EMCC student Nick Grabbs was among a select group of students nationwide chosen to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program and will be flying to Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, at the end of January.

January 12, 2024

East Mississippi Community College sophomore Nick Grabbs completed two missions through the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program last year and is embarking on a third mission this month that will culminate with a trip to the Armstrong Flight Research Center, NASA’s primary center for high-risk, atmospheric flight research and test projects in Edwards, California.

Grabbs, a resident of West Point, applied for NCAS’ “Mission 1: Discover” last summer after EMCC Scooba campus Mathematics and Science Chair Division Chairperson Marion Smoot emailed information about the program to the college’s students.

“I saw the email was dealing with NASA and opened it,” Grabbs said. “I thought it sounded interesting, went to the NCAS website, and applied. That all came about because of her email.”

Grabbs was among a group of 500 students selected nationwide to complete the mission, which consisted of a five-week, online course designed to provide a broad overview of NASA and the knowledge needed to advance to subsequent NCAS missions.

“NCAS strives to advance community college students' knowledge and capabilities in STEM by providing them with STEM challenges, focused on NASA’s mission goals, collaboration, and career pathways,” NASA Project Coordinator III for NCAS Dr. Courtney Rae Ricks said. “Our activity prepares and encourages our students to one day return to NASA and our affiliates through internships and the workforce to help propel the Artemis generation.”

Each week participants would study one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s five mission directorates: aeronautics, exploration systems, science, space operations and space technology.

Grabb’s final project consisted of creating an infographic on NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, which manages systems that support humans during lunar orbital, lunar surface and Mars exploration, according to NASA’s website.

Students who successfully completed Mission 1 were invited to participate in “Mission 2: Explore.” Unlike the first mission, in which Grabbs worked alone, the second mission consisted of teaming up online with other students to accomplish a designated task in which each participant was assigned a mock role as a NASA employee.

“My team designed a mission to search for water on the lunar south pole,” Grabbs said. “We built a CAD schematic of a rover equipped with different sensors that we would use. We came up with an exploration plan based on previous NASA data that revealed where they thought the best location would be to search for water.

“There was a systems person that integrated the software and the hardware to run the robot. We had a lunar surface ops person who did the site selection and put together a map of where we would go and how we would scout for the water. Then we had a sort of communications person who would take the data we gathered and present it back to NASA and the public.”

During both missions, the students participated in online discussions with NASA subject matter experts.

“I talked to one NASA employee who worked on the optical lens for the James Webb Space Telescope that’s bringing back all of these great pictures and images we’ve been seeing lately,” Grabbs said.

Another subject matter expert who visited with the students is researching E-Sail propulsion technology, which offers the potential for harnessing solar wind to power deep-space travel.

“That was probably the most amazing thing about all of it, getting that level of access to people who are working on stuff we see in use at NASA and to talk to people who are doing all of this great research,” Grabbs said. “I can’t say enough about how inspiring these people are.”

A smaller group of about 120 students advanced to a capstone project option of NCAS’ “Mission 3: Innovate,” which will include an engineering design challenge. The mission kicks off Jan. 16 and includes two weeks of online activities centered around current challenges faced by NASA mission directorates.

On Jan. 29, Grabbs will fly out to California for four days at Armstrong Flight Research Center, during which the students will develop possible solutions to a capstone problem and report their findings to a panel selected by NASA.

“I am really looking forward to going out there and seeing some of the things that NASA is working on in person,” Grabbs said.

Grabbs, 43, is a nontraditional student who resides in West Point with his wife, Christine, and their two children, James, 9, and Clementine, 5. Grabbs, a native of Terrell, Texas, moved to West Point in 2018. He will complete his studies in pre-engineering at EMCC this summer. After graduating, he plans to enroll at the Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University.

“I feel like I am probably midpoint in my working career, and I wanted to acquire new skills that will enable me to branch out and do something interesting for the next 20 years,” Grabbs said.

With nearly 21 years of experience as an engineer and programmer for T-Mobile, Grabbs said earning an engineering degree from an institution of higher learning could lead to a new role with his employer.  In January, T-Mobile announced SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched the first set of Starlink satellites with Direct to Cell capabilities.

“There is a possibility I could work in that area for T-Mobile,” Grabbs said. “If that does not work out the thought of working for NASA is something I would definitely be interested in doing after participating in the NCAS missions.”

Grabbs said he would encourage other students to apply to the NCAS program.

“NCAS has done so much for me I feel that I need to tell as many people as I can about it,” he said. “I want to pay that back.”

NCAS’ next registration period opens in April of 2024. Information about the NCAS program is available here: https://bit.ly/3tOn8cN

“This is a fantastic opportunity for students interested in any of the STEM fields,” Smoot said of the NCAS program. “I am excited for Nick and appreciate that he took the initiative to apply for the program. Students with a degree in STEM fields are in high demand worldwide and there is the potential for employment at private companies and governmental agencies like NASA that are doing important work.”