Worldwide Grad Explores Human Side of Spaceflight

Nicole Schoenstein completed the M.S. in Human Factors after landing her job at NASA Johnson Space Center as a Human Factors Engineer.

M.S. in Human Factors student Nicole Schoenstein
M.S. in Human Factors grad Nicole Schoenstein (Photo: Nicole Schoenstein)

Growing up in New Jersey, working at NASA wasn’t always the plan for M.S. in Human Factors (MSHF) alumna Nicole Schoenstein (‘20). However, when she participated in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, she had an “aha” moment and it became her top career goal.

The NCAS program helped her decide on a major and figure out how to apply her education to a position at NASA. From community college, Schoenstein went on to earn a B.S. in Psychology at Stockton University, with minors in Behavioral Neuroscience and Gerontology.

While earning her bachelor’s degree, she was also completing her third internship at NASA Johnson Space Center. One day she was asked to interview for a full-time human factors position, and was selected for the role she currently holds as a Human Factors Engineer.

Since a master’s degree is often standard within the field, she said that continuing her education would be a long-term benefit to her career. After researching options, she discovered the MSHF offered at Embry-Riddle Worldwide and joined the program.

Given her line of work, Schoenstein tried to apply space-related research into any assignments she could. She particularly enjoyed the coursework in her Research Methods and Virtual Environments, Simulation and Robotics classes.

“The Virtual Environments course was a mix of research and hands-on,” she said. “I really liked the fact that they had the mishap investigation computer-based simulator, as I’ve done some close-call event investigation at work. So it was up my alley, but it allowed me to see it from a different perspective.”

For her capstone, she decided to research human factors considerations for deep space missions using data from the Mars500 Study, which simulated a mission to, on and from Mars. Through her analysis, she drew conclusions on how factors such as workload, team dynamics, individual dynamics, habitability and food influence crewmembers.

As a Human Factors Engineer, a big part of her job is collecting feedback data from crews when they return from the International Space Station, when they are on-board and occasionally pre-flight.

The data points can range from topics such as health and food to robotics and training.

“We collect the data, clean it up, categorize it, put it in a database and share the information with those who will help to improve designs, habitats or training in the future,” Schoenstein said. “So it’s really about understanding the human element in terms of working and living in space.”

In addition to this role, she also volunteers for the NCAS program that initially sparked her interest in joining the team at NASA. She encourages fellow ERAU students to participate in volunteer work, and to be as involved as possible while in school.