Working For NASA At 15

I’m not a normal person.

I’ve done a lot of crazy shit in my life.

But one of the craziest periods of my short life has been working for NASA…

… at age 15.

It all started with my best friend (for the purpose of anonymity, we’ll call him Fender). Fender was a rebel to the core. He smoked pot, skateboarded, hacked, and listened to punk.

Fender was also the smartest person I’d ever met.

He could rule the world from behind a keyboard. He spent hours upon hours every day writing code and building circuits.

This worked out very well for Fender and he was offered a job at a NASA grant at Phoenix Community College. As part of the deal, he was allowed to bring one other person in on it as an assistant.

I had the honor of being that one other person.

I distinctly remember coming in the first day and feeling overwhelmed. I walked into a room full of disheveled engineers, each suckling on a cup of coffee with their eyes glued to what seemed like an ocean of incomprehensible code.

Let me back up a bit.

At the time, I was the clean-cut, socially awkward, homeschooled kid. I kept an upright posture all the time, wouldn’t swear (that changed real fuckin quick), and was mostly concerned about passing my college classes (I was in high school but dual enrolled).

My only relevant experience was a limited amount of coding working on a college robotics team and some escapades into hacking calculators to store test answers (there was a reason I magically passed that algebra final without studying).

And suddenly here I was, in a room surrounded by angsty college students with immense self-taught skill.

Let me tell you a bit about what we were actually doing:

The NASA ASCEND grant was a branch of NASA which was employing college students and professors to design, build, and launch payloads on weather balloons that would perform experiments and collect data for NASA, mostly for the purpose of designing better heat shields for spacecraft.

The payload had to be able to withstand speeds of up to 500 mph, function at temperatures ranging from 120 to -100 degrees Fahrenheit, and remain intact upon impact to the ground.

The whole time the internal systems and electronics needed to function normally, the data needed to be retrievable and parsed into usable data, and the system needed to survive for further expansion in a second launch a few months later.

With these challenges before me, I began one of the greatest ordeals of my life.

Over the weeks I gradually loosened up. I stopped tucking my shirt in, I started swearing (extremely powerful stress coping technique), and I gained a massive amount of skill.

You may be asking yourself, “What is the big deal with being a punk and swearing?” I’ll tell you; it’s extremely difficult to learn under pressure when half your energy is focused on what people think about you.

I stopped giving a fuck about what didn’t matter.

I started becoming myself, not who people wanted me to be.

I’m a rebel, I’m the kind of kid who was hacking calculators to pass tests, or subverting parental controls on the computer, or finding a way to cheat in video games.

I had been stifling that rebellious, entrepreneurial mindset in favor of being the cute little blond Jakey that everyone knew and loved.

Fuck that.

I was a NASA engineer. I was building software and making circuits that were going to fly to the edge of space.

I was surrounded by individuals who were committed to getting better at what they loved and using those skills to create amazing things.

With Fender as our leader, we ran our first successful launch.

Following that, I was promptly promoted to lead developer.

Another successful launch ensued.

Then came the real kicker:

“Hey Jake, how would you like to be the Team Lead of the Fall ’16 NASA ASCEND mission?”

Chill my dude, slow the fuck down.

Did they just ask the 16 year old to lead the NASA team?

Goddamn right they did.

And so, I became a leader of men. A very short leader of men, but nevertheless, a leader of men, to send shit to the edge of space.

I worked my ass off building circuits, training new software devs, and overseeing the structural engineering team.

It was a rough ride. I was under constant fire because of my age, I was held responsible when one of our team members stole components from our storage room, and I was brutally accountable to deadlines.

But I made it through, giving the team another successful launch before leaving for a software development job in Minnesota.

The skills I learned and practiced were very technical. This wasn’t a typical college project, it was a chance to gain real world engineering experiences and learn new skills. I was routinely designing and soldering circuits, writing machine code for microprocessors, and integrating hardware with custom software.

Besides the technical skills, I also learned how to work with people, deal with stress in a healthy way, and bootstrap solutions to difficult problems.

Had it not been for my experience at NASA, and the guidance of Fender, I would not be where I am today. I’m forever grateful to NASA and the team I worked with for putting up with me and introducing me to all of the wonderful opportunities I have been able to earn.

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