Hundreds of standout college engineering students launch their careers each year as SpaceX interns, working long hours beside some of the country’s best rocket engineers at the trailblazing Hawthorne commercial spaceflight company.
But only a few high school students get the same opportunity.
A handful of teens are chosen annually from Hawthorne’s three high schools to walk through the glass doors at 1 Rocket Road and join the visionary team at Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s headquarters.
They aren’t tasked with building rockets, of course. But they are assigned work that’s crucial to keeping the round-the-clock company running smoothly. They’re stationed in the heart of the operation, in the information-technology lab, where they troubleshoot computer problems and maintain employee work stations.
“We try to have close partnerships with Hawthorne high schools,” said community outreach manager Lilian Haney. “We treat it like our regular college intern program. The students have to submit resumes and cover letters.”
Teachers recommend their best science and engineering students from Da Vinci science, design and communications charter schools, Hawthorne Math & Science Academy and Hawthorne High School. SpaceX then chooses a few of those hopefuls each year.
Inside the giant gleaming white rocket-building warehouse, students learn about the real world from the perspective of a company focused on expanding human access to Mars and beyond.
“I find it amazing that humans can send stuff to space and how far we’ve come,” said Vincent Ornelas, a new graduate of Da Vinci Schools in Hawthorne who snagged one of the coveted spots this summer. The 19-year-old is about to start college classes at Loyola Marymount University studying mechanical engineering.
When he began his SpaceX internship, Ornelas said he’d built robots at school but they were just toys. Working among top-notch engineers taught him that, above all, success takes a lot of work.
“I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew they wanted to go to Mars but I learned there’s a lot to that. It’s a real situation here. It’s important.
“On the robotics team at school, we went from designing a robot to making a finished product in six weeks. I have a couple mentors who work here. There’s a lot of structure behind what’s done.”
There are three Da Vinci Schools students, including Ornelas, working as interns there now. Natasha Morse, the school’s director of real-world learning, said students covet the spots.
“Students are just always so excited to be in the environment of SpaceX,” Morse said. “They feel like an adult employee. It really motivates them for college.”
Rachael Tucker, manager of the company’s high school interns, said she looks for candidates who are great students and eager to learn.
“Most of them are in awe of the sheer volume of work. It can be a little overwhelming,” Tucker said. “But most are eager to go out and explore and learn what they can. This job really gets them out of their shells. You can’t be shy here.”
Interns participate in weekly classes about the company’s specialties — complex electrical hardware and software built from the ground up, computer science, mathematical modeling, rocket manufacturing, structural engineering and launch pad infrastructure.
The challenges are constant. Since the inaugural launch of the Falcon 9 in 2010, SpaceX has suffered crashes, an explosion, and aborted and delayed launches. But there were more successes than failures and, last year, the company became the first to bring a rocket back to Earth from orbit intact.
SpaceX continues to grow rapidly and is increasing the number of launches as it works toward creating a near-perfect reusable rocket. Reusability, company founder Elon Musk believes, is the key to expanding access to space.
Musk, who also founded Tesla Motors — which has a design studio next door to SpaceX in Hawthorne — and now owns SolarCity, among other ventures, regularly works at the SpaceX office’s open-air cubicles and engineering and testing labs.
Molly Mettler, 19, has been interning at SpaceX for two years, and hasn’t had a full conversation with the famous inventor-engineer-entrepreneur, but has heard him speak at lectures.
“He’s really smart,” she said, adding that Musk is one of the topics her friends usually ask about, along with what the rockets and work environment are like.
Mettler recently started college at UC Davis, where she hopes to mesh her love of engineering with animal science. Veterinary medicine often lags behind modern advances, she said, and there is room for engineering innovations in fields like prosthetics.
She started her internship after her sophomore year but has continued to return because she enjoys the work. The experience she got fixing computers also landed her a part-time job at college.
“It’s a very fast-paced company that’s always constantly moving forward and changing,” Mettler said. “In a sense, your work is never finished and the time pressure makes problems more difficult.”
Day to day, she gets to watch the rockets and Dragon capsules being built, piece by piece. And she can hobnob with the engineers to learn more about their cutting-edge creations. New spacecraft can be seen at all stages of development on the work floor, attended by teams of workers. A cafeteria that looks over the operations provides low-cost, healthy meals.
In the midst of work stations, launch operations and feeds from the International Space Station are constantly monitored on giant screens in a glassed-in command center.
“I was definitely more to myself when I started,” she said. “As a high-schooler working at SpaceX, you want to live up to and exceed expectations.”