Sreeja Nag, B.S IIT Kharagpur and Ph.D student at MIT answers:
Let me start with the problems associated with working for NASA as a non-US person (non citizen and no green card/permanent residency). I am an Indian citizen, born and brought up in India until graduation from undergrad. For someone of this background, there are three layers of complexity to get hired by NASA:
- NASA is a federal organization in the US and funded by taxpayers’ dollars. This money cannot be directly handed to foreign nationals (just like foreign nationals cannot make federal election contributions) and mostly not even to permanent residents even. What NASA can and does do is hire businesses as temporary contractors to contribute to existing, funded projects in a strictly delineated way, e.g. a vendor or an analyst or so on. Such a contracting agency (e.g. Honeywell, Northrop) can hire foreign nationals and place them at a NASA center** temporarily while the contract lasts.
- The US has a very strict law called ITAR or International Traffic in Arms Regulations which lists what can be “exported”. A foreign national in the US even *seeing* an item – hardware or software – on the list counts as “export:” and is subject to criminal prosecution, no kidding. Depending on the items, even US citizens need to get appropriate clearances to see some of them. Unfortunately, most of the components of satellites and rockets fall in this list. Therefore, most contractors who work closely with NASA** blanket-refuse to hire foreign nationals because they will not be able to use their services for most projects.
- Any US-based company has to prove that they can find absolutely no other US person to do the job and time to do it is running out, therefore theyhave to hire the foreign national. This policy is unsurprising … all companies have to do it and obviously, easier to do if this foreign person has a degree from and/or work ex in the US. BUT it’s a hard-sell for space companies especially given #1 and #2.
**Note that NASA has several centers that have different focuses and modus operandi. For example, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) primarily deals with planetary robotics and is the only center that is entirely operated by CalTech,which means everyone there is a contractor. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) is deals heavily with human spaceflight operations and is very ITAR-infested. You have to choose where to go carefully to navigate around #1-#3.
My story contains lots of kneading together special circumstances and is very long because I have no employer or family member who could sponsor my green card. If you do, I strongly recommend you to go for it first and avoid the uphill battle. I’m going to skip most of the details.
My first internship at NASA (placed in Jet Propulsion Laboratory – JPL) was over my last summer as an undergraduate student in IIT Kharagpur, India. I didn’t know anyone at NASA so I had to figure out the system (to break through it :P) entirely on my own. I figured out pretty quickly that JPL was my best bet back then because of its CalTech affiliation (to bust #1) and that I would have to look for a science-based project because science mission data is mostly publicly available (to bust #2). I am a huge space geek and since I got my first computer with internet in college, I had read quite a lot about what NASA was doing and how. So when I chanced upon a brand new project in NASA JPL on modeling some Martian features using publicly available satellite (and maybe rover) data, I emailed the PI suggesting some ideas on how it can be done. We got a conversation going and he said, well why don’t you come here and do it? It wasn’t easy at all and it took 4 months to answer that question. Over that time, I found a scholarship program to fund everything operated by CalTech SURF and SUNY… it was the ONLY program that allowed foreign applications and would consider them only if the application was better than every US application received. I applied to it hoping that my knowledge of the field/project, past internships (not space but cool stuff), recommendations, etc. would help. They did and nicely took care of #3. The JPL PI submitted an application to NASA Headquarters to approve #1 and #2 and that went through successfully. That was my first experience in a space-related field.
My second internship at NASA (placed at Goddard Space Flight Center -GSFC) has been over the two summers and during the semester as a PhD student at MIT, USA. It’s been much easier (for #3) once I’m in the US, have 2 Masters’ degrees in engineering from MIT and lots more experience (including a stint at the European Space Agency). Incidentally, all the 10 grad school programs I applied to + gotten admitted into (all in the US) had something to do with space, department notwithstanding so I had alreadyhedged my bets for a “relevant” degree (again, for #3). Over my time at MIT or through conferences, I got introduced to folks at NASA who were interested/impressed with my work and conversations got going. I got offered a summer internship in line with what I wanted to do and one good job led to another. I’m almost never eligible for any NASA scholarships but thanks to a very strong #3 now, people within NASA are able to find and convince contractors to hire me temporarily for work that “absolutely needs to get done” (pun intended). In fact, for my third placement in NASA (at Ames Research Center – ARC), for the summer of 2014, I got to negotiate the deal. I think it gets a bit easier once you have a foot in the door and haven’t disappointed their Herculean efforts to get you through red tape.