Side-by-side images of Clara Ma, wearing braces, in 2009 posing for a picture in front of a Curiosity rover model and Ma in 2019 posing for a photo in Europe

Students have just over one week more to enter NASA’s Name the Rover Essay Contest. While they put the finishing touches on their essays (due Nov. 1, 2019), meet the most recent naming contest winner, Clara Ma. Find out what Ma is up to more than 10 years after submitting her winning name for the Mars rover now known as Curiosity and why she says the experience changed her life.

› Read more on JPL News

› Find related resources for educators

 

TAGS: Curiosity, Rover, Contest, Mars, Students, K-12, Teachers, Language Arts, Essay

  • Kim Orr
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Michelle Vo poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL.

Michelle Vo poses for a photo in front of a full-size model of the Curiosity Mars rover at JPL.

Until she discovered game development, Michelle Vo’s daydreams were a problem. She couldn’t focus in her computer science classes. Her grades were dipping. She wondered whether she was cut out to be a programmer or for school at all. So she took a break to make something just for fun, a self-help game. And help her, it did. Now focusing on virtual and augmented reality, Vo is back at school, studying not just computer science, but also cognitive science, linguistics and digital humanities. It’s a lot, but to create a virtual world, she says one has to first understand how people navigate the real one. This summer, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the UCLA student applied her talents to VR and AR experiences that help scientists explore a totally different world, Mars. While Vo’s tendency to daydream hasn’t gone away, she now knows how to use the distractions for good; she turns them into VR inspiration.

What are you working on at JPL?

I worked on this project called OnSight, which just won NASA Software of the Year! I also worked on another project for the InSight Mars lander mission. Honestly, it’s been such a dream come true to intern here. I actually used to struggle a lot with school because I would often get caught up in my own daydreams. However, I’m really glad I found a unique career path in VR where I can turn those dreams into something useful.

That's so great that you were able to channel your daydreams in that way. How did you go from struggling in school to doing VR?

When I first tried on a VR headset, I was like, "This is the future. I need to do whatever I can to learn about this." I decided to study computer science, but it was easy to get lost and fall behind in a large classroom environment. Not a lot of people know this, but I was on academic probation for a while. Looking back, I think my shyness held me back from asking for the help that I needed.

When I took a break from school, I decided I wanted to try making a game. I wanted to do something just for fun, and I was determined to fix my bad habits. So with some friends, I created a self-help game at AthenaHacks, a women’s hackathon. For 24 hours, I was just immersed in my work. I had never felt that way about anything in my life, where I was just zoned in, in my own world, building something I loved. And that's when I realized, I think it's game development. I think this is what I want.

So I spent the year teaching myself [game development], and I got a lot more comfortable using the Unity game engine. I went on to attend Make School’s VR Summer Academy in San Francisco. That smaller learning environment opened up the world for me. It boosted my confidence more than anything to have the support I needed. I was like, "Maybe my grades aren’t so great, but I know how to build VR applications – and the world needs VR right now.”

So when I went back to my university, I thought, "I'll try again. I'm going to go back to computer science.” And so far so good. I'm into my fourth year at UCLA studying cognitive science, linguistics, computer science and digital humanities. It sounds like a lot, but they're all related in the sense that they're all connected to VR. To me, VR is mainly a study of the mind and how we perceive reality. It’s not just about game development; you also need to understand human behavior to create good user-friendly VR.

So going back to your JPL internship, how are you using your VR skills to help scientists and engineers?

Michelle Vo in the InSight testbed at JPL

Michelle Vo poses for a photo with InSight Testbed Lead, Marleen Sundgaard. Image courtesy Michelle Vo | + Expand image

I’m interning in the Ops Lab, and the project I've been working on primarily is called OnSight. OnSight uses Microsoft’s HoloLens [mixed-reality software] to simulate walking on Mars. Mars scientists use it to collaborate with each other. We had “Meet on Mars” this morning, actually. On certain days, Mars scientists will put on their headsets and hang out virtually on Mars. They see each other. They talk. They look at Mars rocks and take notes. It's based on images from the Curiosity Mars rover. We converted those images to 3-D models to create the virtual terrain, so through VR, we can simulate walking on Mars without being there.

For a few weeks, I worked on another project with the InSight Mars lander mission. We took the terrain model that's generated from images of [the landing site] and made it so the team could see that terrain on top of their testbed [at JPL] with a HoloLens. For them, that's important because they're trying to recreate the terrain to … Wait, I recorded this.

