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A dream lived at NASA

Iker Liceaga Indart [Eng 15 MII 17] moved to Washington D.C. at the beginning of the year to participate in the construction of a satellite that will be in charge of observing the Sun.

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Iker Liceaga outside NASA, where he works. PHOTO: Courtesy

We reproduce below the letter sent to us from Washington by the former student of TecnunIker Liceaga. Iker participates in NASA in the construction of a satellite that will be in charge of observing the Sun.

"Washington D. C. The capital of the United States: that place we have seen so many times in Hollywood movies. A city where the most important political and economic powers of the nation are concentrated. And the place where I have been living for eleven months.

This story started at the beginning of 2017: I had finished Industrial Technologies Engineering at Tecnun in 2015 and I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston) doing my project Final Master's Degree. I had just been awarded a scholarship from Obra Social la Caixa to do a postgraduate stay in the USA, and I was still in a sea of doubts about what my destination would be.

It was then that an idea crossed my mind: to try to do my internship at NASA. It was a providential vision, since, within all my concerns about how I would orient my career, the certainty arose that this would be a good path. I discovered that, in the broad field of engineering, the world of space exploration could become my passion, something I had not yet found. So I didn't think twice, and I went for it. I tried many avenues for several months, without success. But finally, in September, a door opened for which I will always be grateful. 

Thanks to the work of ECUSA (Españoles Científicos en USA), to its Fostering Docs program, and especially to Teresa Nieves (co-founder of ECUSA and my mentor in the program), with her eternal support and commitment to Spanish scientific talent, I was given the opportunity to work for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, affiliated with the Catholic University ofaffiliated with the Catholic University of America. My job would consist of working as a mechanical engineer on satellite missions, within the Heliophysics Division. The idea excited me and, loaded with infinite illusion, I landed in Washington D. C. on October 14, 2017.

Arriving at work on the first day, I had a lot of respect for the aura that surrounds the institution. However, when I met my supervisor and my colleagues, I was more than pleasantly surprised: I discovered that NASA is made up of professionals of the highest level, but at the same time they show an enviable closeness, friendliness and team spirit. I felt very comfortable from the beginning, with responsibility in attractive projects, learning about a field that excites me and seeing that all the pieces fit together. Since then, almost a year has passed, and with my work, I have wanted to repay the trust placed in me by this great family. 

The day-to-day at NASA is intense. Although schedules are flexible, I am usually there between 9 a.m. and 5:30 or 6 p.m., except at times when deadlines are tight. There is usually little time for lunch, so as to minimize disruption to workshop. Meetings are a constant occurrence, as many disciplines are involved in any given satellite. Thus, one may find oneself talking about orbits and launch vehicles one day, and then moving on to long-range communications or space propulsion the next. The ability to work as part of a team is valued at the same level as technical skills, as all branches of knowledge must fit together seamlessly for mission statement to work. 

All my activity takes place inside NASA Goddard: a complex similar to a small city, with support for about ten thousand employees. It has numerous cafeterias, its own bank, gymnasium, library and even a nursery. Part of my routine is to do design of parts on the computer, communicating with the rest of the engineers to make sure everything is coming together on the satellite. I'm also in charge of manufacturing the parts, which includes ordering and receiving materials, coordinating with the machining shops and assembling for launch. 

The assembly facilities at the center are impressive, particularly those for large-caliber projects. They are often referred to as "clean rooms" because the environment is controlled so that no subject dirt contaminates the equipment. You work in full coveralls and there are strict procedures for getting in and out without tracking dirt in and out. There are also vacuum chambers, high temperature ovens and even a large centrifuge to test the satellites in flight conditions. Last month I had the good fortune to take a tour of the entire facility, accompanying a group of students who were organized at visit. To be so close to the satellites that will soon expand the frontiers of our universe is a unique feeling!

The country and the city of opportunities

It is difficult to move to a new city, in a different country, and start from scratch. I missed family and friends, especially at the beginning, when I didn't know many people. Culturally, the U.S. is very different from Europe, so adapting takes some effort. But looking on the bright side, this is also part of the adventure and learning: it forces one to appreciate other ways of life different from our own and discover values outside our habits and borders. 

I live close to work and during the week it is difficult for me to get to the city center. Traffic is usually heavy and it takes at least an hour to get there. For this reason, I usually limit myself to sports in the afternoons and leave the weekend free to go out and explore the city. As Washington is a destination for short professional stays in many cases, many people make the most of their time to travel to nearby cities, a plan that I have also joined more than once. 

Washington D. C. offers endless opportunities, with spectacular museums such as the Air and Space Museum, which are also free. It's a great feeling to walk by the White House and the Lincoln Memorial or take a visit to congress and its history-laden cameras. There is an international atmosphere in the many bars and restaurants, with many people -including Spaniards- who work in entities such as the World Bank or the Inter-American Bank development. Many young people also move around here, since very close to the center there are universities such as Georgetown or the Catholic University of America.

For those who want to travel, Washington is very conveniently located. For $50 you can get a round-trip bus to New York, which is about five hours away. It is also not unrealistic to visit destinations such as Boston, Philadelphia or any other city on the East Coast. 

I say goodbye encouraging you to consider a career in the United States and to visit this great city: Washington. For my part, with all the strength and enthusiasm I can muster, I will continue to write chapters of a story of which I feel very fortunate to be a part. The next few years will be crucial for space exploration, with goals that promise to advance us in the knowledge of our environment, still so unknown. With tenacity and perseverance, we will continue to expand our frontiers in it, to limits as yet unimaginable."

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