A&M-Commerce alum Jacob Stahl aimed for the moon and landed among the stars, as the old saying goes.
Stahl was recently awarded the 590 Rookie of the Year Award by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The award is given to an employee from NASA'S Mission Engineering and Systems Analysis (MESA) Division who practices “commitment to excellence, creativity, dedication, customer service and personal integrity in providing outstanding support to Goddard’s mission.”
Stahl graduated from A&M-Commerce in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Engineering and Mathematics. His hometown is Dike, Texas.
Stahl's dream to work at NASA came true after years of dedication, hard work and grit. “As long as I can remember, I always wanted to have a career in the space industry, but I certainly never thought it was feasible for me, so I had very little confidence and motivation to pursue it,” Stahl said.
However, everything changed when he enrolled in a Physics I class at A&M-Commerce. “I found the Physics I course material incredibly interesting, and Dr. [Kent] Montgomery's teaching style connected very well with me. I wound up doing well in a course that I thought I would do very poorly at, and from that point forward I was very motivated to do well in school and get my foot into the space industry,” he said.
After graduation, Stahl pursued an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University. While at Texas A&M, Stahl worked with Dr. Eric Petersen, testing rocket propellants. Meanwhile, he applied for NASA internships. “There were many, many years of applying for NASA internships before I was finally accepted,” Stahl said.
In 2016, Stahl was awarded a summer internship at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. In addition to regular internships, Stahl also repeatedly applied for NASA's Pathways positions.
“The Pathways positions are co-op internships where you are converted to a full-time civil servant after your graduation,” Stahl said. “The Pathways program is the best way to become a NASA civil servant.”
Stahl's big break happened on a spring day in 2016. He was working in the lab at Texas A&M, a cinderblock structure with limited cell service. When he left the lab for the day, he checked his phone and noticed a missed call and voicemail. The voicemail was from Andrew Maynard of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, calling with the life-changing news that Stahl had been selected for a Pathways internship.
“It was extremely exciting and certainly a huge relief to me,” Stahl recalled. “I still have that voicemail saved on my phone!”
Stahl worked as a Pathways co-op intern at Goddard Space Flight Center during the fall 2016 semester, and he was converted to a full-time civil servant at NASA after his May 2017 graduation from Texas A&M.
Today, Stahl works in the Propulsion branch as a propulsion systems engineer.
“Most of my work is dedicated to designing, analyzing, building and testing the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission's propulsion subsystem,” Stahl said. According to NASA's PACE website, “PACE’s data will help us better understand how the ocean and atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide.”
Besides the PACE project, Stahl said his branch's current missions include the propulsion subsystem for the JPL-led Europa Clipper Mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), among others.
Stahl emphasized that his education at A&M-Commerce was crucial to his current role at NASA. “Our branch designs and builds in-space propulsion systems for spacecraft, so a strong background in systems engineering and project management is very critical in our day-to-day jobs,” Stahl said.
Dr. Kent Montgomery, A&M-Commerce physics and astronomy professor, remembers teaching Stahl.
“Even as an undergraduate, [Jacob] was very goal oriented,” Montgomery said. “He knew he wanted to work for NASA as an aerospace engineer. He then planned his academic career to make that a reality. He was one of the hardest working students I have met, and he never lost sight of his goal.”