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Welcome to Engineering Boot Camp at Goddard Space Flight Center (please don't trip on the robots)

June 10, 2011 2 comments
<i>Talk to the hands: NASA Mike addresses new interns.</i>

Talk to the hands: "NASA Mike" Comberiate addresses new interns.

If you have ever met the man they call NASA Mike, you would remember him. Michael Comberiate, 42-year veteran of NASA, is not easily forgotten. He’s the late-night infomercial pitchman for engineering internships at Goddard, with a dash of Donald Trump and a modicum of Muhammad Ali.

A few months ago, I saw NASA Mike give a talk about robots his interns are developing for research at the polar regions and perhaps, someday, other planets and their moons. He radiated waves of enthusiasm and excitement. This was clearly an interesting fellow, so I asked if I could hang out with him and his engineering interns for the summer and try to chart their adventure — and here I am, writing my first post.

"NASA Mike" Comberiate and intern with mothership robot Nanook and summer intern Randy Westland.

NASA Mike and summer intern Randy Westland with mothership robot Nanook.

Mike is passionate about his interns. Within 10 minutes of meeting him, there is a good chance he will already be trying to talk you into helping to mentor them, assuming you’ve got applicable skills and experience. (Yes, I speak from experience.)

The program is called Engineering Boot Camp. Thanks to generous grant support from the NASA Robotics Alliance Project — it sponsors robotics programs in schools — Engineering Boot Camp has a decidedly mechatronic focus. (The GOES-R and POES satellite programs also contributed support for the internship this year.)

Some of the sharpest interns will be steered into projects based in the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at Goddard — these are the researchers, not the engineers. These include:

  • develop hardware for a formaldehyde detector and other hardware that will fly on the NASA Global Hawk, a remotely piloted drone aircraft used for high-altitude research.
  • build mechanical components for the Primordial Inflation Polarization Explorer (PIPER), a balloon-borne instrument to measure the polarization pattern of the cosmic microwave background.
  • write software for a ground station located at McMurdo Station, Antarctica that supports the NOAA Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite (POES) fleet.

Out of a pool of about 800 candidates this year, about 30 won the chance to plunge into Mike’s robot-strewn lab in Building 25 (the building nestled in the wooded east campus of Goddard with the 700-pound robot on the front lawn that looks like a caterpillar earthmover and a billboard truck had a baby.) One lucky intern will accompany Mike to Antarctica in the spring to test robots.

It’s going to be a crazy summer. Some projects will be conceived, designed, and built in as little as 6 weeks. The collaborations of multiple teams of interns and mentors will be something like slightly uncontrolled nuclear fusion.

There’s a lot more to this story. In a subsequent post, read about some of NASA Mike’s past adventures and how Engineering Boot Camp was born. In the meantime, here’s a quick peek at NASA Mike’s Robot Adventure Land.




Last year, summer interns Matt Harrington and Courtney McEachon made this 8-minute video documentary about the 2010 Engineering Boot Camp.



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OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.


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