Marleen Sundgaard laughs when she recalls the details of one of her two internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before she was eventually hired in 2016. "I counted rocks for an entire summer," she says. As one of the interns tasked with scouting out the landing site for the Phoenix mission to Mars, it was a tedious but important task – one that helped the spacecraft land safely on the Red Planet. These days, as the testbed lead for the InSight Mars lander and a future mission designed to orbit a metal asteroid, she's still making sure that spacecraft "stick their landings." But instead of counting rocks, she's working as a trainer of sorts for spacecraft, testing and practicing their every move, looking for issues that might arise and sometimes troubleshooting in a simulated environment millions of miles away from the real thing. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Sundgaard to learn more about her work as a JPL testbed engineer and how she hopes to set foot on Mars one day.
What do you do at JPL?
I am the testbed lead for the InSight Mars lander mission. We have a testbed here at JPL that has engineering models of the lander, the arm and all the instruments on InSight. I'm also the system testbed lead for the Psyche mission, which is going to explore a metal asteroid.
What does it mean to be the testbed lead and does your role vary between the two missions?
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They are very different, yeah. For the InSight testbed, we use the lander engineering model to test out all the sequences that use the arm and the instruments here on Earth before we try them on the surface of Mars. For example, when we were deploying the instruments at the beginning of the mission, we did a lot of testing to see what the arm would do when we picked up the instruments off the spacecraft deck, swung them around to the front, and then set them down at different tilt angles. During testing, we found that if we put an instrument down on an increasingly tilted surface, our placement error would increase. So we had to account for that when we were deploying onto tilts on Mars. In the testbed, we also have weight models of the instruments that we're using for deployment. Because Mars has 38 percent of the gravity of Earth, all the instruments deployed in the testbed need to match the weight they would be on Mars because the arm was built for Mars' gravity. To make things a little bit more realistic, we also have two cameras on the arm of the InSight testbed lander that are flight spares from the Curiosity rover. During testing, we used these cameras for analysis of what it would look like when we were actually deploying the instruments on the surface so when we got the pictures back from Mars, we could make sure they all looked right.
For the Psyche mission [which launches in 2022], our testbed is going to be mostly just computer racks. It's just computer racks, electronics boxes and instruments. We don't have any surface stuff because we're orbiting Psyche, so there's really no lab where we can kind of get our hands dirty. It's just going to be a lot of computer simulations and testing sequences through the computer systems on Psyche.
You mentioned sequences. Those are the commands that we will send from Earth to the spacecraft?
Yes. So the spacecraft team writes sequences, the arm team writes sequences, and the instruments teams write sequences. They bundle them all up into one big command load, and then we beam those up to Mars using the Deep Space Network.
What's your average day like?
There was a period of time when I was full-time on InSight, where we were doing a lot of the instrument-deployment testing, and we had a lot of test cases we needed to get done. The deployment team designed the test, the arm team wrote the sequences for the test, and then the testbed team prepared the test. What I mean by preparing is if the deployment team needed to set an instrument down on a 10-degree tilt, we would come into the testbed, and we would build that 10-degree tilt for testing the following day. We also tilted the lander itself. Every time we tilt the lander, we have to stow the arm. So we would stow the arm, move the lander around, un-stow the arm and then recalibrate the metrology cameras. Recalibrating the metrology cameras is important because they are what we use to precisely map a 3D space in our testbed. That's how we keep track of where we are in the testbed and where the ground is.
What is the ultimate goal of what you work on?
To do a lot of the work we want to do on Mars, we need to practice. Most of what we are doing has never been done before, so there are a lot of teams involved in these practice sessions. I try to keep them all on the same page. So many pieces of the science and engineering for these missions come together in the testbed. And those pieces will go on to be actual commands and sequences we run on Mars. We want to make sure we send sequences that have been perfected. There has been a lot of hard work and sweat put in by hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and they are relying on us to complete our part of the puzzle.
You first came to JPL as an intern. What was that experience like?
My first summer here at JPL, I was a Space Grant intern from Washington state. Me and about 11 other students worked for Andrew Gray in the Mission Architecture Group. Our task was to take a technical paper called "Safe on Mars" and figure out how you would implement all the steps it said would be required to land humans on Mars. We had to create a mission that would help us understand the surface of Mars and determine whether it was safe to send humans there. So we checked for toxins in the soil, and we designed a weather station and three landers that were based on the same design as the Phoenix Mars lander (which is also what InSight is based on). We simulated landing the spacecraft in two different areas of Mars and did all of our testing. The second mission we designed was called Spheres. It consisted of three big inflatable balloons that we would land on the surface of Mars. The balloons had a tube in the middle that could take instruments down and bring samples back up.