[Michelle quickly scans through the photo library on her phone and pulls up a video she recorded from JPL’s In-Situ Instruments Laboratory. Pranay Mishra, a testbed engineer for the InSight mission, stands in a simulated Mars landscape next to a working model of the lander and explains:]

“When InSight reaches Mars, we're going to get images of the terrain that we land on. The instruments will be deployed to that terrain, so we will want to practice those deployments in the testbed. One of the biggest things that affects our deployment ability is the terrain. If the terrain is tilted or there are rocks in certain spots, that all has a strong effect on our deployment accuracy. To practice it here, we want the terrain in the testbed to match the terrain on Mars. The only things we can view from Mars are the images that we get back [from the lander]. We want to put those into the HoloLens so that we can start terraforming, or “marsforming,” the testbed terrain to match the terrain on Mars. That way, we can maybe get a rough idea of what the deployment would look like on Mars by practicing it on Earth.”

› Learn more about how scientists and engineers are creating a version of InSight's Mars landing site on Earth

Michelle Vo in the InSight testbed at JPL

Michelle Vo stands in the InSight testbed at JPL with testbed engineers Drew Penrod (left) and Pranay Mishra (right). Image courtesy Michelle Vo | + Expand image

They already gave us photos of Mars, which they turned into a 3D model. I created an AR project, where you look through the HoloLens – looking at the real world – and the 3D model is superimposed on the testbed. So the [testbed team] will shovel through and shape the terrain to match what it’s like on Mars, at InSight’s landing site.

Did you know that this was an area that you could work in at JPL before interning here?

OnSight was a well known project in the VR/AR space, since it was the first project to use the Microsoft Hololens. I remember being excited to see a panel on the project at the VRLA conference. So when I finally got on board with the team, I was ecstatic. I also realized that there’s room for improvement, and that’s OK. That’s why I'm here as an intern; I can bring in a fresh look.One of the things I did on this project was incorporate physical controllers. My critique when I first started was, "This interface is a bit tricky to use," and if it's challenging for me to use as a millenial, how is this going to be usable for people of all ages? I try to think in terms of accessibility for everybody. Through lots of testing, I realized that people need to be touching things, physical things. That's what OnSight lacked, a physical controller. There were a lot of things that I experimented with, and eventually, it came down to a keyboard that allows you to manipulate the simulated Mars rovers. So now with OnSight, you can drive the [simulated] rovers around with a keyboard controller and possibly in the future, type notes within the application. Previously, you had to tap into the air to use an AR keyboard, and that's not intuitive. I believe we still need to touch the physical world.

How has this project compared with other ones that you've done elsewhere?

I felt really in my element. And for the first time ever, the imposter-syndrome voice went away. I felt like I could just be myself and actually have a voice to contribute. You know, I might be small, I might be the shortest one, but I'm mighty. It’s been such a positive and supportive environment. I've had an incredible internship and learned so much.

What has been the most unique experience that you've had at JPL?

Working in the Ops Lab has been such a unique experience. Every day, we’re tinkering with cutting-edge technology in AR and VR. I am so thankful to have my mentors, Victor Luo and Parker Abercrombie, who give me the support and guidance I need to grow and learn. Outside of the Ops Lab, I also had the unique opportunity to meet astronaut Kate Rubins and talk about VR with her. I had lunch with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when he visited JPL. And working with the InSight mission and Marleen Sundgaard, the mission’s testbed lead, was especially cool. I can't believe I was able to use my skills for something the Mars InSight mission needed. Being able to say that is something I'm really proud of. And seeing how far I came, from knowing nothing to being here, makes me feel happy. If I can transform, anyone can do this too, if they choose to work hard, follow their own path and see it in themselves to take a risk.

What advice do you have for others looking to follow your path?

Listen to your gut. Your gut knows. It’s easy to feel discouraged when learning something new, but trust me, you’re not alone. You’ve always got to stay optimistic about finding a solution. I've always been someone who has experimented with a lot of things, and I think learning is something you should definitely experiment with. If the classroom setting is not for you, try teaching yourself, try a bootcamp, try asking a friend – just any alternative. There is nothing wrong with carving your own path when it comes to your education. Everyone’s at their own pace, just don’t give up!

My biggest inspiration is the future. I think about it on a daily basis. I know I have a very cheery, idealistic view on life, but I think, "What's wrong with that?" as long as you can bring it back to reality.

Speaking of that, what is your ultimate dream for your career and your future?

