How One Bloc Alum is Building Robots for NASA’s Mission to Mars

Bloc alum Katelyn Hertel recently started a new job as a Q&A Engineer at Fastly. Before even enrolling in Bloc, Katelyn knew she wanted to work at Fastly and did everything she could to achieve this goal. Katelyn, like so many Bloc alumni, had the grit and focus needed to reach success.

We asked her a few questions about getting hired at Fastly, switching careers with Bloc, and the NASA Hackathon project she’s been working on.

Katelyn Hertel

Bloc: What were you doing before Bloc?

Katelyn: I was an undergrad at Seton Hall studying History and Classical Studies.

Bloc: Why did you end up enrolling in Bloc?

Katelyn: I knew I wanted to be a programmer, and I knew I wanted to work at Fastly. I had been going to every single one of the meetups they were at before I even started Bloc, to the point where I felt comfortable introducing myself to the employees and just making presence known. After building a solid connection with them, I started to look into bootcamps to gain the skills I needed. I really didn’t want to go to a classroom every single day (I hate classroom settings). Bloc was a great alternative and seemed perfect. Actually, my current boss’ boss told me about Bloc and told me it was what I needed to do in order to get a job at Fastly.

Bloc: So, you got the job. Do you love it? Tell us more about Fastly!

Katelyn: Fastly is a CDN, or content delivery network. Essentially on a site like Buzzfeed, when you load the website on your computer, we help deliver that content to your screen. Here is what sets Fastly apart from other CDN’s, and here’s a video with all of my bosses talking about Fastly. I love being a CSE (Customer Support Engineer) even though I am the only one in the NYC office right now!

Although I just started, I love it. Being a Customer Support Engineer, I’m exposed to every aspect of the company… that’s the benefit of the job. In 6 to 8 months, I’ll have my first review. If I’m interested in growing or moving into another role, I’ll have that opportunity. They also allow me to work on side projects, which has already been rewarding. I’ll be giving a tech talk to the Fastly employees next month on a Nasa project I’m working on.

Bloc: NASA Hackathon project?!

Katelyn: Yeah! I competed in the NASA Space Apps Challenge in Brooklyn, NY. and for our project, we built robots for NASA to send to Mars. We got second place internationally!! If we build a prototype that works, NASA will actually move forward with the robots. It’s crazy.

Bloc: How did you get involved in the hackathon? Was that your first one ever?
Katelyn: Yes, this was my first hackathon which makes winning all the more special. I had started going to meetups in NYC as suggested by my mentor, Brittany Martin. I was at a Women Who Code event where they encouraged us to attend hackathons. I did a search and I saw NASA was sponsoring and immediately signed up. You know how everyone has that one dream job that they will never have? Mine is to be an astronaut, so coding and building a project for NASA is the next best thing!

Bloc: What’s your role on the hackathon team? What technical skills are you employing?
Katelyn: So I was super nervous going into the hackathon. I felt underqualified and thought I’d just end up watching and learning from afar. I found my team but we didn’t really know what we were going to do. On our team we had a mechanical engineer, an origami artist/coder, and 3 computer coders (myself included).

Eventually when the details of our project became more clear I brought most of the Mars knowledge to the table. I’m secretly a huge space nerd. I was also in charge of documentation, testing, and social media presence. I had the goal of getting NASA’s attention before judging started, and I was successful. I had NASA executives all over the country interested in what our team was producing and I think this is a large part of why we won. There wasn’t much coding done during the actual hackathon, but that will be coming soon.

Bloc: What’s the next step with the Nasa project?
Katelyn: Because we came in second internationally NASA won’t fund the prototype. However, we have been invited to the Mars testing facility in Houston to test our prototype once it’s built. If it works successfully there, there is a good possibility NASA will build our robots and send them to Mars. So, right now we are looking for sponsors. We need about $10,000 to 3D scan and print our prototype plus purchase all the electronics that would go inside. From there we would start the actual coding of the robot and then bring it to Houston!

Bloc: What do the robots do? Any videos or website for the project out there where I can learn more?
Katelyn: Our robots are self-propelling origami robots that would create a mesh network on the surface of Mars. As of right now, there are 13 rovers on Mars but only 2 are active. Many of them failed because they wandered too far from their base and lost connection with Earth. Our robots would create a network across the planet so that a rover could never get too far from their base. Our robots will also have location tracking technology, weather tracking capabilities. If a bad dust storm is approaching our robots would alert the rovers so that they could power down properly and not risk getting their solar panels covered in dust which would put them out of order.

This is our project submission page on the NASA site
Here is the Tumblr I created and kept up after the competition ended
Here is our prototype working in the wind at the hackathon
Here’s us in action testing and documenting our progress and our Wireless Orientation Module in action

Bloc: That’s incredible. How did taking Bloc change your life?

Katelyn: I wouldn’t have gotten a job without Bloc. There’s so much room to grow within this company. Bloc made it all possible.



At Bloc, we’ve helped thousands of students change their lives and switch careers. We offer 100% online, mentor-led programs comparable to in-person bootcamps, and the results speak for themselves. Read alumni reviews of Bloc here.  #hacktheplanet

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone