‘One of the craziest experiences of my life.’ Inside this Northeastern student’s co-op with NASA

NASA space station
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft docks with the International Space Station. NASA Photo

Jonah Saunders grew up aiming to become an electrical engineer. He didn’t imagine the work would exceed his dreams. 

On co-op as an electrical engineering intern at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Saunders routinely delivers payloads to a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft before it takes off for delivery to the International Space Station.

“It is one of the craziest experiences of my life,” says Saunders, who will be graduating from Northeastern in 2025. “Knowing it’s going to be in space at some point soon—I feel so lucky to be involved with that.”

headshot of Jonah Saunders
“This has really cemented what I want to do,” Jonah Saunders says of NASA co-op. Photo by NASA.

At the launchpad, Saunders delivers the cargo via an elevator that carries him to the Dragon on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. The ground-floor button of the elevator panel reads EARTH; the top floor is marked SPACE.

“It’s pretty windy up there,” Saunders says of the upper deck where the crew boards the spacecraft. 

Dragon spacecraft have made more than 20 roundtrips to the International Space Station since 2012. Each can carry more than 13,000 pounds of equipment and supplies per trip.

“Your jaw just drops because you’ve seen this rocket so many times online,” says Saunders, whose office window provides a view of the launchpad. “It takes up your entire view as you look up. It just keeps on going.”

Saunders recalls dreaming of becoming an electrical engineer as far back as elementary school, based in part on insight from his father’s career.

“My dad is a patent attorney for a big firm in Boston and he works a lot with novel technology,” Saunders says. “I really want to be an inventor—that’s what I’ve been saying my entire life. I went into electrical engineering because it would allow me to design new technologies and help in their development.”

His first co-op was with Desktop Metal near Boston, where his mentor was Timur Starobinets, a senior electrical engineer from Saunders’ hometown of Needham, Massachusetts, who graduated from Northeastern before working at SpaceX as an avionics engineer.

“When I would give Jonah a task he would first do his best to figure it out on his own; he’d come back with thoughtful questions that showed me that he spent time thinking about the issue and educating himself on the given problem,” Starobinets says. “I think he had a very successful co-op because he was always willing to jump in and do his best—whether it’s learning how to design circuits, using new [printed circuit board] layout tools, debugging circuits or writing code for a project he was responsible for.

“Having a positive attitude to problem-solving and a willingness to tackle new problems made him stand out and set him up for success,” adds Starobinets.

At NASA, Saunders is also working on a next-generation bioscience project that could enable plants to be grown aboard a deep space voyage to Mars.

“I’m helping design the electrical system air-flow and sensing,” Saunders says. “That’s a very cool experience because I get to apply all the concepts that I learned at my previous co-op and at Northeastern. They treat me like a full-time engineer.

“I’m getting into the nitty-gritty electrical side,” Saunders adds. “It’s an awesome team and the project hopefully will be used to grow food for astronauts.”

Saunders’ work has taken him inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, 525 feet high, where orbital rockets and space shuttles have been assembled for more than 30 years. The building is being updated to meet NASA’s modern-day needs.

“To see the ceiling you have to literally tilt your head all the way up,” he says.

Experienced NASA employees have shared with Saunders that the sense of wonder and awe never grows old.

“This has really cemented what I want to do—I want to work with novel technologies at NASA,” Saunders says. “I feel really lucky because I know a lot of people are struggling to find what they’re passionate about. Since I was little, I always knew what I wanted.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at i.thomsen@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.