December 6, 2002
It doesn't take long in a conversation with Sophia Malloy to know that she is an organized person. It's not just because her job with two ocean-observing missions requires it. She has applied the same talents for planning and organization that she uses at JPL to her home life, a second career in the military and a variety of community activities.
Malloy leads the mission planning and sequence team for the joint U.S.-French Topex/Poseidon satellite and its follow-on Jason-1, which launched a year ago on December 7. "We do both long-range and short-range planning for the missions," she says. "Without planning, the scientists couldn't get a product."
Malloy and her three colleagues are responsible for telling the satellites and their ground stations what to do and when to do it through a series of sequences, or commands. These commands control when the ground stations send information to the satellites and tell the satellites when to play back the data they have collected to the ground stations. They also contain instructions for any fine-tuning orbit changes the spacecraft may need to make.
"For Topex/Poseidon, we get our information from the satellite performance analysis team," says Malloy. "They're responsible for making sure the satellite and its instruments are working well. They let us know about any special requirements they have or tests they want to run and we incorporate the commands into the sequences. It is the same process for Jason-1, but we get our directions from the French space agency."
There's no room for error, so planning ahead is essential. Even though much of the sequence-development process has been automated, the team still has to write some software and test every sequence before it is used. "We work on sequences three weeks in advance," says Malloy. "Two weeks out is 'strawman,' one week before is 'forecast,' and 'real time' is now."
It's no surprise that Malloy plans as if preparing for a military campaign. When she hasn't been working for NASA, she's been in U.S. Air Force. For many years, she did both.
Born and raised in Maryland, Malloy was one of ten children. "You missed dinner, that was it," she says. "My mother-that woman was organized. Some of it may have rubbed off on me."
She started her NASA career with a job at Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center. "I got into working in space on a fluke. I went for an interview at Goddard and was hired."
A few years later she enlisted in the Air Force. "I wanted to find my niche," Malloy says. "I went into ground radio maintenance. Basically we worked on radios in airplanes. It was not a lady's job," she jokes. Later, she moved into education and training. "My last job was as a training technician. I could go into any unit and set up a training program on any career field."
Remaining in the Air Force reserves, she returned to Goddard after three years of active duty. She earned her bachelor's degree in business administration while working full-time, doing reserve duty several weekends a month, and raising her son Jermaine on her own. "Doing all that, you learn how to put things into perspective," says Malloy, "You have to be organized."
She made the move to JPL in 1989, working first as a resource allocations planner with the Deep Space Network, scheduling time for the Pioneer spacecraft to communicate with the ground stations. She joined the Topex/Poseidon team before the satellite began its mission mapping the ocean's surface in 1992. "I love my job," says Malloy. "I like the whole planning process." Last year, after serving 21 years in the Air Force, she retired as a master sergeant.
Outside of work, she stays busy with community activities. "I'm a mentor mom," Malloy says, "I go into high schools and talk about the wonderful opportunities that are available for young people. I work with a program started by Colin Powell to help keep students in school." She also volunteers with senior citizens in her church.
For fun, she draws, paints and exercises. "I'm a jock," says Malloy, who runs several miles each day.
Her next goal is to get her master's degree in business management. Her son, now 22, is in college and hopes to be a dentist. "He's my inspiration," says Malloy. "He says 'Go for it, Mom."