Posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2019

“Last year when the LEGO Saturn rocket came out I was like, ‘that’s the only thing I want for Christmas!’”David Tucker

An unabashed space travel and sci-fi enthusiast, David Tucker had always dreamed of working at NASA, but it never seemed possible. At age 37 — after 15 years in the restaurant business — Tucker enrolled at Thomas Nelson Community College to pursue an associate degree in mechanical engineering technology.

And that’s when the possibilities started to take shape.

This year, Tucker was one of 24 Virginia Community College students who secured 10-week summer research posts at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Tucker was assigned to Langley’s model shop, where he helped fabricate scale models of rockets and aircraft for display and for critical wind-tunnel testing.

“This has been a fantastic experience,” said Tucker. “I’ve been able to work around some of the smartest people on the planet, and it will have an impact on my future that I’m still working to take in.”

David Tucker, left, with mentor Don Smith, in the model fabrication shop at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Tucker credits community colleges for making it possible for him to change careers.

And Don Smith, the NASA lead engineering technician who was one of Tucker’s mentors this summer, credits VCCS students with making a real contribution to the work at Langley Research Center.

“They bring energy and enthusiasm to the projects they’re assigned to,” said Smith. “More important, they bring fresh eyes and fresh ideas to the problems we work on solving every day.”

“It’s been wonderful to see the students grow in their confidence, knowledge and workplace skills as they work with NASA researchers,” said Mary Sandy, director of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which organizes the summer research opportunities at the Langley Research Center and NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility. “These are real-world work experiences that greatly enhance their resumes and will help them hone their career paths.”

Sandy says Virginia’s STEM Takes Flight program is NASA’s only research experience for community college students in the nation.

VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois says the relationship with NASA is “incredibly valuable” to community college students. “And I think NASA kind of fell in love with our students, who tend to be more diverse and are more likely to be first-generation college students. I’m so glad NASA stepped up to this opportunity.”

Tidewater Community College graduate Ayanna Smalls (left) is grateful she had the chance to participate in the NASA summer research program last year and this year.

“Being in a real-world work environment is a real test. It forced me to be able to compete and forced me to be able to figure things out myself and get things done with no excuses,” she said.

Smalls, spent the summer helping to develop multi-user computer software and displays for navigation and training, and will transfer to ODU in the fall to pursue computer engineering.

Terelle Cadd worked in a NASA optics lab over the summer, where he studied the properties of plastic and glass windows for aircraft, submarines and spacecraft.

Terelle Cadd, who graduated from Virginia Western Community College in May, is another career changer who harbored what he thought were unattainable dreams of working at NASA.

The son of a single mom, Cadd started working for UPS during high school, and after eight years out of school, he needed help catching up when he entered Virginia Western. “It was a leap of faith, but they worked with me and helped me to believe in myself,” said Cadd. “And now I’m convinced this experience at NASA has changed my life, has helped me to find my passion and life direction.”


Editor’s note: we need to show you two pictures of Anthea Empson, the New River Community College grad who was a STEM Takes Flight participant. That’s because she spent much of the summer suited up head-to-toe in one of NASA’s clean rooms, where she worked to improve testing methods for de-contaminating equipment before it’s launched into orbit, or to other planets.

“The standards are very rigorous,” said Empson. “This experience has been absolutely transformative for me. It’s hard to explain the sheer amount of what I’ve learned here, and I would encourage others to jump at opportunities like this. You don’t need permission to become who you are.”

To learn more about STEM Takes Flight, visit the program’s website here.'

Jim Babb

Jim Babb works for Virginia's Community Colleges in the Office of Strategic Communications.

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