Engineering major aiming for career at JPL/NASA
Kelly Behlen, 42, is earning her Associate of Science (A.S.) in Engineering Fundamentals at Inver Hills Community College. Kelly is on track to graduate from Inver Hills in June 2023 with plans to transfer to the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota.
“I plan on studying either aerospace or mechanical engineering,” she said. “I am uncertain at this point—possibly mechatronics engineering for robotics, as I love Lunar/Mars rover research.”
Kelly is an exceptionally engaged student on the Inver Hills campus. She participates in Student Senate and serves on the Student Outreach and Search Advisory committees. She is co-president of Math Club and Engineering Club and will serve as a student ambassador to the U.S. Congress in March 2022.
Kelly’s plans for after college are centered on building a career in the aerospace industry. Her goal is to work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Mars and Lunar rover projects. JPL is funded by NASA and managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
What inspired you to study engineering at Inver Hills?
On January 28 1986, Kelly Behlen was a child when she watched the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger on television. The mission ended in disaster when the shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven crew members.
“I watched STS-51-L on TV live. The Challenger was on the launchpad. I was transfixed by what I saw; it was raw power and majesty. The next few minutes were very complex for me as a 6 year old. But I vowed to myself that one day I would be a part of the NASA legacy.
“I didn’t understand what happened later in that flight, but the launch of the Challenger Shuttle set me on a path I have dreamt about my entire life. Now, though, it’s a bittersweet memory, as I grew up and came to learn about the fate of the mission.
“My grandmother worked for Honeywell on the stabilization and control system for the Apollo 11 program. Someday, I want my family to have the same pride for me that I do for her.”
Inver Hills Community College
NASA learning experiences
Kelly is actively gaining valuable experience for her future career. She is the principal member of an Inver Hills student engineering team, Everyday, that is building high-powered rockets for a NASA competition.
“The team is actually working on three separate rockets,” Kelly said. “They range from five to seven feet in height, and will fly anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 feet high. Our most notable rocket will cause a sonic boom as it punches through the sound barrier going 844 miles per hour, or more than Mach 1.1.”
Kelly added that competition rules placed very heavy constraints on one rocket build—what type of kit, what modifications allowed, what exact motor the team could use, and more.
“Another rocket has to be built solo by me as a competency check for the team,” she said, “so I have to really do a good job there. Our third rocket is a mostly free of constraints—that’s our Mach 1.1 fiberglass rocket. Our team will be taking part in NASA’s Space Grant Midwest High-Power Rocketry Competition in May 2022. That’s where we’ll be firing off our three rockets in competition.”
Kelly recently created a lunar rover model using computer-aided design (CAD) software while participating in NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS), an interactive, online program that includes a visit to a NASA center.
“The NCAS program is now a multi-mission program,” she said. “If you complete Mission 1 and are invited back and complete Mission 2, you are then invited to a five-day, onsite stay at a NASA facility of your choosing to work side by side with NASA staff.”
Kelly has been invited back for Mission 2, and she’s awaiting the mission start date in early April. She is confident she will be invited back for Mission 3 and a visit to a NASA center.
Kelly’s Mission 1 project involved creating a Mission Report on magnetic field induction through hot plasma events caused by hypervelocity micrometeorite impacts in conjunction with radio frequency bursts. Creating a coherent, original, and highly detailed mission from scratch required a tremendous amount of hard work.
As part of her Mission Report, Kelly developed a lunar rover for R.E.P.O.S.E. 2021, or Radio Emissions and Plasma Observation/Sampling Expedition. Her rover is designed to help us understand magnetic fields on the lunar surface through data collection and correlation among various instrumentation.
“R.E.P.O.S.E. 2021 was fully designed by me, including the mission constraints, objectives, and even the mission’s name,” Kelly said. “It’s not easy making a mission name that also ties in with the word ‘tranquility,’ and relates back to the first human base on the Moon!” 🙂
Kelly is currently working as the lead mechanical engineer on a project for NASA L’SPACE, or Lucy Student Pipeline Accelerator and Competency Enabler Virtual Academy. Lucy is a NASA probe slated to explore the Trojans, a large group of asteroids near the planet Jupiter.
Kelly explained that the Trojan asteroids fly before and after Jupiter in what’s called Lagrange space—that’s an area of space with a zero-sum gravitational pull situation. The Trojans fly in the L4 and L5 areas before and after Jupiter, never gaining on it, never falling behind it.
