Van Pelt Goes from Photography to NASA


Tony Van Pelt has gone from an associate degree in photography to the skies, thanks to the Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS, or drones) program at Virginia Peninsula Community College and a unique internship opportunity at the NASA Langley Research Center.  

His story began in California, where he grew up, and extends to Wills Point, Texas, where he finished at Wills Point High School. Van Pelt joined the U.S. Navy in 1995, ultimately came to  Hampton Roads and exited the service in 2016. New prospects opened for him that year when he enrolled at the College.

A fascination with drones, his photography background, and an established connection to the College led the 2021 VPCC graduate to the sUAS program. Van Pelt was looking to upskill.

His decision was spot on. The program prepared him for an unanticipated yet prized internship at the NASA Langley Research Center. He started in September and will complete the internship in December, working for the Uninhabited Aerial Systems Operations Office as part of the Research Services Directorate.

“My knowledge of (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations and safety has made it a smooth transition to serving as a crew member for a NASA operation,” he noted, expressing how VPCC provided the footing for this opportunity.

He acknowledges that this internship program is not “standard.” He said his U.S. Navy submarine technical training made all the difference when he didn’t qualify for other internships. Still, VPCC was the gateway. 

“Internship opportunities were discussed in a class with Professor (Julie) Young. My art classes do not fit the technical subject matter requirements,” he explained, “but Dr. Liz Ward of NASA forwarded my resume to the UAS Operations Office. Based on my technical skills, Branch Head Matt Coldsnow asked for me to come work with them for 10 weeks.”

His role with the Uninhabited Aerial Systems Operations Office has been diverse and impactful. Responsibilities range from consulting on battery storage and maintenance to improving training programs and photographic equipment. He installs essential components, including autopilot systems, into RC fixed winged aircraft and helps facilitate discussions at operational and hazard meetings. He counts it all valuable and pointed out highlights.

“I have completed the majority of their training process to enable me to fly as a NASA certified remote pilot – if time/operations permit me (flying) time. I was designated as a visual observer for the planned flight in proximity to 40,000 Langley open house guests,” he said, noting that he is tabbed to install the electronics on a research plane for an upcoming project.

He finds the experience enriching.

"I'm absorbing knowledge from world-champion drone racers, understanding future drone industry trends and regulations, and enhancing my skills in drone maintenance and operation," he said.

In addition to aiming for sUAS pilot certification, Van Pelt hopes to get accepted in the competitive photography program at Virginia Commonwealth University.   

Although at a premium, free time finds the Hampton resident exploring special interests such as art, literature, and live music. Photography, he emphasized, tops the list.  

As Van Pelt prepares to complete his VPCC studies and graduate in spring 2024, he is excited to discover other ways his fine arts and technology skills will intersect in the future.