With two internship experiences already under their belts, undergraduates Alex Perlman ’23 and Cole Kuehmann ’22 are set to return to the pioneering space-transportation company for a third summer in 2022.

Over the past two summers, Lehigh engineers Alex Perlman ’23 and Cole Kuehmann ’22 have interned at SpaceX, gaining hands-on experience in the aerospace industry while working at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Founded in 2002, SpaceX is paving the way for commercial spaceflight through the manufacturing of rockets and spacecraft.

Perlman, a mechanical engineering major in Lehigh’s Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) honors program, has aspirations to become an aerospace engineer. Kuehmann is a materials science and engineering major with his sights set on continuing in the field in graduate school. 

Both are planning to return to SpaceX as interns next summer. Before they do, they gave us the scoop on what it is like to gain real-world experience at one of the world’s most influential companies

What types of projects did you work on and what were your roles? 

Cole Kuehmann: “I was an intern for the Build Reliability department, specifically working in metrology [the scientific study of measurement]. With this department, I developed a lot of internal tools for SpaceX. Rather than taking part in physical design or construction, I instead worked on bettering the reliability of the rockets by working with internal design tools. For example, if a design issue was found, I would make a tool that made it easy to test for the problem in the building process. I also worked on other cooperative projects with other departments and research teams due to my background in materials.”

Alex Perlman: “My primary role was working on the SpaceX Dragon—the capsule that was launched into orbit to resupply the International Space Station. I’ve primarily worked on the Integration Team, where employees are responsible for the final build of the vehicle. All of the subassemblies are put together and shipped out as a capsule to the launch facility. The Integration Team does a lot of planning for the technicians and the production floor. So during my first time interning at SpaceX, I was mostly making process improvements. I would design manufacturer tools to help with production, as well as make larger process improvements to find new ways to, for example, cut down labor hours. I did a lot of the actual planning for certain operations. Then, this past summer, I did a lot more actual floor support. I acted as the primary point of contact for the floor during certain parts of the build. It was really cool because I was treated like a full-time engineer. I’ve also worked on the Starship Nose Cone Team, as well as the Booster Build Team.”

What did you learn at Lehigh that you put into practice during your internship? 

C. K. “I’m part of the Phi Sigma Pi (PSP) honor fraternity, where I’ve learned how to lead a group—including when to talk and when not to. For coordination and development, meetings tend to ask for everyone’s input and opinion, and it is really easy to say exactly what you are personally thinking about in regards to the topic. The difficulty is listening to everyone else and interpreting their opinion. In short, ensure your words have value to them everytime you talk. As otherwise it becomes repetitive, prolongs discussions, and people may not see as much value in your opinion the next time you speak up. To add to that, there are definitely instances when you’re working with other departments that, for example, might not speak in computer science terms. Working with PSP strengthened my skills in communicating with people from various majors. It gave me the opportunity to learn with them and see how they think. PSP has definitely helped me understand where my part is in the corporate atmosphere.”

A. P. “I’ve gained a lot of hands-on experience through Lehigh’s Aerospace Club. In the real world, there’s not always a definitive answer, so you have to work as a team to come up with something new and innovative. I had been interested in aerospace for a long time, so I was looking for a chance to get my hands dirty and take part in an interesting project outside of school. For me, the Aerospace Club made sense. I was always interested in military history and, being more mechanically inclined, I was drawn to the aviation side of military aircraft. Then, I had a paradigm shift where I was uncertain about building something that could be used to wage war. I was always really interested in space, and it just made sense to me to take the space route.”

Could you describe some of the successes you had and the challenges you faced at SpaceX? 

A. P. “In terms of challenges, the pace at SpaceX was an adjustment. In school, you’re used to having standard deadlines for homework, and definitive answers, at least for an engineer. But in the real world, you’re left to your own devices to come up with something novel. Deadline-wise, there were times when I would have multiple projects on my plate, and I had to learn how to prioritize them or to say no to certain things. It’s still hard for me to say no and to recognize when I don’t have the bandwidth. At SpaceX, there’s always something that needs to be done.”

C. K. “I found success in learning how best to work in a corporate atmosphere and taking on responsibilities that I can be proud of. SpaceX shares reviews of their interns, and that feedback has helped me further myself in areas that there may not be classes for, such as how best to participate in meetings and how to make sure that anything you contribute adds worth and weight to a discussion. Additionally, SpaceX gave me the support necessary to finish my projects, continuously escalating the difficulty of my work to eventually reach levels similar to what any other full-time employee would be taking on. The sense of camaraderie on a successful project is very addicting in its own way.”

What was it like meeting Lehigh electrical engineering alum Scott Willoughby ’89 at Northrop Grumman and having the opportunity to see the James Webb Space Telescope?

A. P. “A couple of summers ago, Cole and I were able to leave work early at SpaceX and meet Scott through Lehigh’s alumni network. He walked us to a massive room where they kept the telescope. We were looking at a project that’s been in the works for almost two decades. It will be going out into deep space, allowing humans to see almost all of history as we know it. That was an unreal experience. For a space nerd like me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

What did you ultimately take away from your experience at SpaceX? 

C. K. “I’ve taken away that you can learn anything by trade, assuming you have enough interest and care to really dig into it. To a certain extent, I went into a department that I didn’t know much about. I’m not a mechanical engineer, so I don’t know a lot about the direct building of structures, and my statistics background wasn’t that strong either. But, I managed to find my way there and show my worth.”

What are you looking forward to next year when you return to SpaceX? 

C. K. “A lot of what I’m looking forward to is the community at SpaceX. The work can be challenging, but the environment is very similar to Lehigh in some ways. Lehigh has the “work hard, play hard” mentality, and I can say it’s not too different in California. While SpaceX has a much more corporate atmosphere, it’s similar to Lehigh in that the work is going to be difficult but in such a way that it’s definitely worth the effort.”

What are your main goals for the future?

A. P. “My goal is to get a full-time position with SpaceX. Right about when I’m graduating, within the next year or two, NASA’s Artemis program will be fully underway, and SpaceX is going to have a really large role within it. I really want to be a part of that. I feel like it’s something I could tell my grandkids about—how I’d imagine people who worked on the Apollo program felt. Going even beyond that, the Mars mission is something that I want to see in my lifetime, and I really want to work to make that a reality, maybe even one day go there myself.” 

C. K. “I plan on going to graduate school for materials science. But, having said that, I’ve definitely learned a lot at SpaceX to the point where I’m definitely interested in taking another position there, depending on where my interest is and where my education goes.”

—Interview by Deirdre Kelshaw ’22, a student writer for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science


Alex Perlman ’23

Integrated Business and Engineering student Alex Perlman ’23

Cole Kuehmann

Materials science and engineering student Cole Kuehmann ’22

Cole Kuehmann