Michela Muñoz Fernández stands on the dish of one of NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas in Goldstone, California

It started as a technology test mission, but NASA's Deep Space 1 had become much more. In 1999, having already made a historic up-close encounter with asteroid 9669 Braille, the "spacecraft that could" was being pushed ever further with an extended mission to encounter two comets in a single year.

But in November of that year, something went wrong. The star tracker, a device that acts as a sort of spacecraft compass, failed, rendering the craft blind in the stellar abyss with no way of relaying its valuable reserve of science data back to Earth.

For Michela Muñoz Fernández, it was a chance to do something big.

In February 2000, Muñoz Fernández, then a master's student at France's International Space University, arrived at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the start of her three-month internship. Her task was to help analyze communications between Deep Space 1 and the ground stations that make up NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) -- a global system of powerful antennas for spacecraft communication and navigation.

As the NASA lab that had pioneered deep space communication and managed the DSN, JPL was a mecca for aspiring telecommunications engineers like Muñoz Fernández.

"My dream was always to work on telecom, doing telecom analysis for a deep space mission," said Muñoz Fernández, who before starting her master's program had worked for the company that manages the DSN complex in her native Madrid. "So for me, it was like a dream to work on Deep Space 1."

Her dream quickly evolved into a career's worth of real-world experience when, soon after starting her internship, she was thrust into a team tasked with wrenching the science data from the wayward Deep Space 1 and potentially rescuing the mission altogether.

Working with her mentor, Jim Taylor, and the flight team, Muñoz Fernández and the group quickly devised a strategy. If mission controllers could temporarily point the spacecraft close enough toward Earth, the telecom team could send commands through the spacecraft's high-gain antenna. The strategy required that Muñoz Fernández and Taylor analyze the signals coming from the spacecraft and send commands during the small window when the antenna was pointed toward Earth. If all went according to plan, a new software package would be radioed to the spacecraft instructing it to use its onboard camera as a de facto navigation tool.

"Initially, the probability of getting the high-gain antenna pointed on Earth and keeping it there for a typical communications pass was significantly below 50 percent," said Marc Rayman, who at the time was Deep Space 1's Mission Manager. "But there were two mottos I tried to get the team to adopt: 'If it isn't impossible, it isn't worth doing,' and, 'Never give up. Never surrender.' I took the second one from the movie 'Galaxy Quest.'"

The plan worked. In 2001, Deep Space 1 made a successful flyby of comet Borrelly, snapping hundreds of up-close photos of the comet. And the operation to save the mission went down as one of the most successful robotic spacecraft rescues in history.

"I got so much done in three months. It's unbelievable what we got accomplished," said Muñoz Fernández.

Having been accepted to a doctoral program at Caltech just before the start of her JPL internship, Muñoz Fernández carried the momentum from her experience into earning her doctorate in optical communications. When she came back to JPL in 2006, she was hired as a flight and project systems engineer for the Space Interferometry Mission.

These days, she divides her time between a busy schedule of research in deep space communications, techniques for model-based systems engineering for NASA missions, and task managing information architecture standards for space systems. And she says the lessons from her internship still play an essential role in her work - as does the mentoring she received from Taylor and Kar-Ming Cheung.

"I had the best mentors, that's for sure," said Muñoz Fernández. "You work with many different people, and I realize how fortunate I was that the first time I came here, I got to work with these amazing people - not just nice people, but so knowledgeable technically."

This summer Muñoz Fernández is preparing to mentor her own students, and she says she has plenty of advice from her experience to pass along to the next generation.

"It's exciting to be able to teach new generations the knowledge that you have," she said. "And it's not only that the student learns from the mentor, but the mentor can also learn from the student. They can think of something that someone who was working here for a long time didn't think about because they come with a new perspective."

Michela Munoz Fernandez in JPL mission control with a model of the Juno spacecraftDr. Michela Muñoz Fernández is a principal investigator at JPL. She has also worked as a systems engineer and science payload engineer on instruments and operations for the Juno mission. She currently directs research for model-based systems engineering for NASA space missions, is a task manager for information and architecture standards, conducts research on optical communications in deep space, and studies the complexity of DSN links.

TAGS: Deep Space Network, Deep Space 1, Internships & Fellowships, Career Guidance, Women in STEM

  • Kim Orr