Today you’re going to learn what it is like to work at NASA as a mechanical engineer in the materials science field.
Specifically I’ll share with you an exclusive interview with a materials and process engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center.
So if you are wondering where a degree in mechanical engineering can take you, you’ll love this interview.
Let’s get started!
Interview with NASA JSC Materials Engineer
Aida: Welcome, I’m Aida Yoguely. I work here at the NASA Johnson Space Center and this is my mentor Jeremy Jacobs who we have the pleasure to interview today. How are you doing today?
Jeremy: Hey! Great, glad to be here with you.
Aida: So, let’s start off with the first question. Where did you grow up in and what was it like?
Jeremy: Aww that is a great starter. I grew up, and it’s connected to why I’m here too. I grew up in North Dakota. In the western part of the state, very close to Montana. Out on the prairie. You could call myself a farm boy, I guess. Grew up with tractors, had equipment, a lot of mechanical tools and machinery. We grew wheat and durum, barley and flax in the rolling planes, right on the cusp of Theodore Roosevelt national park. An incredibly beautiful place but also a very brutal place when it comes to winters.
But my connection growing up in engineering was kind of a natural thing for me to gravitate into engineering because I saw us building and fixing.
Aida: You were very hands on at a young age.
Jeremy: Bingo! Throwing wrenches and making things happen out of necessity. And so I had a natural desire to follow that interest without any cohesion.
I remember as moving into middle school and high school being out on the combine or on the tractor, especially at night. Sometimes in the combines we would harvest late and even into the moon light. I remember we would shut the lights off on the combine and we’d stare up at the milky way. In that part of the world, there were no city lights for 30 miles, so it was fantastic. I remember looking up at those stars figuring out how do I get myself out of this combine and get to get connected to that. So that was kind of a fun connection for me.
My father, in 1981, we got up early together, I was maybe 9 years old. I got up really early and we watched the very first space shuttle launch and it was on a black and white television. It was something like 5 am. It kind of took me here.
Aida: Next question, where did you attend school and what was your favorite subject?
Jeremy: My beginnings were, actually I wanted to go into aerospace engineering because of that connection to the story I just told you. With wings and flying and space as well, I began on a path to go to university of Minnesota. We had a pretty great aerospace engineering program. At the time when I was coming out of high school, the aerospace economy took a big down turn. I’ll never forget having an interview with the dean of that program telling me “Don’t go into aero. Go into mechanical engineering.”
Aida: Because it’s broader?
Jeremy: Because it is broader, yeah. And actually, what he told me which was very true “Mechanical engineers can be aerospace engineers too. But they can also do all kinds of other things that don’t constrain you in your study or in the development of your career.” And probably professionally in all of my career that is probably the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
Because it turns out one of my coops here was in fact with aerospace engineering and I was doing aerodynamics. We were doing wind tunnel testing of space shuttle, looking at what we call boundary layer transition, trying to understand the transition from laminar to turbulent flow because it vastly affects the heating profile of the tiles, we were trying to lighten up the tiles system of the orbiter. So here I was a mechanical engineer sitting next to aerospace engineering and I thought I thought it was a really great recommendation.
I went to school in North Dakota state university which is an agriculture and engineering school for mechanical engineering. I did a masters degree at Texas A&M in Texas and that was studying more materials science and applied mechanics of materials.
Aida: And what made you make the decision of continuing even higher education and to pursue graduate studies?
Jeremy: So, I am a big fan of, I know that you didn’t do this, but I’m a really big fan of going to work before going back to graduate school. I think a lot of students too quickly jump to that next degree step. Not being absolutely certain what it is that they really want to do yet.
If you are lucky enough to really know what that is, I really admire that. I’m admiring you because you made that jump and you are confident about what it is.
So I didn’t have that.
Aida: I’ve had these summer work experiences, where I’ve been able to see what my interests are and adjust my curriculum in school accordingly.
Jeremy: And guide you, yeah! I’m hopeful that as we’ve talked that even this time, this semester here with us at Johnson Space Center influences your choices for what you like and dislike and want to learn more about too. So good you are getting some of that.
I did, I came to work first and then I went back to graduate school because I found myself getting even more and more interested in composite technology. We had a program that really inspired me here.
I was at NASA and I took a sabbatical and went back to school to study composites. And when I came back it was fortuitous because I was able to lead the composite development on the X-38 vehicle. The X-38 vehicle was a lifting body design that came out of the early X programs. But it was a spacecraft that we built with an all composite aeroshell. And I had a very significant role in that development.
And that actually is translated today to what you might have heard of the dream chaser. The Sierra Nevada Corporation dream chaser is in fact sort of my baby I could say because we built, test, flew that architecture with composite technology and now almost two decades later it’s taking its own wings now.
