NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is one of those dreamy places where unthinkable is achieved. During my third semester, I developed an interest in applying for a summer internship at JPL but got disheartened when I found out that NASA was not open to foreign nationals (FN) for internships. In my fifth semester, I finally mustered up the courage to apply and started emailing technologists at JPL asking them if they would be willing to host me for an internship.
Among the very few replies that I received, only one was affirmative. The rest all stated how FNs were not considered, due to the logistics involved. I had a Skype chat with the professor who had expressed his interest. He liked my resume and was willing to offer an internship. Caltech SURF, a program which provides students with an opportunity to carry out research under the guidance of researchers at Caltech and JPL, was restricted to US citizens only. So, I pitched the idea of applying via the JPL Graduate Fellowship Program (JPLGF). However, JPLGF was open only for graduates. Being an undergraduate student, I wasn’t eligible.
He told me that there was a place for only one summer intern in his group, and he would consider me if I turned out to be the best among all the aspirants. I was shortlisted for the second round of interviews. Although the chances of getting selected were faint, I had to give my best. The interview started with a comprehensive discussion about my project at the Autonomous Mobile Research Laboratory (AMRL), UMass Amherst, which was ‘joint perception and planning for efficient obstacle avoidance using stereo vision’.
In the project, we had used stereo cameras to make autonomous mobile robots that were robust in detecting obstacles. This was completely different from the conventional techniques of using sensor modalities. I talked about how it was relevant was to even the Mars Rovers. Then I was asked questions based on my achievements and skills as mentioned in my resume. I also talked about the motion planning algorithms I had implemented as a member of Kharagpur Robosoccer Students’ Group. He checked my C++, ROS, and OpenCV coding skills by skimming through my GitHub profile. Once he was convinced that I had the required skills and experience, he said, “I think I’m convinced that you’re the one.”
I was waiting impatiently for my offer letter, when I received an email entitled ‘Bad news – we cannot bring you to JPL on the JPLGF program’. The mail read – “Education Office has been asked by senior management to discontinue the JPL Graduate Fellowship Program, JPLGF, effective immediately. We will no longer extend mentor-funded internships to foreign interns.”
During my correspondence with JPL, I had rejected the internship offers from other institutes like Max Planck Cybernetics. I was devastated! I couldn’t concentrate on anything and cried endlessly, so my parents offered to pay for my stay in California. Self-funded internships, however, were not possible. Another option was to secure funding from a third party organisation, like government, college, etc. and participate in the JPL Visiting Scholar Research Program (JVSRP). Again, this was really difficult!
The last possibility was to contact a Caltech professor and apply for a SURF project which had a collaboration with JPL. Only twenty days were left for applying to SURF and most professors would have chosen interns by then. The aforementioned professor recommended me to two Caltech professors. This accelerated the process and one of them asked me to draft my SURF proposal. The SURF application involved an application form regarding my personal details, a project proposal, three confidential letters of recommendation, and an unofficial transcript.
I completed my application and drafted a proposal outlining my project details and how I planned to complete the project during the 10-week timeframe. I checked each and every detail and took care of even the most minor bits like commas. The results were to be announced a month later. I was filled with anxiety even though my mentor assured me of my chances to get through it. The probability held good and I got the confirmation for selection. I let out a sigh of relief!
SURF/JVSRP was a 10-week internship program during which I worked on risk-aware probabilistic motion planning for future Mars Rovers which aimed to reduce the conservatism of the present autonomous navigator of the Mars 2020 Rover. In layman terms, I developed a new algorithm that would increase the efficiency of autonomous navigation for Mars Rovers. During that summer, JPL had around 900 interns because of the Europa and Mars 2020 missions.
I was an intern at the Robotic Systems Estimation, Decision, and Control Group (347-E). I used to test my algorithms on the Athena Rover, which is a small-scale testbed for the Mars Rover. We used to carry out the testing at the Mars Yard, which is a very touristy spot at JPL. I felt very privileged to be able to contribute to the huge code repositories which have been maintained for more than 10 years by people seasoned in robotics.
JPL had an unusual charm and places like mission control centres at Space Flight Operations Facility amused me. Working with the pioneers of space exploration was like a dream come true! If the Jedi were real, they would be at JPL! May the force be with them forever.
During my stay, I travelled a lot around the beautiful cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles. We had every alternate Fridays off-work, so we’d hit Old Town Pasadena for drinks, go bar hopping, and explore major tourist attractions like the Hollywood sign, Universal Studios, Santa Monica, and Malibu. I also visited the California Science Centre where the space shuttle
I also visited the California Science Centre where the space shuttle Endeavour is displayed. I travelled to the east coast and went to UMass for a week and saw fireworks in New York on July 4 and of course, the breathtaking Manhattan skyline!
About the Author: Sourish Ghosh, a student of IIT Kharagpur, talks about his struggle to land an internship at NASA and the events that followed. This story was first published on Internshala.