“We’re doing an incredibly similar project as to what I already did by myself in Aerospace Scholars,” Kelly reported, “however, it’s going quite a bit deeper with an 11-person team.”
More about Kelly…
Originally from Fridley, Minnesota, Kelly graduated from Fridley High School, Class of 1998. Before enrolling as an engineering major at Inver Hills, she found success on four diverse career paths, first as a banker at U.S. Bank and then as an e-commerce support specialist for Qwest Communications.
She then studied to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) with the American Red Cross (ARC). She served as an EMS volunteer on an ARC EMS team before becoming a team lead and then an EMS instructor. Kelly eventually served as the EMS team coordinator for the entire ARC EMS service in Minnesota.
Following her time with the American Red Cross, Kelly served as a postal carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. She worked out of St. Paul, Minnesota, and completed winter tours in Williston, North Dakota, and at Minot Air Force Base during the Bakken Oil Field booms.
Periodically, her North Dakota job required her to put in 17-hour days with the average around 11 hours. She could sometimes walk up to 18 miles in a shift.
“I remember my first day in North Dakota,” Kelly said. “I had been in-state less than nine hours—most of that time asleep. My day started at 6 a.m. and went until 12:30 a.m. the next day. Imagine being in a blizzard two days before Christmas, after midnight, with a headlamp the only means to light your way. You’re holding a map issued by the tourism board while 15 m.p.h. winds attempts to tug it away from you in negative 12-degree weather. That was day one.”
Kelly Behlen gallery
Kelly is engaged to be married and her fiancé is also named Kelly. Their family has five rescue cats, Mayo, Toast, Biscuit, Mochi, and Chai, and one rescue dog, Olive.
“There may be a theme there,” Kelly said.
When she’s not working on engineering projects or participating in campus extracurricular activities, Kelly enjoys gaming, 3D modeling, and reading. For games, she likes pretty much any game that catches her eye—the more in-depth the better. Rich lore or deep gameplay are important. Regarding CAD programs, she is adept at AutoDesk Fusion 360 and also learning Siemens NX.
“I like reading sci-fi and fantasy novels,” she said. “I don’t like reading about the here and now in our own world.”
When asked if she works while going college, Kelly said, “Oh, heck no! I barely have time to sleep! Some nights I just study/work through the night, literally.”
Kelly resides with her family in South St. Paul, Minnesota.
Kelly Behlen • Q & A
What do you enjoy most about studying engineering?
About studying engineering? Not a whole lot. About doing engineering? Everything! Problem solving really is the thing I was meant to do in life.
What advice would you give students thinking about majoring in engineering?
Inver Hills has a really great engineering program, and the engineering chair, Joan Carter, will do just about anything to make sure you have the tools to succeed. Follow her guidance and your advisor’s roadmap for transferring to a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (B.S.E.) program, and you’ll be on the road to success.
Which of the four main branches of engineering—chemical, civil, electrical, or mechanical—interests you the most and why?
Mechanical. Out of those four it’s 100 percent of my interest. If you were to add aerospace into the mix, it would skew about two-thirds mechanical and one-third aerospace.
Three words that describe you as a college student:
DRIVEN. HELPFUL. EXACTING.
What are your greatest strengths as a future engineer?
An intuitive grasp of mechanical workings in three-dimensional space. Innate intellect. And, the ability to really put the work in when those other two strength utterly fail me!
Why is engineering one of the best resources for meeting global challenges such as habitat loss, water scarcity, ocean conservation, and food security?
Nearly everything you use in your daily life has been influenced by engineers. The computer you’re reading this article on, the desk that computer sits on, the car you took to get to the office that houses your desk.
Engineers have the experience and understanding to help deal with problems big and small, and our current global challenges are no exception.
Here are some examples:
- A chemical engineer may develop a new material that helps with solar energy uptake;
- An electrical engineer may assist with creating an efficient wiring system to harness a large percentage of that energy;
- A mechanical engineer might help design a clever way to make sure that the solar array maintains correct alignment with the sun throughout the daylight hours, thereby making fossil fuels that much more obsolete.
Where do you hope to find yourself in 20 years?
I hope not to find myself in 20 years, or time travel has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Barring time travel, I hope to be designing mission materials for Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA.
What person has influenced your life the most and why?
My fiancé, Kelly, quite honestly. She’s helped me understand that I fully have the capacity to chase my dreams, and that not trying at all will fail to accomplish anything 100 percent of the time.