Aida: My next question was what inspired you to work at NASA. You started in the coop program as an undergrad or as a grad student?
Jeremy: As an undergrad.
Aida: What got you involved in that? How did you land that opportunity?
Jeremy: Perfect. Love that. You’ve got an even better story than I do, Aida, it’s awesome! But you know we each do have our story and one thing that we are fortunate, those of us that are here, it is not easy to get a job at NASA. It’s sort of just a supply and demand problem. It’s what it is. Just to get into the intern program at any of the centers typically they have so many applicants just like the astronaut core, that well it’s even more across the agency. So, they have to do things like GPA cut-offs.
It was kind of interesting, I actually turned down a full paid appointment which required a congressional appointment from my US Senator to the Airforce academy in military and I did that because I really wanted to work at NASA, I was really motivated.
So that was good for me in school, it helped me stay focused on my performance. And it was not just about grades, it was about getting it. I was fortunately on the top of my class, on the top of my program. My school actually did not have a coop program with NASA, or a partnership. I wouldn’t let it go. I made cold calls, probably stuff like you did to different NASA centers. Emailing then, calling them. I’m somebody that is not going away.
Aida: You were persistent.
Jeremy: There you go. So, the coop program opened up with my school and because of yours truly I actually came to Houston on a spring break, it was a bit of a side trip but I actually came here and put my feet on the ground and said “Hey here I am again. I really want this to happen”. I landed an interview and then I was able to work my way in as an undergraduate coop.
Aida: So, the coop program led you towards having the chance to do the full-time job?
Jeremy: That is what opened the doors. That is frankly how NASA hires most of its people. You know aside from Astronauts, even our center directors and leaders, are typically people that came through our intern program.
Aida: Did you work anywhere else before joining NASA?
Jeremy: I did. Professionally in the engineering area, I had only one other coop experience. I did a lot of technical work, technical writing as a paralegal assistant and a lawyer’s assistant. That was working on patent law. In fact, that was almost a distraction from me getting here because the people that I worked for made a lot of money and they were trying really hard to convince me, because I was in engineering school. “We need you in the firm. Go get your engineering degree, go to law school and come back.” And then I got a taste of space. I ran away from it. I ran away from the law stuff.
But I did have another internship at 3M corporation. And 3M is a wonderful company. In fact, I was just there again this summer for a composite materials handbook committee meeting at 3M. I really admire that company. They also inspire their employees to get creative, get outside of the box. They actually mandate that you actually spend about 10% of your time working on projects that aren’t even assigned to you.
Aida: Like innovative projects.
Jeremy: You make it up, you can talk to your manager about it. But they really want you to get out of the box. Something we could all do better but. That was my lead in before I came to NASA. And then I got sort off hooked.
Aida: While at NASA you still get to collaborate with these other companies so you are not missing out too much.
Jeremy: Well that is a great way to look at it. You know the lightbulb just went on for me.
I had twelve job offers when I came out of school. I was really fortunate. The highest paying of the bunch and the one I almost took was at Boeing. It was to come out and actually build airplanes. It was not the DOD it was civil aircraft. But back then they wanted more people in mechanics of non-metals, plastics, engineering polymers, composites. I took my job at NASA for about $500 more than 1/2 of the job offer I got at Boeing. I won’t put numbers out but it was kind of hard right? So basically, I was offered double to money to go work in Everette, Washington and I turned all that down. I kind of thought, I’ll come to NASA because — hey it’s great, it’s exciting, I won’t get this chance again.
Aida: And you are very passionate about this. A lot of people that come to NASA, is because they are passionate about the work they do here.
Jeremy: You know, more so than probably any place than any place I’ve ever seen. And maybe we are lucky that way, right? If anyone out there is inspired to come after their dreams, if this is something that matches for you.
The biggest thing that I find is a gift, is coming to work. Isn’t maybe that the work itself is really great, I think it is great. It is also that everybody else around you, they come from all over the world to be here. The man space center in Houston… I can’t speak as much for the other centers, I’ve been at every NASA center and what I tend to see, the human space element draws people. It draws a very diverse platform of people. If you look at our community around this area and our employees, you’re a testimony to that, we do a tremendously good job I think of bringing in all ethnic backgrounds, educational backgrounds. What’s great is, NASA has the luxury to be able to wean out the ones that is at the top of your list. Working day in and day out, most of us are people that have a hard passion for being here and we know that we are lucky to be here.
Aida: As an engineer throughout your career, what is one of the biggest obstacles that you’ve had to face?
Jeremy: In the world of obstacles, is one that we’ve actually talked about. Fortunately, I can’t reflect on anything where I’ve ever had a position where I’ve personally been taken advantage of, or attacked, or persecuted, held back, because of who I am. So culturally, it is kind of a nice thing to be able to say to people that I’ve never had one of those really terrible experiences that has been against me.
