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Kyle Zahney

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory intern


Navajo Technical University student 




@cosmicskull2244 on Instagram 


This single father of three is on his way to the stars, by way of the cars.    

IWAK Kyle Zahney SQ (1).jpg
Building Guns Kyle Zahney
00:00 / 02:59
Physics Ranger Kyle Zahney
00:00 / 05:07


Having a child at 18 could have stopped Kyle cold. “I kind of had a bad relationship where I was the only one wanting to progress and do something with my life, not just sit around home. I worked to build myself up, but the other person didn’t want to. I was like, ‘I’ll do it myself.’ So after that I went straight into school. 



Not Smart Enough? 


"White Man's World" 

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Not Smart Enough? 

“Because of my ADHD,” Kyle says, “I really have a short memory span.” As a result, it took him four years to learn what he needs to know to go forward now. “I’m still learning more every single day.” Seems good, but “I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough, not good enough to straight into a science degree.” But Kyle knew he wanted to go all the way to his Ph.D. “Maybe my ADHD would act up, and I wouldn’t remember things,” he worried. He still stays he can’t remember all he wants to, that he has to keep looking at his notes. Getting the highest score in his college physics class surprised him; he really did think NASA was just a fantasy.  

How do you make the most of a chance like an internship at JPL? Looking back, Kyle sees that he was well-prepared, and not just by his independent study or college physics class. “I really like the fact that all this knowledge I had from Raytheon to building missiles to building guns, and especially from automotive tech., really came together. I started taking pieces and selection from everywhere I’d learned and just put it all together. I was really comfortable in the JPL environment. I didn’t need [adviser] Andy Flesh there most of the time to do what I needed to get done. I look forward to going back next year and seeing what we can build! 

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NASA JPL internships 


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Kyle has three sons under seven. “I want to make a good example for my children,” he says. His kids were excited that he was going to NASA. “That’s huge big motivation for me, being Navajo. I want to try to do something for my people. I want to try to use science to bring me to a level where I could talk to the young ones and the adults. There’s a lot out there in space that’s named Navajo; a lot of stories from our astrology matches up with what’s going on. We even have words for places on Mars that come from the Navajo language. NASA actually went to Arizona to get it finalized from the Navajo nation. I’m very glad that my kids have their elders with them, and they talk to them in Navajo. My boys are going to be probably just a few that are still learning the language.  

“White Man’s World” 

    It wasn’t just money that kept some Gateway students from becoming successful. Arpita learned from other scientists how it felt to have the impostor syndrome — and observed it firsthand with one Gateway student whose immediate response to the program was that they would never fit in, that they didn’t belong. “They were plainly in the zone where they were trying to identify where they were. They came into our construct and immediately pulled the plug. I didn’t even get to talk to them. And they didn’t talk to many people in the lab.” The experience saddened her. “This student didn’t give this experience a chance, but they love science — and this is where science is done.” Her advice: give something more than just one chance. That’s a responsibility that you have to take on yourself. Maybe — like some food — it’ll taste awful to you, but at least you’ll know.” 


When I ask Kyle what else I should know about his story, he tells me about meeting Aaron Yazzie, a Diné (Navajo) mechanical engineer at NASA JPL. “He kind of became my co-mentor [with Andy Klesh]. I was always with him, always trying to learn much about him. Out over there in California, there wasn’t a lot of Navajo stuff, but knowing he was there, I felt more comfortable. A little piece of home was there. He’s from Tuba City and Winslow, Arizona, and I know the area. We would talk about how the whole land looks like Mars.” 

Black Holes, etc. Kyle Zahney
00:00 / 03:32
Coyote Scatters the Stars Kyle Zahney
00:00 / 02:16
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