AAE student selected for inaugural Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, SpaceX internship

Zion Moss, a sophomore in AAE, was one of 43 first- and second-year Black college students chosen as a Fellow.

Zion Moss was beginning to feel disheartened.

He’d been constantly applying for internships, trying to secure his first in aerospace, since arriving at Purdue University.

Zion Moss

When he heard about the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship from School of Aeronautics and Astronautics academic advisor Harriett Inouye in November, he figured it couldn’t hurt to fill out one more application.

By January, he learned he was a finalist. And then he interviewed with several aerospace companies to see if one could be a match. And then he got the phone call.

Not only had he earned his first aerospace internship, it would be a paid, 12-week internship with SpaceX. Not only had SpaceX selected him, he would be paired with two mentors in the industry. Not only would he have mentors, he would receive a cash grant of “approximately” $2,000 toward professional or school expenses.

“I ran out of my physics recitation and almost jumped down the steps with how happy I was,” Moss said of receiving the call that he was selected. “I couldn’t think of anything else to say but ‘thank you' and immediately called my mother to share the good news. To say I was overjoyed is an understatement.”

Moss is among 43 Black undergraduates selected for the inaugural Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, created in 2020 to “combat the longstanding and well-quantified under-representation of Black and African-American employees in the U.S. aerospace workforce.” The first fellowship class consists of first- or second-year students in bachelor’s or associate’s degree programs across the country.

The benefits of being a Fellow, Moss quickly learned, are kind of overwhelming.

Starting with the SpaceX internship, which will start in late May at company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Moss will be working as a propulsion intern on the Propulsion Build Engineering team — the one currently working on Raptor and Starship, with tasks ranging from designing reaction control thrusters to managing engine integration.

Moss interviewed with several of the host companies — like its sister fellowship, the Brooke Owens Fellowship, the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship has partnerships with the nation’s leading space companies. Preparing for the interviews “almost felt like I was studying for a midterm,” Moss said.

But SpaceX was his top choice.

“It is literally a dream come true,” Moss said. “Though the Shuttle program was still active during my younger years, my most impactful memories are of watching SpaceX achieve what was once thought impossible. It still does not seem real — and likely won’t until I first step onto the factory floor.” 

And, yet, the internship may not even be the greatest benefit of the fellowship, Moss said.

Moss should learn soon who his industry mentors will be, and those likely will provide more than advice and networking connects. Moss anticipates those budding relationships as a potential sources of comfort, assurance he won’t be alone as he learns to navigate what is a difficult industry.

And he can’t wait to connect with other Fellows, peers on like-minded missions.

“Knowing that I will now be a part of a growing community of people who all experience the same unique difficulties presented as being an underrepresented minority whom I can rely on for support will be just as, if not more, important than the internship itself,” Moss said.

No doubt, the Fellows will find ways to connect, whether on social media or text messaging or in person, when appropriate, as they encourage each other from afar. They’ll be forever linked.

Moss will be able to share his academic journey as it continues, currently with plans to pursue graduate school. He’ll share each step in his professional progress, currently with goals to become an astronaut for future Mars missions. He’ll share how he continues to help foster the next generation of engineers and scientists.

“It is through opportunities like these that we can help end the economic disparity so prevalent among minorities in inner cities like the one I grew up in,” said Moss, who is from Miami. “Being selected as a fellow, I feel it is my responsibility to make sure that this opportunity does not end with me and to continue working to improve my community until stories like mine are no longer exceptions but the expectation.”

Publish date: March 2, 2021