Engineering student advances real-world NASA projects

August 3, 2015

From robotics to Aerospace

UMD Student Kirsi Kuuti tries out a seat in the Orion Mock-up at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

kirsit kuutti

Kirsi says, "I'm still pinching myself because not only do I get to work alongside talented scientists, I am helping advance a project I worked on while interning at NASA Glenn Research Center in 2013." One of Kirsi's projects is translating data for a solar power regulator (above). It is the same device she made for a circuit board at Glenn. The device insures the habitat maintains a constant amount of power no matter how much light the solar arrays are receiving.


Even though she loves Duluth, her family, and studying at UMD, for the foreseeable future, Kirsi Kuutti will only get to enjoy them in small doses.

She's on an adventure which started when she took off for an internship at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio in 2013. She even missed her graduation ceremony at Duluth East to make it on time. For her first year of college, she attended school in Pittsburgh, Pa., and in summer 2014 moved right into an internship at the Rockwell Automation Center in Cleveland, Ohio, helping to create controllers for factory machinery.

By fall 2014 she firmly established herself at UMD, excelling in her double majors, computer science and electrical engineering. However, that may be the last UMD school year she completes in a solid stretch.

kirsi kuuti

Entering the hatch of the Orion Mock-up.


In summer 2015, eight weeks into her 10-week internship at the NASA Johnson Space Center, Kirsi received some news. She was accepted into their Pathways Program, which is NASA's co-op program, a notch above an intern. On August 24, 2015 she will be sworn in as a civil servant with the U.S. government. "I'll rotate semesters studying at UMD and working at NASA."

Kirsi is committed to finishing her computer science and electrical engineering undergraduate work at UMD. She'll be home to attend classes in spurts. "I'll flip flop between Texas and Minnesota," she says.

She's looking forward to classes with with Pete Willemsen, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science. "He's my mentor. My sophomore year of high school I interned with his department and that experience springboarded me deeper in the world of computing," she said. "He got me hooked on coding and for the kind of electrical engineering I want to do, I needed to learn coding." She enjoyed the digital logic class taught by Lee Zimmerman, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering because it included a lot of electronics work in the lab. Kirsi enjoys the academic classes she has taken at UMD because they fuel real-world applications.

kirsi kuttti

On a tour of the Johnson Space Center Rocket Park. This is the Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle, designed for NASA's Project Mercury


Kirsi's real passion is making devices and systems that work. "It started with our FIRST Robotics Team, the Duluth East Daredevils, in high school," she says. "We won design and engineering awards for the robots we made, and we won competitions all the way to the world championship." The excitement and teamwork of her four years on the FIRST Robotics team energized her and propelled her on her current path.

At the Johnson Space Center, she enjoys another group of comrades, her fellow interns. "We work hard and have fun," she said. While she has had many opportunities to meet astronauts and hear "fascinating lectures," the work comes first. The interns are given significant responsibility. "We've had to get up in the night to monitor experiments and we have to stay at a task until it is finished, sometimes hours after the rest of the staff has gone home."

Kirsi’s primary task is to program interfaces for astronauts on board Orion. She has to be mindful of how they interact with the display in zero gravity and if long term space flight effects their eye sight. She lists a few favorite experiences. "We created a display for a water distiller on board a space habitat, met Astronaut Clayton Anderson, and toured the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility," she says. Kirsi also heard Ginger Kerrick speak about her journey through NASA. Ginger was the first non-astronaut capsule communicator, the flight control position that relays information from Mission Control to an astronaut.

kirsi kuuti

Kirsi toured exact replicas of the vehicles in space right now, including the International Space Station, the Orion, the Mars Rover, and others.

Kirsi will be in Texas until December 2015. "I've lived in four different states in the last 26 months," she said."One thing I miss about Minnesota is the cold. It's been 100 degrees some days in Texas this summer. I'm looking forward to coming back to UMD."

Check out Kirsi's Blog

Does a career in Computer Science or Electrical Engineering appeal to you? See more: UMD Computer Science major   |  UMD Electrical Engineering major