As a little girl, Nikki Hart ’24 used to dream of becoming an astronaut. Now, as a college junior, she is getting a taste of her dream through an extremely selective, three-semester internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Houston.
Growing up, Hart was convinced she wanted to be a software engineer. Her dad gave her programming books at a young age to teach her how to code. It was only when she joined her high school’s For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics team that she discovered the possibilities in mechanical engineering.
“Robotics was a great combination of all my interests,” Hart said. “The creativity of using math and science to make big ideas feasible was what pushed me to want to major in mechanical engineering in college.”
When she began exploring college options, Cornell’s robotics research program caught Hart’s eye. On a campus tour, she recalled seeing submarines in Duffield Hall and longing to work on something of that nature in the future.
When she started at Cornell in fall 2019, she joined the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team. As a mechanical subteam member, Hart worked to design, manufacture and implement components of the vehicle for the team’s competitions.
Hart also became an active member of the Steminist Movement, a STEM organization that aims to empower women, where she was instrumental in conducting workshops for middle school girls, teaching them about different topics in STEM and providing resources for further involvement in STEM-related activities.
But throughout all of Hart’s involvement on campus, she had a deep desire to apply to the NASA Pathways Internship program, which provides students the opportunity to complete three tours in different NASA departments and is a pathway for a career at NASA upon graduation.
Hart first heard about the opportunity when participating in a week-long program at NASA in high school. She was paired with a mentor who was a full-time NASA employee, hired out of the Pathways program.
“She told me to do this program when I was in college,” Hart said. “And since then, I had this idea in my head and I knew I had to do it.”
Hart applied three times throughout her college career before finally receiving acceptance into the program. Participation, however, would require her to uproot from her life at Cornell and spend a year in Texas, her homestate. Though she knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was a difficult decision for her to make.
“I still felt super emotionally attached to my involvements on campus and my friends, so I had to come to terms with the personal and emotional aspects of maintaining relationships when I’m so far away for so long,” Hart said. “I would have to put everything on pause, give up leadership positions and come back to a very different Cornell.”
When weighing her options, Hart contacted an older friend for advice.
“I called her and I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do. Should I take this opportunity? I’d have to give up everything,’” Hart said. “And she just said: ‘Yeah. You’re 19. Of course you can uproot your life.’”
Hart soon accepted the internship. On her first tour this semester, Hart is interning in the Environmental Systems Branch of the spaceflight systems division.
“If you’ve ever seen mission control in movies, that’s kind of where I’m working,” Hart said. “Mission control is the flashy part of it, but there are so many people that are constantly working to make sure that our vehicles and our astronauts are safe at all times.”
One of Hart’s main responsibilities is the continuous operation of the International Space Station. She helps ensure that astronauts have breathable air and drinkable water and prevent hazards such as fires or ammonia leaks from occurring.
Hart said she is excited to rotate into different branches on her next two tours in fall 2022 and summer 2023.
“Part of what really appealed to me was the chance to explore different things while I’m still in college and before I’ve settled down into a full-time role,” Hart said.
Hart said she was surprised by the amount of departments and job opportunities available at NASA — such as food science, communications, public affairs and media relations.
While Hart hopes to continue exploring her options, she has eyes set on spaceflight and space exploration.
“Spaceflight is really cool to me and it’s always been a goal, and it’s really fulfilling to me,” Hart said. “I think it’s so cool to explore outside of Earth.”
And, through it all, pursuing robotics is a never-ending dream of hers.
“One thing that I’m pretty sure about is going into mechanical design for robotics, preferably a mix of both,” Hart said.
Before she lands a full-time position at NASA, Hart needs to complete her studies at Cornell, which she will resume in Spring 2023. While Hart will return to her junior year, most of her friends will be second semester seniors.
“I think it’s going to be very strange [to come back to Cornell]. I hope with regards to the pandemic, it’s very different from how I left it, even though we were starting to go back to normal when I left,” Hart said.
Despite her leave of absence, Hart says she is optimistic about returning to Cornell next year.
“I think giving up what I had at Cornell and coming to terms with doing something new and putting everything at Cornell on pause for a year has also made me more flexible, so I think I will adjust well to coming back.”
For any prospective applicants of the NASA internships and those looking for an internship in general, Hart highlighted the importance of persevering through the sometimes grueling application process.
“It’s not personal. Just try your best, apply multiple times, apply everywhere and take any opportunity that comes your way,” Hart said. “Even for people who you think are extremely qualified and everyone wants them, those people are being rejected. It’s a very common experience.”
Correction, April 14, 11:25 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately referenced Nikki Hart as a sophomore, she is actually a junior, and is still graduating in 2024.