Penn State physics student joins forces with NASA in Norway

'The Student Scoop' is an ongoing Q&A series from Penn State's Student Engagement Network

Penn State student Joshua Norfolk standing above the beach that's beside the Andøya Space Center. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joshua Norfolk, a physics major, is currently in his third year at Penn State. During his sophomore year, Joshua became involved with the Student Space Programs Laboratory (SSPL) — a program that allows undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to design, fabricate and integrate space systems. Since then, Joshua and his team were given the opportunity to travel all the way to Andøya, Norway, in order to work alongside NASA. Taylor Graham, a Student Engagement Network intern, had the chance to sit down and speak with Norfolk about his recent experience.

Q: How have you become involved here at Penn State as a physics major?
Norfolk: About two years ago, I was with one of my friends from class and we were sitting on a couch. He asked me if I wanted to join the Student Space Programs Laboratory and build a payload. I immediately thought it was cool because, of course, it was missile-related. While we wouldn’t work directly with a missile, it was still a good opportunity to work with these types of instruments, so I signed up and have been involved ever since.

Q: What work were you doing with the Student Space Programs Laboratory?
Norfolk: The project that my specific group was working on within the larger program is called G-Chaser; however, there are subsystems and groups of people working on different things. We’re currently studying a specific phenomenon that many people, even physicists, wouldn’t know about unless they were working on this particular project.

Q: Can you tell me more about G-Chaser?
Norfolk: It’s basically when electrons gather together in the atmosphere in layers for an unknown reason — and radio waves, when they go through it, just kind of bounce back sometimes due to the layering. It’s a type of scattering. We were trying to set up instruments to understand why the electrons layer that way. We worked with engineers to figure out what kind of data they would need to get for us to do our job most efficiently.

Q: How did your involvement with G-Chaser take you to Norway?
Norfolk: We heard about the conception of the NASA project as well as the launch date in Norway before we were even directly involved. It was more a question of “Do we want to go and be a part of this?” “Is it possible?” “Do we have the money?” I was able to go due to the grant I received from the Student Engagement Network. Eventually, a total of eight Penn State students figured out a way to go. We went for about a week and a half in January over Christmas break. We wanted to take advantage of an opportunity for us to take the research we had done for building payloads and incorporate it into an actual rocket.

Q: What was your role as you worked alongside NASA during this process?
Norfolk: We didn’t actually build the rocket since NASA already had it. What we flew on was a sounding rocket, which is a rocket that you put scientific instruments in that flies up and then comes back down. During the project, we built the payload — which was instruments hooked up to batteries — that NASA then put into the rocket.

Q: Who else did you get to work with in Norway?
Norfolk: Besides myself and the other Penn State students, there were seven other schools present. Some were from the United States, two were from Norway, one from Japan and another was from Puerto Rico. Even though we were from different parts of the world, the work aspect wasn’t very different; however, getting to know them and learn about where they came from was very cool.

Q: Aside from the experience with NASA, did you gain anything else from traveling abroad?
Norfolk: The trip showed me how much I enjoy climbing. The town we were in, Andøya, had mountain ranges all around. We would go and walk along the base of the mountains and eyeball it to see how we could get to the top. Sometimes we would get to the top, sometimes we wouldn’t. It was a blast no matter what. I had previously planned a trip to New Hampshire for mountaineering, which carried directly over from the non-technical mountaineering I did in Norway.

Q: How did this engagement trip impact you personally and professionally?
Norfolk: When I began G-Chaser two years ago, I wasn’t really sure whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school. It wasn’t until last summer during an internship that I started to figure out I should consider going if I want more opportunities. My experience in Norway reinforced and solidified the potential of graduate school for me.

Although I enjoyed my experience in Norway and the opportunity to work with atmospheric science, I have come to realize that it’s not something I want to do for my lifelong career. Through this experience, I realized that I was more interested in the project as a whole rather than just my specific role with programming. I definitely want to continue more in experimental physics, not just data analysis. Getting engaged has helped me to not only figure out what I want to do, but also to cross off the things I don’t want to do, which is just as important.

The Student Engagement Network

To learn more about previous grant awardees and their engagement experience stories, visit

Additional details about the grant program, including eligibility requirements and instructions on how to submit an application, can be found at

The Student Engagement Network is a joint initiative between Undergraduate EducationStudent Affairs and Outreach and Online Education. The network’s mission is to advance the power of participation by connecting students with experiences that empower them to make a positive impact and become leaders of the world.

For more information about the Student Engagement Network, visit or email

Last Updated April 22, 2019