Samalis Santini De Leon poses for a photo with a jar of lucky peanuts in JPL's Space Flight Operations Center.

They've been called the minutes of terror – the moments during which spacecraft perform a series of seemingly impossible maneuvers to get from the top of Mars' atmosphere down to its surface and mission controllers anxiously await the signal heralding a successful landing. This past summer, it was intern Samalis Santini De Leon's task to make sure that when NASA's next Mars rover lands in February 2021, those minutes are as terror-free as possible. That meant bringing her Ph.D. research on the process known as entry, descent and landing, or EDL, to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she could apply it to a real space mission. The Puerto Rico native says she never imagined she would one day play a key role in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet – especially as an intern. But now that she's worked on the Mars 2020 mission, she'll be just as anxious as the rest of the team when those final minutes arrive. We caught up with the Texas A&M University student to find out how you test a Mars landing while on Earth and how she set herself on a trajectory to NASA.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing simulations. I'm evaluating different scenarios, such as a hardware failure, and I'm trying to assess whether the mission will still land safely on Mars. I'm making sure that the system is robust enough that even if something goes wrong, the mission is not in danger and can still land safely. After all that work, we want the rover to land in one piece and do the science we want to do.

What does entry, descent and landing entail?

It's a series of events and maneuvers required to land safely on a planet. So once you enter the atmosphere, there are things you have to do – steps to ensure that the vehicle lands safely.

Graphic showing how Mars 2020 will land on the Red Planet

This graphic shows the new technology that will be used to land the Mars 2020 rover in February 2021. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Take an interactive look at the Mars 2020 landing

What's different about this landing from the one used for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover?

One difference is that we have a new trigger for deploying the spacecraft's parachute. This trigger will help reduce the landing footprint size, meaning we can land closer to the intended landing spot. The mission will also be using Terrain Relative Navigation for the first time. The rover will take images of the surface as it's descending and compare them to its onboard reference maps so it can locate itself with respect to the landing site and avoid any hazards.

What's your average day like?

It's mostly gathering all the concerns from other people on the entry, descent and landing team. Then I run simulations, and I look at the overall behavior of the system and communicate with the teams about what's happening. For example, if there was a hardware concern, I would do simulations to analyze the system's performance and ensure there's no significant effect on the success of the mission.

On the side, I'm doing my Ph.D. work in entry, descent and landing, using artificial intelligence to help analyze very large simulations and communicate critical issues to the experts. As humans, there is only so much we can analyze manually. We hope that these tools can help engineers for future missions.

Santini De Leon sits in the Space Flight Operations center at JPL in a room with red and blue lighting and looks up at a screen showing live spacecraft communications.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

What lead you to focus on entry, descent and landing for your Ph.D.?

I have no idea. [Laughs.] I did my undergraduate work in mechanical engineering back in Puerto Rico, where I'm from. I volunteered on a project run by Space Grant, building experiments that involved launching sounding rockets from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. I started to get into space at that time. After that, I tried to pursue aerospace engineering, which is not a possibility in Puerto Rico. So I left Puerto Rico, and I ended up initially working with satellites. Then my advisor said, "I have a friend in EDL, and he's talked about the challenges. Why don't we write a proposal on this?" I got a NASA Science and Technology Research Fellowship for that, and now I'm doing EDL. I was always secretly leaning towards space exploration and getting my hands on a mission.

What made you want to study mechanical engineering initially?

I think it was the closest I could get to aerospace engineering back home. Also, space is very interdisciplinary. I always liked robots. Building robots in high school for competitions got me very interested in that.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

This is my first summer at JPL. With my fellowship, I do rotations at the NASA centers, so I work with people who do similar stuff.

How many different NASA centers have you interned at now?

I've interned at three. I did two summers at NASA's Ames Research Center, last summer at Langley Research Center, now here at JPL. And in my Space Grant project and undergrad, I did frequent visits to Wallops to put our experiments in the rockets, so that was very cool.

That was all part of the buildup to get here. Coming from an island, it seemed not even possible at the time [that I would ever be at NASA].

What were the challenges that you faced coming from Puerto Rico and trying to pursue aerospace engineering?

The options for aerospace engineering in Puerto Rico are limited. But getting into the Space Grant program was a very good thing to expose me to those fields. After that, the hard part was trying to find a place to do my graduate studies outside of Puerto Rico – where to go, how to get in. There's not a lot of orientation back in Puerto Rico about these things, so you're a little bit on your own. After that, the big problem is dealing with grad school. [Laughs.]

What's your ultimate career goal? Do you think you'd like to go back to Puerto Rico someday?

I would definitely like to continue working on space missions for a while. Whether it's here at JPL or other NASA centers. Just the exposure and the experience – nothing can compare to that. But at some point later on, I would like to go back and consider teaching at the University of Puerto Rico to bring back what I've learned. They're trying to make an aerospace department at the university, so I could bring new perspectives and maybe motivate more people to do what I'm doing.

Speaking of future careers: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars, what would you want to do?

Maybe I'm biased now that I'm in EDL, but it's one of the biggest challenges. I think getting enough knowledge and expertise in it and playing a role in landing people on the Moon or on Mars would be incredible, because it's a problem we still haven't found a solution to. Being able to help achieve that by whatever means is probably the most amazing thing I could ever do.

What do you hope to accomplish in your role on the Mars 2020 mission?

I definitely want to demonstrate that they've built an amazing system – that it works. I guess the goals are more personal, like getting exposure to the testing side of things, more of the real-life aspects. I'm more locked on the computer simulations. So I'm hoping to get the whole picture of how EDL works and how it all comes together.

Your mentor is Allen Chen, who is the lead for Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing, so he'll be calling the shots on landing day. What is it like having him as a mentor?

It's amazing. I feel very lucky and very proud that I get to work directly with him. He's someone who has so much expertise. I am learning a lot from him. Just sitting in meetings and hearing what he and the team have to say is amazing. He's great, too – easy to talk to, knows way too much about EDL. [Laughs.]

What's been the most unique experience that you've had at JPL this summer?

What I've found the most shocking is seeing the actual rover that's going to Mars and seeing the rover getting built. That has definitely been quite cool. I think JPL is known for stuff like this. It's here that you can see it and you can see the progress. It also seems like a very collaborative environment. That's not common, so that's really cool.

The rover is scheduled to land in February 2021, after your internship has ended. Will you be able to come back to JPL for landing?

It is possible. My mentor [for my Ph.D.] will definitely be here when the rover arrives on Mars. He'll actually spend two months here doing shifts in mission control. He told me he will try to have me here for that to learn about how it all works. I will definitely try to make that happen. The excitement in that room and the fear will collide. It must be very interesting to be in there.

Are you already picturing what it will be like on landing day?

Yeah. Now that I've had some role in it, wherever I am – whether it's here or at home – I'm going to be freaking out. Regardless of how confident we are, it's a challenging process.


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

Career opportunities in STEM and beyond can be found at: jpl.jobs

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Ph.D., Doctorate, Space Grant, Students, Mars 2020 Interns

  • Kim Orr
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Miles Fertel smiles at the camera while holding a Mars globe in one hand and pointing to Mars 2020's planned landing spot with the other hand. He's standing in front of a light sculpture and a sign that says "Dare Mighty Things."

Miles Fertel smiles at the camera while holding a Mars globe in one hand and pointing to Mars 2020's planned landing spot with the other hand. He's standing in front of a light sculpture and a sign that says "Dare Mighty Things."

There's no joystick for driving rovers on Mars. Instead, a team of scientists and engineers gathers every day to plan each move and then beams a series of instructions to the rover's computerized brain, like interplanetary telepathy. As the only tether between the rover and the mission team on Earth, the onboard computer needs to run flawlessly. So before the rover even leaves Earth, its brain is put to the test. That's where Miles Fertel came in this past summer. As an intern with the rover simulation and planning team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Fertel was tasked with writing a program that tests how well the agency's next Mars rover interprets the instructions it receives. The trick, he said, was outsmarting not the rover but the humans who programmed it. We caught up with the Harvard University computer science student to learn more about his internship with the Mars 2020 team and to hear what he considered the most unique experience of his summer at JPL.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm working on software for the Mars 2020 rover – so the code and tools that allow the rover to function on Mars. My team is rover simulation and planning. The rover planners are the people who take in all the information from the scientists and the rover and write commands to send to the rover through the Deep Space Network, which is basically the internet for space. As the simulation team, we make sure that the commands that we're going to send are going to be effective and that they're going to be safe so that this rover we send to Mars after all this painstaking work isn't going to get stuck in a hole or break because of a wrong command.

