Corvallis native and Crescent Valley High School graduate Manju Bangalore started her fifth internship with NASA in January.
Bangalore, a recent physics graduate at the University of Oregon, said the key to getting in at NASA is persistence: she estimates she applied for 100 to 200 internships starting when she was a college freshman.
“It takes a lot of applications to get one ‘yes,’” she said.
Bangalore said her lifelong dream is to become an astronaut. Her interest in space was sparked when she was just 4 years old and learned about astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian descent to go to space. Chawla died in 2003 in the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
Bangalore said seeing someone like Chawla go into space made her think it was something she could do too. She said she thinks her passion for space exploration comes from fact that space, like the depths of the ocean, is one of the few places left humans don’t know much about.
“Our instinct as humans is to explore and push boundaries,” she said.
Bangalore is applying for graduate programs this year — although she was accepted to her top choice programs last year, Oxford and Cambridge universities, she applied too late to be considered for fellowship funding and has deferred enrollment to apply for financial assistance.
Bangalore said she’s interested in studying space propulsion or energy engineering. She said she wants to work on nuclear-electric propulsion systems for spacecraft. Although some space probes use electric propulsion, such as ion thrusters that create propulsion by pushing charged particles out the back, Bangalore said those engines have drawbacks: They operate on limited power and don’t have a lot of thrust and accelerate too slowly to be useful for a trip a human could return from. But by using a nuclear reactor smaller than the ones used in nuclear submarines, some proposed electric propulsion systems theoretically could take a human from Earth to Mars in just 40 days.
“We keep saying we’re going to Mars and we don’t know how we’re getting there. That would be a good thing to figure out,” she said.
Bangalore said in addition to her interest in space, she is an activist and is interested in politics. Bangalore has worked in the science office in the White House under President Barack Obama and has started a nonprofit, Operation Period, which supplies feminine hygiene products to women in both the United States and India.
Bangalore said in India 20 percent of girls don’t finish their education because they lack access to these products, and this makes them more likely to end up as child brides, to die in childbirth or to have daughters who themselves are caught in a cycle of poverty.
“The problem is so large and there is so much that needs to be done about it,” she said.
Bangalore said has taken on a lot of leadership projects because she wants to do everything she does well.
She said her advice for any kids who might also be interested in working for NASA is to be persistent.
“Never give up is so cliché, but getting back up when you are rejected is so necessary, not just in applications, but in life,” she said.