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University of Northern Colorado alumnus Jordan Aken's experiences while earning his bachelor's degree in Physics helped him beat out 600 other applicants, including some with a master's degree, for a job working with the International Space Station.
Aken knew before he graduated in 2012 that his dream job would be within the space industry, so when he found out later that year that Boeing Co., which has a contract with NASA to maintain the U.S. portion of the ISS, was hiring a flight integration engineer to help with the contract, he had his resume and cover letter ready.
Both documents referenced his space research at UNC, and Aken said that's what got him the job. As a junior, he was part of a team of students that traveled to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia to watch a payload they built launch into space on a sub-orbital rocket.
That project and one during his senior year where he led a team of students in designing an experiment that was flown into the upper atmosphere via weather balloon were part of UNC's involvement in the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. The CSGC helps NASA develop the scientists who will play key roles in the country's future space exploration efforts.
"On my first day at Boeing, I was told it was my space work that really made me a desirable applicant," said Aken, who started with the company in January. "My manager said that the diversity of what I had worked on was what made my resume stand out above the rest."
He also learned that his manager thought so much of another candidate that he found a position for him, too.
"It came as a shock to me to learn my new colleague had graduated from Georgia Tech with a master's," Aken said. "To have something on my resume that made me just as eligible for a job as someone with a master's degree from a much better school was truly an honor."
Aken said that although his office is in Boeing's Houston facility, he's at NASA's nearby Johnson Space Center almost every workday. He's part of a team that verifies the space-worthiness of hardware destined for the U.S. side of the ISS via re-supply missions.
The space station was built with upgrades in mind, which allows engineering to make almost everything modular," Aken explained. "Because of this, new hardware is constantly sent up that either improves how the station works, replaces something that has malfunctioned or as a spare that is stored in case of an emergency situation."
He also helps track requests for modifications, repairs and upgrades to the station that have been approved by NASA, and writes detailed step-by-step instructions for implementing them.
Aken said his biggest challenge so far has been the learning curve, since most of his colleagues have been in the space industry for several years.
"They worked on the Space Shuttle and many of NASA's other endeavors," he said. "While this is a great opportunity for me to be surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge, it can be intimidating because I know very little compared to the senior employees."
But Aken remains confident that he'll someday be a senior employee, in part because of his UNC experience.
"I see going to a smaller university as an advantage, partly because it left me with no sense of entitlement after graduation," Aken said. "I now know that a degree from an Ivy League university isn't necessary to score the dream job. Just hard work and the motivation to pursue your dreams."
- UNC News Service
Aken said that 3-D printing, which NASA is testing, has the potential to "change space flight as we know it." The new technology could enable astronauts to manufacture parts to keep the 15-year-old space station in working order rather than having to store pre-made parts or have them included in a re-supply mission. NASA is also looking into using 3-D printing to provide astronauts food on long space journeys, which Aken said is appealing because base ingredients can be made into a powder and then mixed by the printer into different orders or amounts, thereby allowing the creation of different foods.