Universe of Possibilities: A Visit to NASA

In August 2016, 11 QuestBridge Scholars had the unique opportunity to meet face-to-face with officials at NASA and the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. Vi Nguyen, a QuestBridge Scholar and Yale University alumna, reflected on the visit to NASA:

Six people.

“At this moment, there are only six people in space? In total?” I re-asked my question, mostly out of sheer wonder. Our guide nodded with a smile, “Yes. Six.”

The 11 QuestBridge Scholars—eight current undergraduates and three alumni—sat around the table in NASA’s Space Operations Center, taking in the experience, unsure whether six human beings were too few or many more than we expected to be living beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

QuestBridge Scholars at NASA

I had been to NASA before, in 2011, while interning for the White House Office of Management and Budget. We had not sat in the Space Operations Center, though. We also had not heard live voice feeds of astronauts from the International Space Station, broadcasting their experiments and observations back to earth.

The NASA team answered more of our questions. How politics play into space exploration; how the D.C. Space Operations Center differed from Houston’s Mission Control; how much we have invested in high quality communications between the astronauts in space and those of us on Earth; how public and private partnerships worked; how we’ll go to Mars in our lifetime. They explained that they had been up since around 4:00 a.m. to monitor the SpaceX Dragon capsule leaving the International Space Station. Dragon would land back on Earth just about an hour after we finished our tour of the Space Operations Center, successfully carrying back 3,000 lbs. of research and equipment, including the 12 mice that traveled with the capsule as part of a genetic study.

To help the QuestBridge group get a better sense of NASA’s work, we also had an opportunity to chat with Dr. Beverly Girten, and Kevin Metrocavage — both of whom were senior administrators who had held multiple roles in NASA: Dr. Girten in the Space Life Sciences area, and Mr. Metrocavage in the training and managing of astronauts and space missions.

Astronaut Cady Coleman

Last but not least, our QuestBridge team had the privilege of speaking with Cady Coleman, an astronaut who had spent more than six months in space! Astronaut Coleman shared pictures, videos, and her personal experiences while in the gravity-free zone, with a direct spacial view of our planet. She had such valuable insights about teamwork, about letting people surprise us, about taking one step at a time toward our big dreams, and about curating our curiosity. What wow-ed me the most though, was when Cady showed us how even water, fire, and crystals behave differently — when brought to a drastically different environment.

I remember glancing around the room at the diverse group of people assembled in the room, studying computer science, neuroscience, aerospace, infectious diseases, education technology, and more. I remember wondering: how have or how will each of us from the QuestBridge family thrive differently, once we are presented with environments and opportunities drastically different from the ones we grew up in? The visit to NASA opened up quite a universe of possibilities.

by Vi Nguyen, Yale ’11