I Cleaned Urine at NASA (And It Was Fun)
by Ariella Yendler
Part of a series about the best and worst internships we’ve ever had.
I have interned at NASA for two summers in a row, and it is wonderful. NASA is probably the best place to work in the history of time, space and existence.
My first internship with NASA started during the summer before my senior year of high school. The only thing that I had gained from AP biology the year before was a sense of how terrible I was at science. No matter — they took me in the “Life Support” branch anyway. I don’t mean this to be derogatory about NASA’s interns, because they’re all going to be engineering majors of some kind, and are pretty damn bright. For two summers, I cleaned urine through testing modules, which is grunt work that is not in a cubicle, and actually pretty fun when you can put on music in the lab, and dance while you bleach beakers.
I came out of the internship absolutely in love with science, and with a really strong appreciation for what it can do for our everyday lives (although, I’m still an economics major because I’m too stupid for actual science). One of the best parts about NASA is how enthusiastic and geeky everyone is. Granted, it can be tiring sometimes to hear an impromptu hour-long lecture on data module graphing, but if you want to learn, people are throwing articles and tours and opportunities at you every which way.
And the come-when-you-want hours and casual wear (I wore the same pair of jeans and converse all summer long, both now contaminated with urine and acid) doesn’t hurt either. Oh, and they paid me — more than minimum wage.*
My boss was one of the more lax people at a very lax institution. He frequently said that the best product he turned out was enthusiastic scientists. (Apparently, my own father came up to him after my first summer and thanked him for getting me interested in something other than theater.) My boss culled groups of interns whom he then distributed around the building to scientists like candy at Halloween. All the women were ensconced together in one office, and the men in the other, presumably because my boss had interns from the Middle East who had cultural/religious/what-have-you oppositions to being in an office for extended periods of time with someone of the opposite gender.
Surprisingly, it was always the girls who liked to get in trouble and joke around; most of our crimes involved “stealing” something, be it plants, desks, or cookies. Alternatively, our boss regularly gave us the branch credit card and shooed us over to supply stores where he told us to buy whatever we wanted. At one point, we spent something like $500 on markers and whiteboards, which we used, maybe, once. I view part of this extreme indulgence to make up for our lack of perks since we were working for a government company, and our friends at private companies got — at the very least — free coffee, water, and a break room. NASA isn’t technically allowed to spend a dime outside of bare necessities.
Another part of the indulgence is built into NASA itself. Nothing is expected of the institution — especially our branch — and as such, most of the grant money is given away to scientific whims on the basis that it might, at some point, be useful to someone somewhere. The funny thing is, most of the projects do end up being useful: The urine cleaning I mentioned earlier is actually part of a water purification recycling system that with luck, will be in your building in twenty years and reducing the cost of water by almost half.
* Note about payment: It was a monthly stipend, comfortably above minimum wage. Well, comfortable for someone who lives at home and doesn’t have to buy anything for herself. NASA essentially contracts out everything as much as possible, so even the interns are not technically hired by NASA, but come in through many different programs. My particular program was education-based, so we were allowed to work for NASA as long as we could prove we were “learning” and provided some kind of deliverable at at the end of the year. Evidence of learning was given through showing up for the various free lectures. I attended one about the sounds stars make. Unfortunately, I fell asleep right after they played the audio clip.
Have an interesting internship story you’d like to submit to us? Send it on over.
Ariella Yendler is a student at UC-Santa Barbara studying economics and art history. She lives in Silicon Valley and would like someone to hire her. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center