Interview – NASA – Jessica Snyder

Hey everyone! This week on Questions To Inspire, we have an amazing interview. We are going to talk with someone that works at the NASA Langley Research Center – Flight Simulation Software Engineer – Jessica Snyder!

Jessica, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today on Questions To Inspire. Can you please start out with telling us a little bit about yourself and what you do at NASA?

I’m a flight simulation software engineer in the Simulation Development and Analysis Branch and NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC), located in Hampton, Virginia. I am also a graduate student at Old Dominion University, getting my master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering. I’ve been interning at LaRC for the last five years and have loved it the entire time. On a day-to-day basis, I am either programming software for flight simulators for commercial aircraft (like the kind most citizens fly on at the airport), or I am developing a simulation for a robotic, in-space assembly mechanism that would be used to build large habitat structures in Low Earth Orbit.

How awesome to hear what you are working on! Let’s talk about NASA. I think the general view of the Agency is that NASA is only about space, but it actually is a giant in the scientific world. Can you talk about your area of NASA and what are the goals that you hope to accomplish?

NASA employees do research and work in a LOT of fields, not just space exploration. NASA, which stands for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”, focuses a lot on aeronautics as well – it’s actually how we started! NASA, which used to be the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), started around the time the Wright Brothers had their first flight, and researchers in the NACA focused primarily on airplanes and other aircraft. Today, NASA is still doing a lot of research on atmospheric aircraft, both commercial and military, along with research in the fields of science, environmentalism, and even health.

In my branch, we support a lot of aircraft-based research. Our goal is to improve the safety of the national air space, making it safer for people like you and me to travel all across the world. The flight simulators we support allow researchers to test new equipment that will increase the autonomy of the flight system or will help pilots remain more attentive, improving the overall efficiency and safety of the aircraft and all passengers on-board.

We support space-based simulation work as well. In the past, we’ve developed high-fidelity simulators for the Apollo moon landing missions and for the Space Shuttle program, making it safer for our astronauts to fly. Nowadays, we’re developing simulations for in-space robotic assembly systems that will help us build large structures in Low Earth Orbit, making it less expensive for people to eventually live in space. The simulations we develop allow us to test case scenarios long before we ever launch and ultimately help ensure the success of these missions.

It is crazy to see how far we have come from the first flight to building structures in Low Earth Orbit. Let’s talk about you working at NASA, what was your reaction and what did others say when you told them you were working at NASA?

The reaction was mostly elation. I remember getting that first email telling me that I’d be getting my first internship at NASA. I was so excited, and everyone in my family was excited for me. And I remember getting my first co-op offer, which would ultimately help me land a permanent position at NASA. I was running down the halls, jumping for joy. My mom, of course, started bragging to everyone she knew that her daughter works for NASA (and she still does, five years later).

I bet she will be bragging for years to come too! One of the things we want to do in these interviews is talk about the importance of education, especially focusing on STEM subjects.  How important is it for children to learn STEM skills and what was your favorite subject during school?

It’s extremely important, in my opinion. Focusing on STEM subjects not only opens up your future to a career in science and engineering fields, but it gives you the tools to succeed in all areas of your life. I believe learning STEM subjects helps students think more analytically, taking into account every piece of evidence in this world and following step-by-step processes to help you reach all of your goals.  STEM can inspire discovery and curiosity in young children too, teaching them how to question everything and inspiring them to improve things, which is important to the innovation of this world.

I don’t know if it was necessarily my favorite subject, but I was especially good at math. My mom, being a math teacher herself, taught me how to tackle problems in a careful step-by-step manner and always to double check my work. I think that was a large reason why I continued to excel in STEM related subjects later in life, because of that skill I developed early on. Over time, I have grown more proud of this ability, and find it helps a lot in my day-to-day job.

So Jessica, what would you consider your greatest accomplishment of your career?

My greatest accomplishment is not any technical project I’ve worked on, though there have been plenty of those. I think my greatest accomplishment, the one I’m most proud of, is the ability I’ve developed to reach out to the community to bring people together and teach them something new. It’s one thing to create technology that will improve the world and quality of life for all that live on it, which I am very capable of doing, but it’s another thing to be able to care deeply about those people, give back, and share everything you know with them. So I consider my greatest accomplishments in my career to be those times when I’ve done STEM outreach, community service, or helped to build family through NASA.

I love this answer!!! We do a lot of outreach and volunteering at Moose Egg, so it is always cool to see others that give back in their community. Do you have any good advice that you were given that has really stayed with you?

It wasn’t explicit advice – no mantra of sorts – but it was made very clear to me all throughout my life that you can bring great joy to others through service, and through that service you do for others you may find joy yourself.

That is a really good idea to life by. We are at the end of our time and I would like to end with one last question that we have been asking all of our NASA interviewees, if a group of astronauts and a group of cavemen were made to fight, who would win?

It depends – do the cavemen have clubs? Are they allowed to fight with them? How big are the cavemen? Aren’t they fairly built people? Astronauts typically have to be smaller people so it’s easier to fit them in the launch capsules. I’d imagine the cavemen are probably larger built than the astronauts and probably stronger because they spend a lot of time hunting. Astronauts have to be physically in shape as well, but they don’t have to be prepared to fight off a saber tooth tiger or anything. So I think the cavemen would win in hand-to-hand combat; however, if they fight was in space, I don’t think the cavemen would have a very good feel for floating around in free-fall. The astronauts would be able to maneuver more easily and maybe trick the cavemen into traps they could set up.

Another win for the cavemen (I am shocked that we haven’t had more astronaut answers). Jessica Snyder, thank you so much for talking with us today and answering a few questions for us at Questions To Inspire and thanks to everyone else for reading.

Be sure to check out some of our other interviews and stay tuned for new interviews in the future!

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