What is your average day like on your project?

I work on creating tests that humans couldn't come up with. The average testing for software is you write tests to make sure that the code isn't going to fail when you add in certain instructions. But humans – specifically the humans who write the tests – tend to be the same people who write the code. They're not going to be able to come up with as good of a test, because if they knew what was going to break, they wouldn't have written the bug in the first place.

What I do is use a couple of testing frameworks that use generational input adjustments. They develop in an evolutionary way, starting from a simple input that I put in. So, say we're working on commands for the rover. We can start with, "Go forward," and then the system will modify the instructions based on a dictionary of information I provide. So I say, "These are words that might make sense to the rover. Try coming up with combinations of these that might result in behavior that we haven't seen before." If that behavior is defined, then everything's fine, but if it's going to cause a problem, then it's important that we know that so we can update the code.

What are you studying in school, and what got you interested in that field?

I study computer science at Harvard. I hadn't done any programming before coming to college. I thought I wanted to do something in the area of technology and possibly business, but I didn't really know. So I took the intro to computer science class, and I really loved it. I loved the challenge of feeling like my homework was a puzzle and not a chore. That drew me to it, and I started taking all the classes that I could in that realm.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I don't think anyone should have an ultimate career goal. I think careers should be a fluid thing and that people should build up skills that allow them to do the things that are most interesting to them. Right now, my goal is making sure that the Mars 2020 rover lands on Mars and everything goes swimmingly when it gets there. But, ultimately, I want to work on cool things with interesting people.

How do you feel that you're contributing to Mars 2020 and making the mission a success?

When I came here, my main goal was having a tangible impact on the project. I wanted something where every minute I spent working would be important to meeting the goal of the project. I find bugs every day, and I fix them, and that's great. Hopefully, before the summer's over, I will have a patch that I can write for the software that will end up on the rover.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I had a friend who interned here two years ago, and he recommended it really highly, saying he had a terrific time and his team members were great. I applied online, but when you apply, it's a general application and you could be picked for any project based on your set of skills.

I knew that I wanted to work on Mars 2020, so I went on the JPL website, and I researched teams and people working on robotic software for the mission. I emailed Jeng Yen, my group supervisor. I said, "Here's my resume. This is what I'm interested in. Are there any projects that I could work on?" He said, "One of my team members, Steven Myint, is working on something that fits your profile pretty well. You should talk to him." So I talked to him, and the rest is history.

That's great. That's something we recommend students do if there's a particular project or area of research they're interested in. What is the most unique JPL or NASA experience that you've had while you've been here?

Oh, easy. One of my team members, Trevor Reed, is a rover planner for Curiosity. Every morning the team has a tactical meeting in which they go over the schedule for the day for the rover, and they give instructions to the rover planners who will write the commands that tell the rover what to do. When I found out that one of my teammates drives the Curiosity rover, I was like, "Can I please, please shadow you for that process?"

So I showed up at 8 o'clock in the morning in the Curiosity rover tactical office, or conference room, and there's the head scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, who I'd read about in articles. I watched them send the actual commands to the rover. I learned all about the planning and tolerances that are involved in the simulations that we do. I got to see the software that I'm working on in action, because it's also used for Curiosity. It was a pretty amazing experience to sit there for a couple of hours and watch them go through the entire process of a day on Mars.

Now for a fun question: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon or on to Mars, what would you want to do?

Every kid wants to be an astronaut, right? I mean, if you're offering … As much as I would love to be an astronaut, my interests in the short term are contributing to and building projects that I think are important. So for those future missions, I think I would want to have more input on the design, the structure and the planning, overall. So maybe I would want to be a systems engineer or even work on the design.


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 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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Software, Computer Science, Programming, Coding

  • Kim Orr
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Schelin Ireland, wearing lab goggles and purple gloves, holds a sample under a laboratory version of the SHERLOC instrument for Mars 2020.