I was raised in the Bay Area, and I grew up in Santa Clara so the tech culture of Silicon Valley was inescapable. I love Silicon Valley, but there is still a huge homelessness issue. I’ve always thought, “We have the brightest engineers and scientists doing the most amazing, crazy things, yet we still can't alleviate homelessness.” Everybody deserves a place to sleep and shower. People need to have their basic needs met. I’d love to see some sort of VR wellness center that could help people train for a job, overcome fears and treat mental health.

That's my idealistic dream, but back to present-day dreams: I'm actually doing a 180. I'm leaving tech for a little bit, and I’m taking Fall quarter off. I'll start back at UCLA in January, but I'm taking a leave to explore being an artist. I'm writing a science-fiction play about Vietnamese-American culture. I was inspired by my experience here at JPL. I feel really optimistic about the future of technology, which is funny because science fiction usually likes to depict tech as something crazy, like an apocalypse or the world crashing down. But I'm like, “Vietnamese people survived an actual war, and they’re still here.” For my parents and grandparents, their country as they knew it came crashing down on them when they were just about my age. They escaped Vietnam by boat and faced many hardships as immigrants who came to America penniless and without knowing English. For them to have survived all of that and sacrificed so much to make it possible for me to be here is incredible. I think it’s a testament to how, despite the worst things, there's always good that continues. I’m so grateful and thankful for my family. I wouldn’t be here living my dream without them, and I want to create a play about that.

It's funny. Before I used to be so shy, so shy. I used to be that one kid who would never talk to anybody. So it's kind of nice to see what happens when the introvert comes out of her shell. And this is what happens. All of this. [Laughs.]


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Higher Education, College, Students, STEM, VR, AR, Technology, Mars, InSight, Curiosity, Women in STEM

  • Kim Orr
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Nagin Cox holds a patch that reads, "The Stars Are Calling And We Must Go"

In 1975, 10-year-old Nagin Cox’s home life was unraveling. It was a time when Cox grew up hearing that girls were “worthless” and thought only about making it to age 18 so she could be free.

“I remember looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘I’m going to live and get through this,” Cox, now a spacecraft systems engineer for Mars 2020 recalls. “I need to set a goal. I need something so meaningful it will help me get through the next eight years.'”

That goal revealed itself when she was 14, a curly-haired Indian girl fascinated by “Star Trek” and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” She wanted to explore the universe. And no, she didn't want to be an astronaut.

“If you really want to go where someone has never been, you want to be with the robots. They truly explore first,” she says. “There was one place that did that consistently and that was NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

She just needed to figure out how.

› Continue reading on NASA's Solar System Exploration website


TAGS: Women in STEM, People, Spacecraft, Missions, Engineering, Mars Rovers, Mars 2020, Curiosity, Spirit

  • Celeste Hoang
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I was in middle school when I first came to JPL. I saw all the wonderful spacecraft models like Voyager and Cassini. I was inspired by these achievements.

But what inspired me the most was seeing the Curiosity Mars Rover being built in the clean room. I knew that one day I want to work at JPL. And interning at JPL is a first step to becoming a full-time employee here. JPL is what has inspired me to become an aerospace engineer.

TAGS: #InspiredBy, Student Stories, Curiosity, Internships & Fellowships

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The women of the Mars Science Laboratory mission

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover this week completed its first Martian year -- 687 Earth days -- since landing in August 2012. Each day of the rover working on Mars requires several dozen rover team members completing tasks on Earth.

To celebrate reaching this longevity milestone, which had been set as one of the mission's goals from the start, the Curiosity team planned staffing a special day, with women fulfilling 76 out of 102 operational roles.

› Larger image

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover this week completed its first Martian year -- 687 Earth days -- since landing in August 2012. Each day of the rover working on Mars requires several dozen rover team members completing tasks on Earth.

To celebrate reaching this longevity milestone, which had been set as one of the mission's goals from the start, the Curiosity team planned staffing a special day, with women fulfilling 76 out of 102 operational roles.

"I see this as a chance to illustrate to girls and young women that there's not just a place for them in technical fields, but a wide range of jobs and disciplines that are part of the team needed for a project as exciting as a rover on Mars," said Colette Lohr, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

"There's no practical way any one person could learn all the disciplines needed for operating Curiosity," she said. "It takes a team and we rely on each other."

Disciplines range from soil science to software engineering, from chemistry to cartography, in duties ranging from assessing rover-temperature data freshly arriving from Mars to choosing where to point the rover's cameras. Descriptions of the roles, along with names and locations of the team members filling them today, are part of Curiosity Women's Day information available at:

http://go.usa.gov/9d3x

Lohr's role today is strategic mission manager, which means she is responsible for review and approval of plans being developed and modified during the day for rover activities more than three or four days in the future.

She and most of the other engineers and managers on the team are at JPL in California. Today's team, not atypically, also includes members working in 11 other U.S. states, from Massachusetts to Montana, and four other nations: Canada, France, Russia and Spain. Each of the rover's 10 science instruments has people responsible for evaluating newly received data and planning to get more data. Other scientists participating in operations serve on theme groups that pull together information from multiple instruments and choose priorities for upcoming activities.

Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist Joy Crisp of JPL helped organize the special day and will fill the project scientist role, providing scientific leadership in the strategic planning process. She said, "The team has both scientists and engineers, but it's one team working together to accomplish the mission goals."

Each day's rover activities must be planned to fit within budgets of how much time, power and data-downlink capacity are available.

The operational roles fall into categories of tactical, supra-tactical and strategic, which focus, respectively, on the next day's rover activities, the activities two to five days ahead, and planning for weeks or months ahead.

"While some people are focused on today's plan for tomorrow, we need other people to be looking further ahead," Crisp said. "We wouldn't be able to plan complex activities for the rover if we started from scratch each day. We do a lot of work to get a head start on each day."

The operations team for Curiosity is larger than the operations teams for the previous generation of rovers, NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. In an experience similar to Women's Curiosity Day, one day in February 2008, Spirit's tactical operations team of about 30 people was almost entirely women.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more information about Curiosity, visit:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/msl , http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

TAGS: Women in STEM, Curiosity, Science, Engineering,

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Payam Banazadeh poses with the Engineering Design Unit test-model of the Curiosity rover

There was always something about the universe that mesmerized me. I still have recollections of staring at the night sky full of stars for hours thinking to myself how somewhere in this universe, something incredibly amazing is happening and yet we might not know about it.

It wasn't until high school that I started getting involved in my school's astronomy program and attending "star parties," where we would spend the night looking at different celestial objects with a variety of telescopes -- Schmidt-Cassegrains were my favorite.

A couple of years later, I found myself studying aerospace engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and learning about spacecraft design and space systems engineering. My adviser, Dr. Hans Mark, helped me apply for a summer internship at JPL during my sophomore year.

At this point, I knew little to nothing about what I really wanted to do as an aerospace engineer. I just knew I wanted to work for NASA and help scientists answer some fundamental questions about our universe, such as, "Are we alone?" or, "Is there water on Mars?"

During my first summer internship at JPL, I was part of a team of students who were tasked with designing a secondary payload for the proposed MoonRise mission. MoonRise would have been the first robotic sample-return mission from the moon. We designed a camera system that would have flown on the communications satellite and detected impact flashes from impacting meteorites.

MoonRise was not selected to fly, but this extraordinary experience completely changed my career path.

After my first summer internship at JPL, I knew exactly what I wanted to do as an aerospace engineer. I wanted to help formulate and design innovative concepts.

The next summer, I was fortunate to come back to JPL and work on the Mars Science Laboratory as a flight software team member. We were creating a platform to test the wake cycle robustness of the Curiosity rover. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity changed me forever. Not many people can say they worked on a rover that is currently on another planet. JPL made that possible for me.

At this point, I had my mind and heart set on getting a job at JPL upon graduation, so I came back to JPL as an intern for the third time during my senior year. This time, I was tasked with working at JPL's state-of-the-art concurrent engineering facility called Team X. I had come full circle to what I was most passionate about, formulation and systems engineering.

Meanwhile, in my free time back at UT-Austin, I was designing my own mission with CubeSats -- small satellites that can fit inside a 10-centimeter cube. With the help of my other aerospace engineer friends I proposed a CubeSat constellation to detect Earth-like planets by measuring the interaction between the stellar solar wind and the magnetosphere of the exoplanets.

I graduated from UT-Austin in December of 2012 with the highest of honors and received the "2012 Cockrell School of Engineering Scholar-Leader Award" from the dean of the engineering school. None of this would have been possible without the invaluable experience I gained as an intern at JPL. The internships at JPL were real hands-on opportunities on real projects. JPL empowered me as an intern and gave me real responsibilities and tasks that everyone on the team truly cared about. My three summer internships at JPL before graduation gave me the tools and fundamentals I needed to excel in any work environment immediately after graduation.

So now I work at JPL on formulation projects as a systems engineer. I have already sponsored interns at JPL as a mentor, and I love the fact that there is no limitation to how fast you can grow here. I am currently the project systems engineer and flight systems engineer on an interplanetary CubeSat mission and work on a variety of different innovative concepts on the side.

In my free time, I go to local schools to talk to students and motivate them to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees.

JPL was the tipping point in my career. Not only did I gain invaluable technical expertise from my internships, but I also gained the confidence and communication skills vital for any engineer, and especially for a systems engineer.


TAGS: Curiosity, University of Texas Austin, MoonRise, CubeSat, Systems Engineering

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Pi in the Sky Infographic


UPDATE - March 17, 2014: The pi challenge answer key is now available for download.


In honor of everyone's favorite mathematical holiday, Pi Day, which celebrates the mathematical constant 3.14 on March 14, NASA/JPL Edu has crafted a set of stellar middle- and high-school math problems to show students that pi is more than just a fancy number.

Pi is all over our skies! It helps power our spacecraft, keeps our Mars rovers' wheels spinning, lets us peer beneath the clouds on Jupiter and gives us new perspectives on Earth. Take part in the fun and see if your classroom can solve some of the same problems that real NASA scientists and engineers do.

Each pi-filled word problem gets a graphic treatment in this printable infographic (available in both poster-size and 8.5-by-11 handouts) that helps students visualize the steps they need to get to a solution. A companion answer key is also available below and walks students through each step of the solutions. It can be printed on the back of the problem-set infographic for an educational classroom poster.

"Pi in the Sky" Downloads:

TAGS: Pi Day, Infographics, Curiosity, Mars, SMAP, Earth, Juno, Jupiter, Cassini, Saturn, K-12

  • Kim Orr
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NASA Curiosity Mars Rover Landing Event Videos

Catch up with Clara Ma, Leland Melvin, will.i.am and others featured on NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Landing Event broadcast as they share what's new in their universe.

Click the play button above to watch the full broadcast.

TAGS: Curiosity, Landing, EDL, Clara Ma, Leland Melvin, will.i.am, Spacecraft 3D

  • NASA/JPL Edu
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Gregory Galgana Villar III at JPL

It's five days till launch and Gregory Galgana Villar III, a mere 24 years old and a relatively new hire at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is preparing to take part in one of the most ambitious NASA missions. In the wee morning hours of Nov. 26, Villar will step into the dark room in JPL's mission control center -- a place filled with scientists and engineers stationed at computer monitors of all kinds - to anxiously await the launch of a mission eight years in the making.

Villar is one of the youngest verification and validation engineers on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission team, a fact that often inspires wonder about his journey.

"I spent two years interning with three different education programs at JPL," said Villar, who participated in the Laboratory's Minority Initiatives Internship, Space Grant and Undergraduate Student Research Program as an undergrad student at Cal Poly, Pomona. "Then I started realizing I needed a job. I sent out emails to about 125 people at the lab and got a job doing cost models. After six months, opportunities with MSL came up, so I applied for a couple of positions and got one."

Tenacity has certainly worked in Villar's favor, but so has his chameleon-like ability to not only take on widely different disciplines, but also rise to success in each one. Over the years, he's gone from observing stars and planets to majoring in physics while interning at JPL with some of the most renowned scientists in the world to now working in an engineering discipline on one of NASA's flagship missions. And while his journey seems astounding to onlookers, Villar chalks it up to the basic skill of adapting.

"As with any job, it's not really your background, it's how smart you are and how well you adapt or how fast you can learn on the job," said Villar. "So long as they see that you're very motivated and smart, they'll take you on for the job."

Now part of the team that tested spacecraft operations and prepared the new Mars rover, Curiosity, for its journey to the Red Planet, Villar is making his own preparations for 7:02 a.m. PST Saturday morning when the Mars Science Laboratory launch window opens and all of the mission team's hard work pays off. It'll be just the beginning of the spacecraft's journey -- and hardly the end to Villar's. In fact, he's already set his sights on his next career move.

"I'm on the Verification and Validation team until we get to Mars," said Villar, who was also recently accepted into the astronautical engineering master's program at the University of Southern California, but is deferring until the rover has landed. "I'm working on extending my future with the mission team, but wherever JPL takes me, wherever my future takes me, is where I'll go."

TAGS: Curiosity, Launch, Internships & Fellowships, Career Guidance

  • Kim Orr
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