January 01, 2001
Wright works on a variety of JPL missions, making sure spacecraft perform efficiently in space.
As a little girl growing up in Pasadena, California, Shonte Wright was awed by the magnificent spacecraft she saw during school trips to the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. By the fifth grade, Wright knew she wanted to become an engineer. Nowadays, she designs and tests spacecraft hardware to protect it from the extreme temperatures in space.
These days, it's also her turn to inspire. Wright is a mentor at local schools, sharing the wonders of engineering. Her current volunteer job is to advise a local team participating in FIRST, a NASA-sponsored nationwide robotics competition for high school students.
Q: What does a thermal engineer do?
A: Thermal engineers perform a variety of different tasks. Here at JPL, the primary goal of thermal engineers is to ensure that all of the items on a spacecraft are maintained within allowable flight temperature limits while making minimal use of spacecraft resources. In light of this goal, thermal engineers find ways to use "waste heat" like the heat dissipated by power sources and electronics, to keep the spacecraft warm.
Q: What is your current project?
A: Presently, I'm involved in the thermal systems engineering effort on the Mars Exploration Rover [scheduled for launch in 2003]. My job is to gather, maintain and present information regarding thermal hardware such as heaters, thermostats and the heat rejection system.
Q: How does your work fit in with an overall mission?
A: Thermal control is critical to mission success. For instance, if an instrument's temperature range is not properly controlled, it may be unable to perform the task for which it was intended.
Q: Did you always want to be an engineer?
A: Yes. I was in the fifth grade when I decided I wanted to be an engineer. My mom worked for Lockheed Martin [then known as Lockheed] and always brought home pictures of planes. Living in Pasadena also had an influence on me since my school took several field trips to JPL. As an undergraduate student, I particularly enjoyed my thermodynamics and heat transfer classes and decided to purse graduate work in that area.
Q: You do a lot of community work with kids. What do you love most about working with them?
A: Kids are so enthusiastic. Most of them don't have preconceived notions about anything and are open to learning new things. I love to mentor and tutor kids. When I attended John Muir High School in Pasadena, several JPL engineers tutored and mentored a group of us students during our lunch hour, a few days a week. They talked to us about life and career choices. I am so grateful to all of them. Upon graduation, I asked one of the tutors what I could do to repay him and he said, "Do the same thing for someone else." I really took it to heart and have been very involved in the community ever since.
Q: What's the best advice you'd give to young people pursuing your field?
A: Stay in school and have dreams. Also, take as many relevant math and science courses as possible. I would also like for them to realize that they don't have to give up their options in pursuit of their dreams. Say, for instance, a kid wants to be an animator, well engineers in the aerospace industry use many of the same tools used for animation. The skills acquired to fulfill a dream in one career direction could be used for a career in a completely different direction, should his or her interest change.
Lastly, if you're on an athletic scholarship, you should take advantage of the opportunity and get your degree. Don't take on the mindset that you're there merely for the athletics. I often reference one of my favorite movies, "The Program." In the movie, a character named Mack didn't take advantage of the education that was offered to him because he believed that he was going to play professional football. However, he severely injured his leg and was no longer able to play, and he had no education to fall back on. Don't do what Mack did, always give yourself options.