From the first moment we looked up at the twinkling night sky, mankind has always dreamt of space exploration. Ryan Ligon, a junior aerospace engineering student at Virginia Tech, is no different, although he hasn’t been dreaming quite as long.
Ligon’s story begins with a bang – albeit a small one. His father, a technical education teacher, taught his son how to launch small rockets at Cub Scout outings.
While launching foot-long rocket ships in elementary school is what piqued his interest, seeing "October Sky" for the first time truly ignited Ligon’s passion for spaceflight.
“It spoke to the fact that no matter where you came from, you could really do what you wanted in life,” Ligon said.
Like Homer Hickam, the protagonist of "October Sky," Ligon always had his eyes set on the sky above. The young boy who once marveled at the moon and stars grew up to be a man who studied the complex science behind space travel.
“It’s interesting to learn all of the background aspects, but at some points you can get bogged down and lose sight of the big picture when you pay attention to some of the finer details,” Ligon said. “A big thing that’s helped is working here at NASA, getting away from that academic mindset and just working on something that’s real.”
Ligon is just one of over 200 students interning at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Game Changing Development Program Office. “Game Changing” is a fitting title for the interns at NASA, because they aren’t just pushing paperwork around.
“They’re teaching life facts that help the students in every aspect of being professional and employable,” said Lane Maloney, photographer for the Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars program Ligon is involved in.
Students like Ligon who are involved in the LARSS program take time out of their work to attend lectures from astronauts, business etiquette luncheons and career enhancement seminars. When they aren’t researching space technology, Ligon and his peers are learning real-world practices.
“It’s a very interactive program,” Maloney said. “They really work with the students overall while the students are doing work…I think that’s one of the coolest things about this program.”
But before Ligon was learning how to conduct business and research space technology, he had to learn some more fundamental lessons. Ligon’s freshman year at Tech was an academic challenge.
“I had to come out of my shell and learn how to study,” Ligon said, “Which is something I didn’t have to do in high school.”
Ligon learned how to manage his time and grew to be a successful engineering student, but his final goal still lurked just out of reach – an internship at NASA.
“Academics freshman year had bogged me down, and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to be doing,” Ligon said. “Did I want to be doing engineering? Did I want to be doing aerospace engineering?”
One conversation with his professor later, Ligon found a place to belong. He worked with a team that built and launched a satellite on a NASA rocket. Ligon and his team created a digital mechanical design, but the launch was ultimately canceled. Regardless, he valued his time working with students who are passionate about aerospace engineering
“I used to not be the one to go and take initiative to see if I could do something like that,” Ligon said. “It was good to see (the risk) paid off.”
From an earthly viewpoint, Ligon can see all of the work he’s logged in has been worth it. Although Ligon said he struggled to adjust in his freshman year of school, he also said that he was glad to have taken the path he did. Anything else might not have brought him to the desk he occupies this summer at NASA’s Langley offices.
“I would tell (younger me) to take more risks, to go out on a limb more,” Ligon said. “You never know what’s going to happen until you try – it sounds cliché but it’s true.”
After first seeing dreams achieved in “October Sky” and then in his own life, Ligon has pushed himself to search for more. Seeing the Earth in perspective from space has helped Ligon in that regard.
“To borrow from the famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, ‘Not only are we in the universe, but the universe is in us,’” Ligon said. “I don't really know of anything else that brings such a deeper, more spiritual feeling to me than that very fact. That's what drives and inspires me, and so many others, in our daily work at NASA.”