Growing up in Hawaii, Schelin Ireland used to look up at the night sky and dream of one day setting foot on the Moon. She hasn't made it there yet, but in the meantime, she's helping achieve another milestone for space exploration. This summer, as a Space Grant intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ireland was part of the team building an instrument designed to detect signs of past life on Mars. One of several instruments on NASA's next Mars rover, SHERLOC will be the first of its kind on the Red Planet. Situated at the end of the rover's arm, it will shoot a laser into Martian samples and pick up the unique pattern of light waves, or Raman signatures, that result. Scientists can study those light waves to find out what the samples are made of – and whether they contain ingredients for life. Ireland, a geology and geophysics student at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, spent the summer running a laboratory version of the instrument through practice rounds before the real thing launches next summer on its seven-month journey to the Red Planet aboard the Mars 2020 rover. We caught up with her to ask what it's like to be part of the team searching for evidence of past life on Mars and find out what her future plans are for exploring the Moon.

What are you working on at JPL?

I'm collecting a database of Raman signatures for various organic and inorganic materials that scientists will use to interpret the data we get back from the SHERLOC instrument onboard the Mars 2020 rover.

What is SHERLOC, and what will it do?

SHERLOC is a deep UV Raman/fluorescence spectrometer. It will look for evidence that there was once life on Mars. It will shoot a laser into a sample on Mars and pick up Raman and fluorescence signatures.

Raman spectroscopy looks at vibrations of electrons. So you have a light source that hits a sample and causes those electrons to vibrate, and that causes the light to scatter back with a slightly reduced energy. A spectrometer is going to pick up that scattering as a series of peaks, which are the Raman signatures. They tell us what material we're looking at and if it's organic or inorganic material.

Is this technology also on the Mars Curiosity rover?

SHERLOC will be the very first deep UV Raman spectrometer on another planet. Curiosity mostly uses infrared spectroscopy to study samples on Mars. There is some infrared spectroscopy on Mars 2020 as well, but we can look at things in greater detail with Raman spectroscopy. SHERLOC will be able to detect things at a micrometer scale – very, very, very small particles – which is why it's essential for discovering signs of past life. If there are any biosignatures out there, we want to be able to study the smallest particles that we can.

And this device is at the end of the rover's arm?

It's being mounted at the end of the arm. How it works is the arm is going to abrade the surface a little bit and then it's going to rotate so SHERLOC can do its analysis. You don't want the sample superclose. You want it to be a few centimeters away, because you don't want there to be dust on the instrument. You also don't want it to break because, of course, no one will be able to go and repair it.

What's your average day like on this project?

What I've been doing so far is running calibrations on the laboratory version of SHERLOC. Starting next week, I will start looking at the Raman spectra of various materials. So we're going to be looking at some minerals by themselves, and we're going to be looking at mixtures of organic and inorganic materials together – different percentages of organics to see where the limits are for picking up a signal. We'll upload the data onto a computer and then use software to highlight anything that looks interesting that we want to take a further look at.

Ireland wears lab goggles and a University of Hawaii T-shirt. She sits in front of several screens and the lab version of SHERLOC.

Ireland sits in the lab where she was helping test the SHERLOC instrument this summer as an intern at JPL. Image credit: NASA-JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

What are you studying in school?

I study geology and geophysics at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. I'm also minoring in mathematics.

Are you from Hawaii?

I'm from Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. I just did an island hop to go to college. They have a fantastic program for what I want to study, so it's really great that I'm able to study over there and have all the opportunities that made it possible for me to get this internship.

What opportunities lead to your internship here?

NASA Hawaii Space Grant. I did a traineeship with them last semester on something very similar to this, but it was more in the context of the Mars SuperCam [which will also go on the Mars 2020 rover]. We did Raman spectroscopy on that using the laboratory version of SuperCam. We were also looking for detection limits for that instrument and measuring various materials.

After that, I was looking at internships for this summer, and I saw that this one was very similar to what I was working on at UH Manoa. I was very lucky to get it. NASA Hawaii Space Grant is funding the internship. So I did the traineeship with them, and now I'm doing this internship through them.

What got you interested in pursuing science as a career?