One thing that I’ve talked to you about is, in government unfortunately, when you’re filled with passion to make a difference and to do things, and my passion is technical excellence, I want to provide the absolute best, the right answers, the right engineering solutions. Getting it right. Not getting it overly conservative because we don’t have that luxury of “We’ll just put an extra safety factor on it” like you do when you’re building a bridge or a building. “Just make it beefy.” We have to sharpen that pencil.
Many times, here in government, I won’t blame it necessarily in government, in the US government, we are a poster child for following every rule ever written by man that applies to a corporation or to government entities. And I think that we all relate together that it’s a point of suffering for us at times. Because things that should be in theory simple like procurement, things like actually moving sometimes and getting a test executed even after you’ve agreed on a safety review or something, can be entirely frustrating.
I’m giving you a kind of generic answer but it’s one that is systemic. I guess I’ve been here for 25 years and the good thing is, I’ve encouraged you too, taking no for an answer when conceivably it’s not justified just because it’s the path of least resistance, is wrong. It’s fundamentally wrong.
Aida: We need to speak out and give that different opinion and not just take “No” and accept it for what it is.
Jeremy: It’s not just true at NASA, it’s true everywhere. When you have a solid case, sometimes we just take it on the side of the cheek, the head, and we just go the other way. We should turn back when it’s wrong. Been given so many rules, regulations, laws that we have to follow, when people misinterpret them, or expand the interpretation grossly, I feel it is my job to fix that. To pick a fight when we need to. And I think that has been helpful. Sometimes it causes me more work. But I think it has been helpful to our organization.
Aida: Yeah in growing and changing in a positive way.
Jeremy: Helping all of us be better at what we do, be more efficient, more productive.
Aida: What is your most memorable moment at the NASA Johnson Space Center?
Jeremy: Our rocket launch.
Aida: Seeing what you’ve been working on go up to space.
Jeremy: I have kind of a personal one. That’s very close to my heart. Things that I never thought about until moving here was that you get connected to space and many of us, in fact it’s shocking. You ask the average engineer around here “Hey did you ever want to be an astronaut?” If they tell you “No” that they’ve never wanted to be. Probably maybe one in six or so maybe telling the truth. Because when we are younger it’s a common thing. You don’t know very much. In fact, one of my coop tours was in mission operations when I worked in Astronaut training and I developed a couple of training modules that were used to train our Astronauts. The flight systems on the orbiter. So, I got very close to even piloting the orbiter. I got to fly the flight simulators. Even the motion base.
Aida: To train like an Astronaut?
Jeremy: Yes, and I remember one of my trainees was Eileen Collins, the first female astronaut to fly the space shuttle. To be even commander of the space shuttle. She was a landmark for us. Not just first woman Astronaut. But she was the first to become commander and pilot. So, I got to train her and it was really inspiring and personal. But as I also saw what they did and became the trainer. I became separated from my desire to be an astronaut. Wasn’t until I actually understood the systems, and understood the things that can go wrong and frankly it’s not without significant risk. So risk-reward, risk-reward. And my balance out was “Hey I think I want to build these systems and make them better.” And as I’m in that place, I’m becoming personal friends with Astronauts. Next thing I know I’m having children. And my children are going to school with Astronaut children and we become like best friends. When your kids are together all the time, I’m hanging out with the Astronauts and one of them Mark Polansky, dear friend of mine, had a child not too far from ours and my wife helped deliver their baby. Here we are Astronauts having connected. My wife’s in a totally different business and we are all like a family together, so it was very intimate.
The reason I tell this story is because Mark Polansky, I actually didn’t know him at the time, he’s an Astronaut, and Amy comes home at Christmas and says “Hey I got an invitation to go see the launch in Florida from this Astronaut that I’ve gotten to know.” And I’m like “I’ve never gotten an invitation from an Astronaut and I work here! And I work with the Astronauts!”
We ended up going to the launch and it was coincidental that I at the time was chief engineer for the Structures division. Which at the time included manufacturing, production, structures, analysis, and thermal. I was doing this chief engineer role and we actually had had a number of significant problems to the orbiter that I personally helped fix. So, you have a lot of skin in the game because I was at the time one of the signatories. Without my signature confirming that we had done all the right work, they wouldn’t fly. We were on a flight constraint. So here I was invited to the launch of people that had become dear friends of ours, personal connection. My wife being from the medical personal side, myself being on the “I have to make sure that we have this safe to protect the lives of these people.” I put my ink on that certificate of flight readiness statement and I never remember being so personally connected.
Aida: Feeling responsible.
Jeremy: Yeah! We are where the press boxes are.
Aida: Was that in 2009 by any chance?
