­di­tional task. Researchers are espe­cially quick to incor­po­rate stu­dents in their projects. Interns can con­sis­tently be seen shuf­fling to and from labs, some­times in dis­be­lief of the tech­nology they just witnessed.

The past seven weeks has been more than an intern­ship, it has been the full NASA expe­ri­ence. The true value of working at Lan­gley lies in meeting people and learning about the his­tory of the center. I’ve learned to ask everyone I meet, “What was it like working on that project?”, and lis­tening to what­ever is on their mind.

Such an expe­ri­ence rein­forces the notion of con­tin­uous edu­ca­tion. From start to end, stu­dents are exposed to not only fin­ished tech­nology, but the know-​​how and mindset nec­es­sary to become a pio­neer and inno­vator in a tech­ni­cally demanding field.  Ten weeks well spent.