Spring break at NASA? Yes please

Cierra Rainey, 24, from Independence, helped design and test a LEGO rover at a NASA Space Center in Mississippi in March. Photo by Hannah Bonnett

For Ankeny DMACC student Cierra Rainey, spring break was not a time of rest and relaxation as it is for most students; she was spending the week at NASA.

Cierra Rainey, studying liberal arts, is planning to major in physics after transferring. She was recently chosen to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar program, or NCAS, which included a four day on-site learning opportunity at the John C. Stennis Space Center in March.

“I saw something in a newsletter showcasing DMACC students who had gotten chosen for this program,” said Rainey. This was the first time she heard of the program, and it immediately piqued her interest.

Rainey applied for the program and began a five-week long online course over NASA research and missions. Success in the course determined eligibility for the on-site experience.

When Rainey found out she had been chosen to participate in the on-site experience, she said she was surprised and ecstatic; she could not believe she was going to spend a week at NASA.

Rainey traveled to the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, where she met NASA engineers and the other NCAS participants, including three other DMACC students from other campuses.

The students were split into four teams to compete against each other in a rover building competition as if they were trying for a NASA contract.

Members were assigned different roles within their hypothetical company. Rainey was the test engineer, so her responsibility was to ensure that the rover functioned properly and could complete its required tasks. Teams had only one day to build the rover out of legos and test it, and the following night to make necessary adjustments.

When Rainey was not building and testing her team’s rover, she was touring NASA’s research and testing facility.

One standout experience was seeing the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, with engines that provide more than two million pounds of thrust.  

“I can’t even fathom it,” Rainey said. “This will be the rocket to take humans to Mars.”

Rainey also got to hear presentations from several NASA engineers, where  they talked about their experiences working at the aerospace facility.

Rainey said, “It gave me a real sense of clarity as to what it’s like to work in NASA and how to get your foot in the door… It gave me a sense of what I can work on in that environment.”

At the end, Rainey and her team had to deliver a presentation about their rover to the other teams and program coordinators, as well as NASA employees and interns.

Looking back on the experience, Rainey said “It was truly and life changing experience,” and “opened my eyes to what is all out there.”

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