Nicole Ela outside the Engineering Center with the Flatirons in the background.

Not many people can say they’ve sent satellites into space, especially not as an undergraduate student. It’s an awesome achievement, but it does have a downside. People don’t believe you.

Meet Nicole Ela, a student who spent her undergraduate career with her eyes looking to the stars and her nose to the grindstone. She leaves CU-Boulder having worked on multiple satellite payloads, including an internship on the James Webb Space Telescope project. Too advanced for an undergraduate? Not a chance. At CU-Boulder, it’s just what we do.

The Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences is known for hands-on learning, and like many students, Nicole started taking full advantage of the program’s options early. As a freshman, she landed a job as at the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. She’d hardly taken any aerospace classes, but was a quick study, and was soon involved in ground station testing for a satellite launch. She then tackled attitude controls for a high altitude balloon payload, and before long, she was the project manager for the first ALL STAR satellite.

"People don't believe me. I was showing pictures and everyone was like, 'Does this mean you actually worked on a satellite that went to space?,' Yes, I thought you knew that," said Nicole.

Nicole has accomplished a lot as an aerospace student, but it wasn't always easy.

"I struggled when I started, especially with math. I took calculus in high school, but decided to retake it here. I'm really glad I did. Even though I'd already taken it, it made me feel better about it," she said.

The Right Stuff

Her perseverance has been rewarded. She's been involved in multiple satellite launches and landed an internship at Northrop Grumman the summer after her junior year, where she worked on attitude controls for the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Hubble replacement.

"That experience was super sweet, to be able to work on a project like that," she said.

Nicole turned the internship into a job. In September she'll start a full time design position at Northrop Grumman.

"It's on the space side of the company. I'll be working on how they build structures to survive harsh conditions like launches," she said.

Connecting the Past and Future

Her work at Northrop Grumman will be on space-bound projects, but she’s also interested in projects here on earth. Nicole actually started at CU Boulder as an anthropology student, and added aerospace to her plate. That’s right, she didn’t switch majors, she took on both, and graduated in May 2016 with a double degree. The fields have more in common than you might think.

"I would like to eventually do something to combines them. Remote-sensing has connections to anthropology investigations," she said.

Her first stop after graduation was actually an anthropology project, taking part in an investigation into early Native American settlements in southwest Colorado, although it involved more traditional ground-based surveying instead of satellite remote sensing.


Nicole’s biggest advice to incoming freshmen?

"Don't give up. There's a lot of help out there if you need it. The aerospace program gave me such good experiences and set me up with a job," she said.

Nicole's been able to accomplish a lot during her time at CU Boulder, and as she prepares to enter the workforce, her education and dedication ensure she’ll continue to reach the stars for years to come.