For most people, outer space is considered the final frontier.
For mechanical engineering sophomore Abbey Moore, outer space just means driving to work.
Moore works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as part of the NASA Pathways Intern Employment Program, a program that allows college students to work at and explore careers within NASA while still in school. Participants have an opportunity for full employment upon the program’s completion.
The internship is the culmination of 15 years of dreaming and hard work by Moore, a Houston native who was drawn to NASA at a young age.
“I wanted to work for NASA for just about as long as I knew what NASA was,” Moore said. “When I was 5 ... I got to talk to a (mission control) flight director, and I remember him talking about the astronauts and being like, ‘OK, they’re in space, that’s pretty cool.’”
But Moore said other jobs sounded more interesting.
“Then he talked about the flight controllers and the people on the ground and everyone who made it possible,” Moore said, “and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want all the cool stuff with space without actually having to get on a rocket.’”
Moore is based in the Crew and Thermal Systems Division of the Engineering Directorate of NASA, where she works in the Space Suit and Crew Survival Systems Branch.
Her current project is the Orion Crew Survival System, which is a space suit designed to protect astronauts during launch or re-entry into the atmosphere with the Orion spacecraft. The suits are a response to the Challenger accident and are made to keep the crew alive should disaster occur, as they are capable of providing support to astronauts for up to 144 hours.
Moore’s specific role is to redesign the connector from an umbilical, which is a water tube from the vehicle, to the space suit in order to make it easier for the crew to cool their suits in the event of an emergency.
“Knowing that this suit is going to be used when they need it most is scary, but also exciting because I know that I’m making the future of space flight safer,” Moore said.
As the only intern working on the project, Moore is surrounded by full-time NASA employees and engineers. Though at first she was a little intimidated, Moore said, she quickly realized that her coworkers were normal people who wanted to support her.
“I remember when I first got my assignment — I Googled my mentors and I read all of these New York Times articles and stuff that they’d been quoted in, and I was a little bit starstruck about that,” Moore said. “But then it’s cool because you can go up to these people and they’re super down to earth. They want to know if you follow Oklahoma football, and they have LEGOs on their desks. That’s definitely something I don’t think I expected going into NASA.”
Moore’s best friend, management information systems and professional writing sophomore Jill Romack, visited Moore at the Johnson Space Center this summer and said Moore blends in among the rocket scientists and pilots who call NASA home.
“She just fit in completely,” Romack said. “You could tell that she was home and this is the place where she feels comfortable.”
Though Moore is now living her dream, the process of getting there was not a simple one. Some experiences that helped her prepare were participating in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition in high school and being a member of the Sooner Rover Team at OU, where she served as one of the operations managers on the team last year.
The team, which builds rovers and competes in the University Rover Challenge at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah every May, provided Moore firsthand experience with project management and building a rover.
“Everyone (on the team) is super proud of her,” said Ellie Thurston, a mechanical engineer sophomore and fellow operations manager on the team. “We all really keep in contact with her and are just really excited to see what she’s doing. We have several members off getting lots of different internships and jobs and things like that. I think that the future is really bright for people on the team.”
Moore’s experiences culminated in her acceptance into NASA’s Pathways Program, an emotional day that served as recognition for all of her work and the realization of a dream come true.
“I called three of my friends, and we were just sitting right by the clock tower holding our breath, and I got the callback, and I remember the first thing I did was I started crying,” Moore said. “Amber, the Pathways person, was like, ‘It sounds like you’re excited!’ I didn’t stop crying that whole day because it didn’t feel real, and honestly, it sometimes still doesn’t feel real.”
Moore said she is aware of how unique her opportunity is, so she works to share what she’s learned with others by volunteering with Girls Who Code.
Girls Who Code is a national organization focused on increasing the number of women engineers in the United States and closing the gender gap in the tech industry. Through Girls Who Code, Moore has been able to mentor high school students and offer help with coding and college applications — something Romack said is perfect for Moore.
“She didn’t grow up always knowing she could do engineering,” Romack said. “She spent a lot of time thinking ‘No, I can’t do that.’ And so I think for her, being able to empower other girls is a really special opportunity because that’s the Abbey Moore brand.”
As Moore continues to serve as a role model for aspiring girls in STEM, she’s still accomplishing dreams of her own. In the coming weeks, she’ll have the opportunity to serve as a test subject for one of the Orion space suits, meaning that she’ll get to don one of NASA’s iconic orange suits.
The gravity of the experience still hasn’t fully registered with Moore, but she said she’s loving every moment of it.
“I drive through the gates every morning with an ID badge with my name and the NASA logo on it, and I go into work, walk past the space suit closet ... I get to wear things that are going to go to space,” Moore said. “It still doesn’t feel real. It’s a dream job.”
For the little girl who 15 years ago toured the very space center where she now works, Moore said NASA is everything she dreamed it would be. And although she’s not done testing the limits of what she’s capable of, Moore said she knows that she’s found a home.
“When I was that 5-year-old, I decided I would be a flight director, and honestly, I still think that would be really cool,” Moore said. “But even if I end up designing springs in water connectors for the rest of my life, I would be happy.”