Where I'm from, you can see the night sky very clearly on most nights, and I have always wanted to go to the Moon. That's what got me interested in space. I would make dioramas and posters of the solar system and put them all around my room. My mom would take me to the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center a lot, which is right by the Kona airport. I would read a lot of space books. I thought it was fascinating, but then I kind of got into other things as I grew up.

When I started high school, I joined the science competition team, and my school won first place in the Science Olympiad Regionals for Astronomy. I was one of two people from my school who competed in the astronomy portion of the competition. That really rekindled my interest in science, so I decided this was something that I absolutely wanted to go into.

What's your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate career goal is to be a research scientist studying planetary science and to be an astronaut. One thing that inspired me when I was in high school was knowing that I attended the same high school as Hawaii's first astronaut, Ellison Onizuka. It would be an honor to follow in his footsteps and become Hawaii's first female astronaut.

So if you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars, would you want it to be as an astronaut?

It would be an honor to be involved in any way. If I were a mission specialist, I could set up a little lab where I analyze samples. I'd fix any equipment that we have onboard, fix any instrumentation that we have onboard and maybe measure moonquakes or marsquakes from there. It would be great to do any little thing that I possibly can. Just to have the experience of being on another celestial body would be absolutely amazing on its own, of course.

Back to the current mission you're working on: What do you hope to contribute to Mars 2020?

By the time my internship is through, I want to make sure that I have used the knowledge that I have developed from the research experience last semester and all of my geology classes and be able to apply it to what we are doing here. I want to make sure that the database I am helping to develop includes minerals and other materials that we are likely to find in the area where the Mars 2020 rover is going to land.

How does it feel to know you could play a role in discovering signs of past life on Mars?

It is a huge honor to know that I am a part – even a small part – of this big mission.

What has been the most unique JPL or NASA experience you've had during your time here?

Being here is a unique experience of its own. I haven't experienced anything like this before, and it is absolutely wonderful. I feel like instead of being a student or some extra labor, I am actually treated as a junior colleague and a research scientist. I'm part of this big scientific team, trying to accomplish something of real significance.


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 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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return

  • 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.


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 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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, InSight

  • Evan Kramer
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Finding the best driving route for a Mars rover isn't as easy as turning on a navigation app – but John Park and Hiro Ono want to make it so. A program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is helping them turn their idea into a reality, all while promoting diversity in STEM.

A tenure-track faculty member at North Carolina A&T State University, Park has spent the past two summers at JPL through an Education Office initiative designed to connect students and researchers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to the Laboratory's missions and science. The NASA-backed pilot program has brought more than a dozen student interns and several faculty researchers to JPL for projects investigating Mars, Earth and planets beyond our solar system.

Until his stint at JPL, Park's research focused solely on Earth-bound transportation technologies, such as those used by self-driving cars. When he learned about JPL's HBCU initiative from a colleague who had participated in the program, he seized on the chance to apply his research to space exploration.

"My previous projects and publications have dealt with decision-making tools for exploring uncertain areas on Earth and maximizing the information that's available," says Park, who also helped connect several students from North Carolina A&T to internship opportunities with the HBCU initiative. "I thought I could help bring that perspective to Mars rovers and helicopters."

While researching potential applications for his research at JPL, Park learned that the challenges of getting around on Mars are similar to those faced by drivers on Earth. Rovers also need to get from place to place safely and efficiently – they're just avoiding boulders instead of traffic jams.

It was precisely those challenges that Hiro Ono in JPL's Robotic Mobility Group also wanted to overcome. "I had an idea that I wanted to try, and we had all the ingredients," says Ono, who designs artificial intelligence systems for future rover missions. "The HBCU program allowed us to try the idea."

The HBCU initiative brought Park and Ono together along with Larkin Folsom, a student intern from North Carolina A&T. Together, the trio developed a proposal for a future system that would work similarly to the navigation apps we use to get through rush-hour traffic. The system would allow rovers to analyze routes as they drive, providing mission planners with information about the routes most likely to be hazard-free so they can make the most efficient use of the spacecraft's limited energy supply and maximize the mission's science goals.