Jeremy: I think that was in 2009.
Aida: If it was the one in 2009, I was there in Kennedy Space Center, watching Mark fly out.
Jeremy: This is crazy! You know Mark? You can remember that name?
Aida: Yeah, I remember that name clearly.
Jeremy: What the heck.
Aida: That launch got scrubbed like 3 times.
Jeremy: Yes, it did.
Aida: I saw him get into the Astro Van multiple times.
Jeremy: You serious?
Aida: Yeah! And I saw that shuttle go.
Jeremy: So, we were even crossing paths. The two of us. This is crazy. That’s really crazy!
Aida: I’m actually learning a lot more about you through this interview.
Jeremy: That’s really fantastic. Oh my gosh, that is really cool!
Well you probably relate then. I imagine your neatest experiences that are probably inspiring you, motivating you, might have been launches.
Aida: Yeah. Do you have any hobbies? What are some of your favorite things to do maybe outside of work?
Jeremy: Outside of work I do enjoy a little bit of sports. I play ultimate frisbee. I actually played soccer all the way through high school and had a lot of fun, was aggressive in it. Ended up ripping both my knees out. So, I had to find something different and I played ultimate frisbee. Other than that, I do play piano actually.
Aida: Yeah, you’re musically talented?
Jeremy: There is music in me, yeah. I’ve learned the guitar, a little bit too. I do some singing. I’ve become a song leader for some of our camping group. So that is something you probably wouldn’t have known about me.
And I love to tinker. So that person that’s the farm boy growing up, there isn’t a thing that I don’t fix. I’d challenge you, throw me something and I can figure out how to fix it. Even that camera right there. I’ve ripped apart lenses, bodies of cameras, put them back together. That’s kind of a fun.
Aida: Cool. What about Houston? I’ve enjoyed my time here at Johnson because it is located in the very nice city of Houston. What are some of the activities that you enjoy around this area?
Jeremy: I would say that this community is the best one to be in. If you are at a NASA center. Big part of that is because we’re afforded the luxury of, for a government salary, the cost of living to work-life balance to salary income sort of proportion is really pretty wonderful.
Living in a suburb community, and particularly with a diverse group of neighbors, what I find is in the past we were about 26 thousand employees that were engineers and scientists. It’s a very big center. It’s dropped down significantly from that. I think we are like at 18 thousand range now. Everybody here is connected by to space in one way or another. If you’re a doctor in a hospital you are connected to space. If you are at the gas station, you’re connected to space.
Aida: The other week I went to get eyes checked and the doctor there had posters of NASA all over place, of Astronauts. Her husband was actually at NASA. So they are very passionate in the area.
Jeremy: You got to get to Frenchie’s restaurant, where he has probably got like 50 Astronaut signatures on his wall.
So, Houston is a great place, there is a ton of things to do here. But I will say that it hasn’t come without tax for me. So, I must be transparent and say, I like Austin.
Aida: It’s close by.
Jeremy: Part of that is me. That Montana, Dakota, rough-rider-ish sort of background. You know I like getting out, I like mountain biking, going off cliffs, up big hills, root balls, jumping around and hiking.
Aida: Going into our last question. What advice to you have for high school students interested in your career, in your occupation?
Jeremy: Well I think about this a lot because I do spend time, I know you do too, going out and talking to students. One of the things, when I’m out doing outreach in high schools or middle schools, I try to encourage younger kids to think about science, technology, math, engineering, in a way that try to get motivated to do well in those areas. Because I truly believe that no matter what path you pick. If you have a solid background and you can get through math and science, that those tools are going to help you be successful no matter what path you take.
I think of it as STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. Those things, I think, are a big piece of what NASA helps motivate. And for those of you that might be viewing this. You probably have some interest in NASA and the hope is that NASA’s investment in space flight is something that motivates you to build that platform, that base. Because if you do, it helps our entire economy, it helps America be stronger, even if you don’t go in to aerospace. If you go off and become a patent lawyer, or if you become a surgeon, or follow your passion wherever it leads you, you will be a higher contributor to our society, to our economy.
Following your dreams, if you do that, if you just pursue that, you don’t have to be perfect. Don’t worry about having perfect grades, but just don’t back off of it. Stick with it. And then do. Do things, don’t just talk about them.
You and I both, had no for the answer in following the path that got you here and the difference is, for those of us that get there.
Aida: We were persistent. We are dedicated.
Jeremy: Don’t take no for an answer. Go ahead and go after your dreams and hit it.
Aida: Thank you very much for this opportunity to have worked with you this semester. It was a real pleasure learning all about composites, all the work that goes on here at Johnson. Thank you for your time in answering these burning questions. I look forward to next tour.
Jeremy: We are lucky to have you Aida.
Watch the full video interview: