Farah Alibay, wearing a white lab coat, poses for a photo in front of an engineering model of the Curiosity rover

It only takes minutes into a conversation with Farah Alibay about her job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to realize there's nowhere else she'd rather be. An engineer working on the systems that NASA's next Mars rover will use to maneuver around a world millions of miles away, Alibay got her start at JPL as an intern. In the six years since being hired at the Laboratory, she's worked on several projects destined for Mars and even had a couple of her own interns. Returning intern Evan Kramer caught up with Alibay to learn more about her current role with the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, how her internships helped pave her path to JPL and how she hopes interns see the same "beauty" in the work that she does.

What do you do at JPL?

I’m a systems engineer. I have two jobs on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission right now. One is the systems engineer for the rover's attitude positioning and pointing. It's my job to make sure that once it's on the surface of Mars, the rover knows where it's pointed, and as it's moving, it can update its position and inform other systems of where it is. So we use things like a gyroscope and imagery to figure out where the rover is pointed and where it's gone as it's traveling.

My other job is helping out with testing the mast [sometimes called the "head"] on the rover. I help make sure that all of the commands and movements are well understood and well tested so that once the rover gets to Mars, we know that the procedures to deploy the mast and operate all of the instruments are going to work properly.

This is probably a tough question to answer, but what is an average day like for you?

Right now, I spend a lot of time testing – either developing procedures, executing procedures in the test bed or reviewing data from the procedures to make sure we're testing all of our capabilities. We start off from requirements of what we think we should be able to do, and then we write our procedures to test out those requirements. We test them out with software, and then we come to the test bed to execute them on hardware. Things usually go wrong, so we'll repeat the procedures a few times. Eventually, once we think we've had a successful run, we have a review.

Most of my testing is on the mobility side. However, it hasn't really started in earnest yet since we're waiting for the rover's "Earth twin" [the engineering model] to be built. Once that happens, later this summer, I will be spending a good chunk of my time in the Mars Yard [a simulated Mars environment at JPL], driving the rover around and actually using real data to figure out whether the software is behaving properly.

Watch the latest video updates and interviews with NASA scientists and engineers about the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, launching to the Red Planet in summer 2020. | Watch on YouTube

What's the ultimate goal of your work at JPL?

All the work that I do right now is in support of the Perseverance rover mission. On the mobility team, we work on essential functions that are going to be used as the rover drives around on Mars.

One of the really neat things about Perseverance is that it can do autonomous driving. So the rover is able to drive up to 200 meters on its own, without us providing any directional information about the terrain. Working on this new ability has been the bulk of testing we're doing on the mobility team. But this new capability should speed up a lot of the driving that we do on Mars. Once we get smart in planning rover movements, we'll be able to plan a day's worth of activity and then tell the rover, "Just keep going until you're done."

You came to JPL as an intern. What was that experience like and how did it shape what you're doing now?

I spent two summers as an intern at JPL during my Ph.D. The first one was in 2012, which was the summer that the Curiosity Mars rover landed. That was a pretty incredible experience. As someone who had only spent one summer at NASA before, seeing the excitement around landing a spacecraft on Mars, well, I think it's hard not to fall in love with JPL when you see that happen. During that summer, I worked on the early days of the A-Team [JPL's mission-concept study team], where I was helping out with some of the mission studies that were going on.

My second summer, I worked in the Mars Program Office, looking at a mission concept to return samples from Mars. I was helping define requirements and look at some of the trade studies. We were specifically looking at designs for orbiters that could bring back samples from Mars. A lot of that fed into my graduate research. It's pretty cool to be able to say that I applied my research and research tools to real problems to help JPL's Mars sample return studies.

What brought you to JPL for your internship? Was working at JPL always a dream for you?

Yeah, working at NASA was always a dream, but going into my Ph.D., I became more and more interested in robotics and planetary exploration. I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, but I also have a minor in planetary science. There are very few places on Earth that really put those two together besides JPL, and it's the only place that has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars. So, given my passions and my interests, JPL emerged at the top of my list very, very quickly. Once I spent time here, I realized that I fit in. My work goals and my aspirations fit into what people were already doing here.

What moments or memories from your internships stand out the most?

The Curiosity landing was definitely one of the highlights of my first internship.

Another one of the highlights is that JPL takes the work that interns do really seriously. I was initially surprised by that, and I think that's true of every intern I've met. Interns do real work that contributes to missions or research. I remember, for example, presenting some of my work to my mentor, who was super-excited about some of the results I was getting. For me, that was quite humbling, because I saw my research actually helping a real mission. I think I'll always remember that.

How do you think your internship shaped your career path and led to what you're doing now?

My internships definitely opened a lot of doors for me. In particular, during my second internship, I also participated in the Planetary Science Summer School at JPL. Throughout the summer, we met with experts in planetary science to develop a mission concept, and then we came together as a team to design the spacecraft in one week! It was an intense week but also an extremely satisfying one. The highlight was being able to present our work to some of the leading engineers and scientists at JPL. We got grilled, and they found a whole lot of holes in our design, but I learned so much from it. How often do you get to have your work reviewed by experts in the field?

Through these experiences, I made a lot of connections and found mentors who I could reach out to. Since I knew JPL is where I wanted to be, I took it upon myself to knock on every single door and make my case as to why JPL should hire me. I actually never interviewed, because by then, they decided that I had done my own interviews!

My internships and the summer school also gave me an idea of what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. So I was a step ahead of other applicants. I always tell interns who come to JPL that if they're not particularly liking their work in the first few weeks, they should take the opportunity to go out and explore what else JPL has to offer. I believe that there's a place for everyone here.

Have you had your own interns before?

I had interns my first two summers working at JPL. Two of my interns are now also full-time employees, and I always remind them that they were my interns when I see them! I also have an intern this summer who I'm extremely excited to work with, as she'll be helping us prepare some of the tools we'll need for operating the Perseverance rover on Mars.

What is your mentorship style with interns?

My goal for interns is mostly for them to learn something new and discover JPL, so I usually let my interns drive in terms of what they want to achieve. Normally, I sit down with them at the start of summer and define a task, because we want them to be doing relevant work. But I encouraged them to take time off from what they're doing and explore JPL, attend events that we have organized for interns and decide whether this is a place for them or not.

It's kind of a dual mentorship. I mentor them in terms of doing their work, but also mentor them in terms of helping them evolve as students and as early career engineers.

What do you hope they take away from their experience?

I hope they take advantage of this unique place and that they fall in love with it the way I did. Mostly, though, I'm hoping they discover whether this is a place for them or not. Whatever it is, I want them to be able to find their passion.

What would be your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?

I think the way into JPL, or whatever career that you're going to end up in, is to be 100% into what you're doing. If you're in school, studying aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering, do hands-on projects. The way I found opportunities was through the Planetary Science Summer School and the Caltech Space Challenge, which were workshops. I also did something called RASC-AL, which is a different workshop from the National Institute of Aerospace. Do all of those extracurricular things that apply your skills and develop them.

If you have the opportunity to attend talks, or if your advisor gives you extra work that requires you to reach out to potential mentors, take the time to do it.

My other piece of advice is to knock on doors and talk to people who do something in your field that you're interested in. Don't be shy, and don't wait for opportunities to come to you. Especially if you're already at JPL, or if you have mentors that are. Leverage that network.

Last 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 chose to come to JPL because I like working on robotic missions. However, a lot of these robotic missions are precursors to crewed lunar and Mars missions. So I see our role here as building up our understanding of Mars and the Moon [to pave the way for future human missions].

I've worked on different Mars missions, and every one has found unexpected results. We're learning new things about the environment, the soil and the atmosphere with every mission. So I already feel like my work is contributing to that. And especially with the Perseverance rover mission, one of its main intentions is to pave the way for eventually sending humans to 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

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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.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Mars, Mars Rover, Perseverance, Mars 2020, Mars 2020 Interns, PSSS, Planetary Science Summer School, Internships, Workshops, Career Advice, Mentors, Where Are They Now

  • Evan Kramer
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NASA Astronaut Candidates Jessica Watkins and Loral O'Hara and Warren "Woody" Hoburg

Former JPL Interns Graduate From NASA Astronaut Class

Update: Jan. 10, 2020 – In a ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Jessica Watkins, Loral O’Hara and Warren Hoburg graduated from basic training along with fellow astronaut candidates. As members of NASA’s Astronaut Corps, they are now eligible for spaceflight, including assignments to the International Space Station, Artemis missions to the Moon, and ultimately, missions to Mars.

› Read the full press release


Originally published June 15, 2017:

Three former interns of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are joining the agency’s newest class of astronaut candidates. Jessica WatkinsLoral O’Hara and Warren "Woody" Hoburg were among 12 selected for the coveted spots announced by the agency on Wednesday.

Adrian Ponce, manager of JPL’s Higher Education Programs, congratulated the new astronaut candidates and emphasized the value of the laboratory’s internship programs, which bring in about 1,000 students each year to work with researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

"JPL is recognized in the world as a place of innovation, and interns have the opportunity to operate alongside researchers, contribute to NASA missions and science, develop technology and participate in making new discoveries," said Ponce, adding that the internship experience serves as a pathway to careers at JPL, aerospace companies, tech giants – and now the NASA astronaut corps.

While there’s no single formula for becoming an astronaut, experience at a NASA center certainly helps. In fact, many NASA scientists and engineers already working in their dream jobs landing rovers on Mars or discovering planets beyond our solar system, still aspire to become astronauts.

Watkins, who as a graduate student participated in several internships at JPL that had her analyzing near-Earth asteroids and planning ground operations for the Mars Curiosity rover, says that becoming an astronaut was a childhood dream that just “never went away.” In a video interview during her internship with the Maximizing Student Potential, or MSP, program in 2014, she talked about how she saw her experiences at JPL as a key step to fulfilling her goal.

“When you walk away from having an internship at JPL, I think you just have a broader perspective on what’s possible and what’s feasible,” said Watkins, who in 2016 participated in another program from JPL’s Education Office, an intensive, one-week mission formulation program called Planetary Science Summer Seminar. “I think you set a new standard for yourself just by being around people who have set the standard really high for themselves. You learn to appreciate the possibilities and the things that you really are capable of achieving.”

Learn more about Watkins, O’Hara and Hoburg, and meet the rest of NASA’s new class of astronaut candidates

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

Explore More

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.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Astronaut, Internship, Career Advice, Jessica Watkins, Loral O'Hara, PSSS, Planetary Science Summer School, NASA Science Mission Design Schools, SMDS, Where Are They Now

  • Kim Orr
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Marleen Sundgaard stands on gravel in a tall room with a test version of the InSight Mars lander behind her.

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?

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.

Sundgaard describes her role in preparing InSight for what became a successful landing in November 2018 and shares what it means to her to be a part of the mission. Credit: NASA | Watch on YouTube

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.

Sundgaard on the left in a green and yellow sweater laughs with Matt Golombek while both sit at a table with computers and water bottles

Sundgaard with her mentor, Matt Golombek, during her second internship at JPL. Image Courtesy: Marleen Sundgaard | + Expand image

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

Explore More

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.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, InSight, Hispanic Heritage Month, Where Are They Now

  • Evan Kramer
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Jeff Carlson stands in an open room posing next to an engineering model of the mast for the Mars 2020 rover

It may look cartoonish, but the face of NASA's next Mars rover is serious business for Jeff Carlson. A former intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Carlson is now part of the JPL team tasked with assembling and testing the "head" and "neck" (officially called the Remote Sensing Mast) for the Mars 2020 rover. Carlson jokes that his job is a bit like making and following instructions for assembling IKEA furniture – that is, if the furniture were going to another planet with no option to return for spare parts. With its five cameras that will do everything from guiding the rover to recording ambient sounds to blasting objects with lasers so it can study their chemical composition, the mast will play a key role in the mission's goal of finding evidence for ancient microbial life. Returning JPL intern Evan Kramer met up with Carlson to learn more about his role in readying the rover for its planned February 2021 debut on Mars and about the summer internship that propelled Carlson to where he is now.

What do you do at JPL?

I am a mechanical engineer working on the remote sensing mast for Mars 2020, [NASA's next Mars rover]. The remote sensing mast is the "neck" and the "head" of the rover. Scientifically, it is our vision system for seeing far away and doing remote detecting. So instead of using the drill on the rover to study something up close, the mast uses spectroscopy and lasers to see things that are far away and read their chemical composition.

Four engineers in white garmets stand behind the rover while another stands in front holding out a smartphone to take a selfie

Members of NASA's Mars 2020 project (including Carlson, right) take a moment to capture a selfie after attaching the remote sensing mast to the Mars 2020 rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

The mast has lots of instruments on it. On the head, itself, there are five cameras. Two of them are for navigation, [NavCams]. They will guide the rover past obstacles, for example. Then, there are two Mastcam-Zs. On the Curiosity rover, they are called Mastcams. On Mars 2020, they're called Mastcam-Zs, because they have zoom lenses on them. Those cameras will take amazing panorama photographs that we can learn a lot from. Then, we've got SuperCam, which is the big "eyeball." SuperCam shoots a laser that incinerates, or ablates, a far-off target. During that ablation, the camera takes a very quick picture. The color of the flash that the laser makes on the target will be unique to the target's chemical makeup. SuperCam also has a microphone on it, which is new for this mission. It will allow us to hear the wind and the movements of gravel and rocks. And then down on the neck of the remote sensing mast, we've got two wind sensors, 90 degrees apart from each other. One of them is a deployable boom, which can reach out pretty far from the neck and give us measurements of wind direction and velocity. There are also three air temperature sensors, a humidity sensor and a thermal IR sensor. Together, those make up an instrument suite known as MEDA.

What's your role in working with all of these components?

A lot of my time has been devoted to the role of cognizant engineer, which I share with one other person. That's essentially the engineer who's responsible for delivering the hardware to the spacecraft. That includes everything from making sure you have all the nuts and bolts for the assembly – physically counting them and weighing them and recording all the part information and inspection reports – as well as writing the procedures to build everything. So that's like the document that you get with your IKEA furniture that shows how to put the pieces together. Our team is pretty small, so usually, once we've developed these procedures, we go into the cleanroom lab, take the parts and put them all together. On a typical day, I'll usually do a little bit of all of that. And then I provide the oversight to make sure it comes together the way it's supposed to.

See NASA’s next Mars rover quite literally coming together inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

You first came to JPL as an intern in summer 2015. What was that experience like?

When I was an intern, I was working on a project that I had no idea existed until I became an intern, and now I can't stop thinking about it. It's called Starshade, and it is a sunflower-shaped device the size of a baseball diamond. It's designed to fly far out in the sky and suppress the light from a distant star so that a space telescope can get a direct image of the planets orbiting the star. Using the same kind of spectroscopy that's in the SuperCam on Mars 2020, scientists can then characterize which elements are in the atmospheres of these planets, called exoplanets. If we could do that, it would be groundbreaking because it could tell us if a distant planet is habitable or maybe even already inhabited.

What part of Starshade were you working on?

The Starshade is made up of two systems, and I was working on both. There's a deployable truss, which is a large hoop that forms the circumference of the giant sunflower shape. That has to fit into a rocket to go up to space. So we needed to figure out how to fit something that can expand out to the size of a baseball diamond into about a four-meter-diameter cylinder. I was working on building and designing that truss structure. The other part was making the sunflower shape so that it suppresses the starlight, and that is in the realm of origami. So I was also working with origami specialists to figure out how to connect this folding object to the truss structure.

What brought you to JPL for your internship?

The first time I ever heard about JPL was when people from the Curiosity rover mission team visited my campus at the University of Colorado Boulder. They talked about the entry, descent and landing process for the mission, and that was the first time I'd ever even really heard about that process.

Seeing the ["7 Minutes of Terror"] video for the first time and hearing how impossible it seems to try to land an SUV-size rover on another planet, I thought, "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard of. I've got to go be a part of that in some way." I didn't even really know or care how I could be helpful. I just knew that's where I wanted to be.

What moments or memories from your internship stand out most?

We were kind of a big intern team. I think there were 13 of us on the Starshade project. There were these days when we would assemble scale models of Starshade. These are enormous carbon-fiber structures that all have to be bonded together with epoxy that you're squirting out of syringes, and it's very hands-on. So all 13 of us were in a kind of assembly line doing this. By the end of the internship, we were competing with each other to see who could do it better, faster, cleaner and all of that. And for me, that was just so fun. I learned a lot about how to work effectively on a team. That's certainly one of the things that makes JPL a special place. No one at JPL would have accomplished what they did without being on an amazing team. That's really the root of our success.

Jeff Carlson stands in the center of a folded metal structure

Carlson poses for a photo in the center of the large hoop that forms the circumference of the Starshade design during his summer internship at JPL in 2015. Image courtesy Jeff Carlson | + Expand image

How did your internship shape your career path and lead to what you're doing now?

When I first started my internship, I thought that what I wanted to do was mostly CAD, [computer-aided design], work, sitting in front of a computer 3D modeling and making drawings. The internship taught me the joys of tinkering with stuff that might go to space. There are so many things to think about, from launch environments to micro-meteoroids to ridiculous temperatures and pressures. It changes the way you think about a problem to be on the formulation side, putting the hardware together. I didn't even know that was a career option for me until I started doing it. My JPL internship really opened my eyes to that. I didn't even know the role that I'm in right now existed.

Did your internship also give you the opportunity to meet people who would potentially become your managers?

Yes. I think one thing that makes JPL really awesome is that if an intern has a really great idea, it doesn't matter that they're a student. They will be listened to with the same openness as if the chief engineer had the same idea. Somebody described JPL to me as a meritocracy, and I think more than any other place I've been, that's true. I've seen it myself. Even as a starting full-time engineer, there are times when I think, “Who am I to suggest this? I don't have as much experience as all these other people.” But I say it because the culture here supports that. And then it affects the way the mission is designed. It changes something important.

Have you had your own interns? If so, what's your mentorship style? What do you hope they take away from the experience?

Yes, I’ve had interns of my own. I tried to emulate my mentors from when I was an intern. Looking back on it now, they are part of what made me really successful – allowing me the freedom to realize that I am smart enough to make decisions. Coming from school, I think interns have this idea that they need to be told what to do because it's like a school assignment. But for some of the tasks that we have going on here, the A, B, and C of getting a job done is not all there is. Sometimes it's up to the intern to determine the path forward. So I try to give my interns enough freedom to make these kinds of decisions. I think the validation that you get from seeing an idea come to fruition is going to make you a much better engineer than if you were just told to do a task and you performed it.

What's your advice for those looking to intern or work at JPL one day?

One thing that was a detriment to me trying to work here was seeing myself as a student, hanging out with adults, or seeing myself as kind of underneath my coworkers. So for an intern in a meeting with other engineers, don't be afraid to speak up, feel confident in the education that you've received.

Lastly, I hear that you write poetry and draw in your free time. Have your experiences at JPL influenced your creative side or vice versa?

Being here has opened my eyes to a lot of things. Since I've started working here, I've opened up more to allow other people's ideas and perspectives to influence my own. Also, JPL encourages creativity. Caltech [which manages JPL for NASA] has an art show every year. I put some pieces in there. I think it's awesome to blend engineering and art. There's also a talent show at JPL every year. I sing in the talent show with a little looper pedal. So JPL encourages and confirms, in my mind, that you don't have to be just an engineer. This is a good place to say, we can do this and that.

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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

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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.

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found online at jpl.jobs. Learn more about careers and life at JPL on LinkedIn and by following @nasajplcareers on Instagram.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Starshade, Mars 2020 Interns, Perseverance, Where Are They Now

  • Evan Kramer
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