Forsythes reaching for the stars with NASA internships

Alex Forsythe (left) and her brother, Scott Forsythe, work at Scott’s computer in the office of their home near Bippus. The two siblings completed internships this summer working at NASA.
Alex Forsythe (left) and her brother, Scott Forsythe, work at Scott’s computer in the office of their home near Bippus. The two siblings completed internships this summer working at NASA.

Originally published Aug. 21, 2017.

Most parents hope their children will do well in school, college, career and life. In the Forsythe household, their two kids have sailed over hurdles on many of those milestones, shooting for the stars way ahead of the curve for their ages. And yes – it is, indeed, rocket science.

Scott Forsythe, 20, and his sister, Alexandra “Alex” Forsythe, 18, recently finished separate internships this summer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center near Hampton, VA, working on two distinctly separate projects.

Scott led the way, snagging a three-month internship last summer in NASA’s Earth Science Division. His field is computer engineering, spe- cifically software development.
“I’ve always been a fan of NASA,” he says. “I saw in an article this mention of a website where students could sign up, submit their resumes and submit an application for various internship openings at Virginia and other bases. First off I had to find the website, prove who I was – it’s a government website so it’s very secure and everything – and then I had to submit my resume and why I thought I was qualified for each position that I signed up for.”

He went through an interview process with the people who became his mentors after he was hired, landing a spot in the Earth Science Division. His task was to help develop the software for the next generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and build a software analysis model for CERES, the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System. To put it in more complex terms, Scott’s focus was on developing a software program that calculates how photons will move around within a calibration target on the CERES instrument. The math techniques alone include preallocation, vectorization, file input/output, constrained random value generation and graphical plotting of values.
“Think of it very simply as an eye chart for satellite,” he says. “It looks at it and, depending on the results that it can report, it should always produce the same result when it looks at this calibration target. If it produces a different result, that is an error or sign something has changed.”
That project will be part of NASA’s Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) satellite, flying around in space using the fruit of Scott’s labors. He calls it the Monte Carlo Ray-Trace model of a calibration target.
Not to be outdone by her older brother, Alex also applied and was accepted to NASA’s Engineering Directorate.
“When he came back from Virginia, he was talking about how incredible the experience was, and everything he’d learned and all the awesome people he met, so I thought, ‘Well, I just can’t pass this up – I have to go,’” she explains. “I signed up this year to go and do a similar thing, but in my field.”

Alex’s expertise is electrical and computer engineering. This was her first year to work at NASA, designing circuit boards for the Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL) program. She created a power converter that has become an integral part of the NDL system, allowing for precise, safe, controlled and autonomous landings of rovers and other spacecraft. The converter steps down the output voltage from 3.3 volts to 1.8 volts and also allows setting the number of amps for output.

“Eventually, they’re going to send it into space and check to see if it works,” she says. “They’ll probably test it on Earth first, with an aircraft, to see if it will land a rover properly here, before they send it to somewhere where they can’t access it.”

Her work, using space-flight components made of special materials, had to pass both NASA and military requirements. Alex has her own business designing and selling custom circuit boards to robotic enthusiasts, so she already had some experience under her belt prior to the internship. In addition, she designed – from scratch – her own Star Wars “movie-sized,” fully functional R2-D2 unit, a 4-H project that brought her notoriety – and an invitation to bring the robot to NASA for a “show and tell” presentation. That project, which addressed designing and building a supercomputer and particle accelerator, took the Sweepstakes Award at the 2017 Indiana State Fair for having the best overall exhibit in the 4-H computer project.

Both siblings say they amassed an incredible amount of knowledge and skills from their summer jobs.

This summer, Scott worked with a different matrix program called MATLab, which he said was like learning Italian when he knew Spanish. But he quickly got up to speed to using the program. He used that knowledge to get an A in an honors MATLab class in college.

“My mentor gave me a miniature ‘test,’ which I later found out is used for graduate students,” he explains. “The test was basically, ‘Program this that does these things in these steps’ – like a cookbook – and I finished that. Apparently it was designed to take days, but I knocked it out within one of the meetings that we were having – about an hour.”

However, the most important thing he has learned was working and interacting with people in a professional environment.

“This has been my first real, professional experience in engineering and software development, so that was really valuable,” he adds.

Alex says learning how to research the flight parts was one of the most important things she learned this summer.

“If I decide to go into NASA or any space flight industry I’m going to have to know that,” she says, adding that learning programs such as Altium, which is used in circuit design, was a close second.

Both Scott and Alex have been invited to return to internships at NASA next summer. But in the meantime, they are working on finishing their education. Scott is a sophomore at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, majoring in computer engineering and eyeing a career in application development. Already he has developed an app for Limberlost State Historic Site called “Birding with Gene,” referring to Hoosier author Gene Stratton-Porter. Alex took most of the photos for the birding section of the app. The free app is available on Google Play, Amazon and as an e-book on iTunes.

Alex is finishing up her home-schooled high school education this year, while at the same time earning sophomore standing from taking side-by-side courses, mainly at Indiana Tech and IPFW. Her dual major is in electrical and computer engineering, with a dual minor in computer science and math.

So what do the Forsythe kids like to do in their spare time? Besides working in their “cave” – a large think tank-style office filled with computers, their own individual desks, a digital printer and other handy designing and engineering tools, they both enjoy snow skiing, for one.

Scott enjoys “hack-a-thons” or mini programming competitions. He’s also the president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers chapter at IPFW.

Along with building things like her R2-D2 robot, Alex likes to play paintball and laser tag. She also writes the “Bird of the Month” column for the Indiana Audubon Society. She volunteers for several wildlife groups and is a ballroom dancer.

The accomplishments these two have made are not lost on their parents, John and Cheryl Forsythe. John works for technology and defense contractor Harris, in Fort Wayne; Cheryl is a stay-at-home mom.

“It’s like a dream come true,” she says. “For a mom, and for them, it’s a dream come true, because NASA is a place we’ve all respected – our whole family has respected – for as long as I can remember. I know when Scott was little, he knew every rocket that NASA ever used. And Allie has always been interested in working for an organization that makes a difference, too. That’s something that you can really be proud of.”