"Previously, the way that we operated on Mars was to make the best guess about drivability solely from looking at orbital images," says Ono. "The idea that we are working on is to introduce the concept of probability. So if there are two terrains that are important to you but one of them is 90% traversable and the other is 60% traversable, which are you going to choose?"

In September, the National Science Foundation awarded Park, who submitted the proposal, with a grant to pursue the project. Park says the funding will go toward a JPL internship opportunity for a Ph.D. student from his university to continue research with Ono's team.

Jenny Tieu is a STEM education project manager at JPL who manages the HBCU initiative with Roslyn Soto. She helped connect Park and Ono and says it's collaborations like these that the initiative was designed to foster.

"Our goal with this initiative is to expand the number of HBCU students and faculty members participating in research at JPL and ultimately increase diversity among the Laboratory's workforce," says Tieu. "This National Science Foundation award is a positive indication that the initiative is not only building strong relationships between HBCUs and JPL, but also creating a ripple effect for additional opportunities."

Now in its fourth year, the HBCU initiative will once again bring students and faculty to JPL for research opportunities in the summer of 2020.

Meanwhile, Park and Ono are exploring ways to expand their technology into other arenas, including hurricane research and emergency response. Park has already received support from the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as the state DOT in Virginia and North Carolina for additional Earth-based applications of the technology.

Ono is serving as a consultant on the projects and has high hopes the results of the research will make its way back to JPL.

Says Ono, "In the long run, having an intern, giving them a good experience, helping their career is going to come back to us. We, as JPL, can build connections around the world and among industry partners that are going to come back to us eventually."


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 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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, HBCU, Research, Mars, Mars rovers, robotics, AI, navigation, universities, college

  • Kim Orr
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Isabel Rayas holds a spare rover wheel while posing in front of a rover parked in a garage

A single movement of NASA's next Mars rover could require, among other things, the careful dance of six independently motored wheels, a retractable arm containing a laboratory's worth of tools, a swiveling head supporting multiple cameras and a computer that can pinpoint the rover's precise location. So this past summer, while other teams and their interns at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were testing cameras and calibrating science instruments to prepare the rover for its February 2021 debut on Mars, intern Isabel Rayas was making sure all those pieces move seamlessly together. This meant spending a lot of time in the laboratory's Mars Yard, a sandbox of sorts where engineers put models of the rover through various test drives. For Rayas, a graduate student studying computer science and robotics at the University of Southern California, it was also a window into one potential future career, although, she says, "I'm definitely still exploring." We chatted with Rayas to learn more about her role on the Mars 2020 mission and what it's like to drive a rover.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am working on mobility testing for the Mars 2020 rover. It's taking all of these parts that impact something like mobility – the motion of the rover – and understanding how they work together. We're testing everything to make sure that all the parts play nicely together and that one of them doesn't have a bug that's going to cause a failure in another part of the system.

Are you working on the actual rover that's going to Mars?

There's a whole spectrum of testbeds. What you're testing will dictate which testbed you use. If you're only trying to test one small part of the rover, you're not going to bother using the full system. The flight software testbed, where I'm working, has the real flight computer. It has some of the real cameras. It doesn't have the real motors yet, but we're working on it. Assembly, Test and Launch Operations, or ATLO, is actually putting together the real thing and doing tests with the real hardware.

Tell me more about your role in the flight software testbed.

There are two main things that I am working on this summer: One of them is getting all the hardware pieces in the flight software testbed that impact the mobility of the rover.

You might think that mobility is just the wheels of the rover, but there are a lot of subsystems and instruments that have an influence on mobility. There is an instrument called RIMFAX that will be used for radar sounding. It will point at the Martian surface to collect readings of what the subterranean surface looks like and what it's made up of. You wouldn't necessarily think that has an impact on mobility, but it actually does, because you have to know exactly where you are when you take a radar sounding in order to make any sense of it. You have to be able to tell, "I've moved this far, and this is what I'm sounding, and that's what the ground looks like at this specific spot." So that's a piece of hardware that needs to be integrated into a full mobility test. Then there's the flight computer. There's a computer just for processing the images from the rover. That's also not in the testbed yet, so that's something I'm trying to get delivered so we can run tests with it.