One word that best describes your experience at Inver Hills:
Kelly Behlen • 12 Answers
- Favorite physical activity: Sleeping
- Place you would most like to visit: Marrakesh, Morocco
- The most exciting thing you’ve ever done: It’s honestly quite a list; I think I’ll have to go with working in the Bakken Oil Fields in the northwest corner of North Dakota; I spent nine months out there split between Williston and Minot over two winters working as a USPS mail carrier in brutally cold conditions; I was stationed at Minot Air Force Base and Missile Command, where I was unwittingly part of a bomb recovery exercise complete with an explosives ordinance bot and a guy in a bomb suit.
- Three things you would do if you won a $1 billion lottery: 1) Set up my fiancé and me through retirement 2) Put $10 million into a compounding interest account 3) Donate the rest
- Best book you’ve read lately: Sophie’s World—Jostein Gaarder, an absolutely amazing Norwegian author
- Time period you would explore if you could time travel: Something in the future where humanity has things together, and we work as one people to expand to the stars.
- One thing you most want to accomplish in life: That I did everything I could to help humanity
- Your national bird if you were your own country: The nightjar—because…look at it!
- Dream occupation: Mechanical engineer: JPL/NASA
- Person you would most like to meet: Jostein Gaarder
- Skill you would most like to learn and master: Ability to implicitly understand any math calculation
- Most important issue or problem facing humankind: Division—we spend so much time working against each other that we forget to work for each other.
Learn more about Engineering Fundamentals at Inver Hills by contacting:
Joan Carter, PE (MN, IA, CA)
Learn more about Student Life at Inver Hills by contacting:
Nicki Bottko Woods
Associate Director of Student Life
More about Engineering at Inver Hills…
The Engineering department at Inver Hills stands out as a wise starting point if you are interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering branches such as civil, electrical, mechanical, chemical, and more at the following universities:
By earning your A.S. in Engineering Fundamentals at Inver Hills, you will be prepared for transfer with junior-year status to a four-year college or university to complete your bachelor’s degree. Your two-year foundation will allow you to select your specialization from a wide range of engineering branches.
The program covers courses typically offered in freshman and sophomore years of an accredited engineering curriculum in the United States. As an Inver Hills engineering student, you should stay informed regarding the rules and requirements of the engineering department at the four-year college or university where you plan to transfer.
Why study engineering at Inver Hills?
Why attend Inver Hills?
Engineering is the backbone of civilization.
Engineering and engineers deliver the groundwork for future advancements across the board, including such sectors as transportation, water resources, urban planning, the construction industry, the environment, energy production, infrastructure, and much more.
Skill up for a powerful career.
As an engineering major at Inver Hills, you’ll acquire a full range of knowledge and skills, ranging from structural analysis to teamwork to data modeling to pressure management to problem-solving. As a bonus, the skill set you assemble is fully transferrable to other career fields.
Help give humankind a bright future.
Some problems seem almost too big to handle. Think climate change with associated wildfires, flooding, and hurricanes, overpopulation with associated famine and resource depletion, pandemics with associated fatalities and economic collapse. Never mind mentioning the unknown unknowns. Engineers of all kinds are renowned for their ability to think outside any box.
Evaluate a vast catalog of career options.
Engineering majors can choose from a huge variety rewarding occupations directly related to their education. Just a sampling of intriguing careers options include aerospace engineer, ceramics engineer, geological engineer, logistics engineer, marine engineer, materials engineer, nuclear engineer, R & D engineer, security engineer, turbine engineer, and many more.
Work on the front lines of technology.
Engineering is a legacy tree with five main branches: chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical, and bioengineering. Engineers are the cornerstones of state-of-the-science projects focused on aviation, space travel, renewable energy, telecommunications, robotics, sustainability, climate, megascale construction, and much more. What will take shape as engineering’s next big thing?
Make life safer, easier, smarter, happier, and ever honorable.
As an engineering student, you’ll be making headway toward a career that can have remarkably positive effects on our day-to-day lives. Geared for innovation, engineers are engines for advancement in healthcare, technology, transport, and other key sectors of society. Ethical engineering applies a longstanding code of professional behavior that always puts people first.
Visit Engineering to learn more.
Design, construct, and test aircraft.
This is a very high-wage career that pays well above the statewide median of $23.00/hour
Seven-county Twin Cities metro
This career is seeing very high growth compared to other careers. Growth rate in the Minnesota is 12.4 percent.
There will be a need for about 247 new Aerospace Engineers to meet market demand between 2018–2028. This includes the demand due to replacement (workers leaving the occupation or retiring) as well as growth.