Thomas Gregg was only looking for a summer internship, but when he was offered a position at NASA Headquarters that required a six-month commitment, he thought, “How can I pass this up?”
So Gregg, who was finishing his junior year, took the leap. He resigned his newly re-elected post as treasurer of Students' Council and accepted the fact that taking a leave from Haverford to go to NASA meant he would not be graduating with his pals in the class of 2010. But it’s all been worth it, he says.
That original six-month internship turned into a year-long stint at the space agency for the sociology major. “They kept throwing me into the pond, so to speak, to see how I did,” says Gregg, who finishes up at NASA in May and will return to Haverford in the fall. “I would flop around a bit, but I didn’t drown. I learned how to swim. So they kept finding ways to make me useful.”
Gregg started out in NASA’s Office of External Relations. “That’s the department that interfaces with other countries and their versions of NASA,” says Gregg, who found that his Japanese language skills (his mother is a native of Japan) came in handy during negotiations with the Japan Space Agency. “During a week-long meeting they asked me to do some informal translating,” he says. He also had the opportunity to work on what are known as Space Act Agreements. These contracts provide access to NASA expertise to academic institutions and private companies, including those working to develop vehicles that could travel to the International Space Station, the moon and Mars.
More recently, Gregg has been assigned to the Program Analysis and Evaluation division. “It’s kind of like an independent think tank that does NASA’s long-term strategic planning,” he says.
These are exciting times to be at the agency, which is in the midst of major changes. Not only is the end of the space shuttle program looming, a new administrator—former shuttle astronaut and Marine Corps major Charles F. Bolden—is changing the culture.
“These kinds of things happen once in a generation,” says Gregg, who speculates that his youth was part of what helped him land the NASA position. “There is this strong interest in revitalizing the agency. Right now, I’m part of a team that is looking at this whole new direction NASA is going in with the private sector.”
Gregg has also found that his analytical skills, honed at Haverford, have served him well working in the policy arena at NASA. “I’ve learned that it’s not as important to know the hard sciences. It’s important to think clearly and cogently and to be articulate.” He credits professor of sociology Mark Gould, also his advisor, with helping him to develop those abilities. “He has really taught me how to think. If it was not for that, I would have failed miserably here. I would have been a waste of their time.”
Gregg is grateful, too, to his Haverford dean, Philip Bean, whom he calls “a source of personal inspiration and good counsel.” Throughout his time at NASA, Gregg says, “There would be times when I would come to Haverford for the express purpose of seeing [Bean] and seeking his guidance.” All in all, the internship, he says "has been a real eye opener. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The projects are constantly engaging and every day is different.”