My project during my second summer at JPL is the one that gets the most laughs because I tell people that I counted rocks for the entire summer. We were trying to determine the probability of the Phoenix lander hitting a boulder upon landing. So we took a lot of Mars Global Surveyor images and determined that any objects that were a pixel wide were meter-wide boulders. Then we just counted pixels – thousands and thousands and thousands of pixels. That was an interesting summer. It was me and three other guys. So there were four of us on the team, just counting rocks to really nail down the probabilities.
What brought you to JPL for your internships?
As a kid I had a fascination with space, but I went to a really, really small high school. My graduating class was 48 kids – we were out in the boonies of Eastern Washington. I was a migrant farmer. I would go to Mexico every year, so I missed a lot of school. I was kind of behind in that sense. I got really good grades, but my high-school math only went up to pre-calculus, so my senior year, when I should have taken calculus, I just took an independent math study course. When I entered college, I was already a quarter behind. I don't think I really realized what JPL was till I got into college. Pathfinder had landed and then they launched the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, so it was kind of a big thing in the news at the time. I remember thinking, "I really want to work at JPL." So I applied for an internship, and I got it. There weren't a lot of places I wanted to work that summer. It was my third summer internship, but my first at JPL.
What moments or memories from your internships stand out most?
During my second summer internship, the four of us interns in the geology group got the chance to lead the Mars Exploration Rovers geology team for a week. Two interns took the Opportunity rover for a week and another intern and I took the Spirit rover for a week. We basically did all of the geology work for that one week on Mars. It was the summer of 2005, so the rovers had only been there for about a year. I remember we were naming rocks after ice-cream flavors. It was a lot of fun. That was probably my favorite week because I felt like I was really contributing to doing science on Mars.
How did your internships shape your career path and lead to what you're doing now?
I think having the internships really gave me a leg up when I was applying for jobs after college. They saw that I had research experience and work experience. When I graduated from the University of Washington in 2006, JPL wasn't hiring, so I went to work at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, doing assembly, test and launch operations, or ATLO, for satellites. I realized I really liked working with hardware and with my hands and on the actual equipment that would go to space. It gave me something to reach for later in my career, knowing that eventually JPL would start hiring again. I wanted to put myself in a position where getting a job at JPL wasn't going to be too much of a stretch.
Have you had your own interns?
Yeah, the testbed group had one intern last year. She wrote some scripts and helped us work some of the tests we were running. She was a lot of help. It was nice to show her the ropes here in the testbed and let her run stuff on the computers and run sequences.
What was your mentorship style?
We took her everywhere with us. She never really sat at her desk – she didn’t really have a desk. If we were going to a meeting, she came with us. If we were going to lunch, she came with us. If we're going to the testbed, she came with us. If we were going to super boring stuff that we didn't think she'd like, she still came with us. We wanted her to get the full experience of what we do here at JPL. She even came in and worked overnight with us in the testbed.
What's your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?
If you want to intern at JPL, you have to apply. A lot of people don't think they'll get an offer, but they don't even give it a try. We're looking for a lot of different types of people here at JPL. Trust us and yourself. We want people with a big passion for space who are willing to go the extra mile to make sure the work gets done and done correctly. You don't have to have a perfect SAT score or GPA to work here.
Now for the fun question: If you could play any role in NASA's mission to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars, what would it be?
I want to be the person stepping on the surface of Mars. When I was younger, my dream was to be the first person on Mars. When I realized that might not happen in my generation, my goal became being the first woman to step on the Moon. Now I'm finding I'm a little bit too young to be the first woman to walk on the Moon and too old to be the first woman to walk on Mars! I'm in that sweet spot – too young and too old at the same time. But, nevertheless, I've applied. I've applied for the Astronaut Corps three times. The first time I applied, I wasn't technically eligible. I had two years of work experience and you needed three as a minimum. The second time I applied was in 2012. The third time was 2016. I haven't been selected, but I have my rejection letters as keepsakes to know that I've tried and that I'm not there yet. When 2020 rolls around, I'll apply again. I would love nothing better than to be able to do the work that I do here on Mars.
This story is part of an ongoing series about the career paths and experiences of JPL scientists, engineers, and technologists who got their start as interns at the Southern California laboratory. › Read more from the series
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.