Once we get all these hardware parts into the testbed, we want to run a mobility sequence that tells the motors to move while doing all of these tasks to make sure the system works. So I'm writing the procedure and making sure that all the parts are in the testbed for that.

The second thing I'm working on is in the Mars Yard. While we do test drives around the Mars Yard, we want to know precisely where the rover is located, because we want to be able to know whether or not the autonomous system that tells the rover where it is works. So I'm looking at different systems that will help us do those tests.

What is your average day like?

There's no good answer to that. It changes day by day, which is exciting. This morning, for example, I was in the Mars Yard learning about a position tracking system with someone who was setting it up to do a test. As a systems engineer, you have to go to a lot of meetings, because you have to learn from different teams about what's going on and go over test procedures. I compile all the information from the meetings, try to understand it and meet with more people to get questions answered. I'm in and out of the office. I'm in the Mars Yard. I'm in the testbed, in the cleanroom – all kinds of stuff.

Isabel Rayas kneels down in front of the Scarecrow rover in a garage and places her hand on one of the front wheels

Rayas examines one of the Scarecrow rover's wheels. Scarecrow is a simplified version of a Mars rover that's used for testing maneuvers on a simulated Red Planet terrain at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

You mentioned your project deals with systems engineering. What's the job of a systems engineer?

You do a little of everything. For the rover, you have people designing the wheels, and you have people designing the instruments. Those people have to be experts in that thing and understand exactly how it works and make sure that nothing's going to break. While those people are experts in a specific part of the system, they can't be expected to also understand how everything comes together and how that impacts the whole system. So that's where systems engineers come in. They are not experts in any one of the areas, but they have to understand enough about each of them to know how they impact each other.

Is that what you are studying in school?

No. I just finished my first year of grad school at the University of Southern California, studying computer science and robotics. I got my undergrad in aerospace engineering from MIT, so I have previous experience in aerospace, but I haven't taken any systems engineering classes. My senior capstone had a systems engineering project, and I got exposure to it there, but we had maybe 100 requirements for our project, and here there are tens of thousands. It's a little bit of a step up.

What got you into aerospace engineering?

I think this is maybe true of most kids, but I really liked looking at the stars and thinking about the planets. I knew from a very young age that I was interested in STEM. I took an astronomy class in high school that I loved, and I thought I wanted to do astrophysics, but when I got to college, I took a physics class and didn't like it at all. I switched to the closest thing that wasn't science, which was aerospace engineering.

I also minored in brain and cognitive sciences, because I really couldn't decide. I took some computer science classes during college as well. So I've been kind of all over the place, and I ended up here again.

What made you focus on computer science and robotics for grad school?

My undergrad was in aerospace, but with a concentration in autonomous systems. I've always been interested in the robotic applications of aerospace – not necessarily the rocket design, or propulsion, or the aerodynamics or anything like that.

What brought you to JPL for this internship?

I actually interned here two years ago. My friend had interned at JPL the year before, and she was like, "This was awesome. I love it so much." As an aerospace major, it's kind of the dream, right? So I ended up coming here two years ago. Now that I'm at USC, it's so close that I thought I could probably find some way to be here again this summer, doing something new that's not really related to my program at school.

What's the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience that you've had here?

My first day was right after the Explore JPL event, so thousands of people had come through that weekend to learn about what JPL does and see all the different labs and technology. They had brought the Scarecrow rover, [used to test Mars rover drives], down to the entrance of JPL so people could see it move around. When I got here on Monday, it was my mentor's job to bring it back to the Mars Yard, which is all the way down the street, up the hill – not close at all. So he was like, "Do you want to move the rover across the Lab?"

We had to pick up the rover with a crane and drive it across lab. People were taking videos of us as we went by. After that, my mentor was like, "Do you want to drive it around the Mars Yard?" So I got to drive it around for a while. That was something that I think is kind of unique.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time here?

I would really like to see this test procedure run. I have high hopes. Ten weeks [at JPL] is such a short amount of time. I think it would be easy to get caught up in a lot of things that are less important and end up having something half-finished. I know from talking to my mentor that a test that includes all of this hardware could be really valuable, because it would help the team find bugs before they're too late to fix. Knowing that's my responsibility is exciting. It's a little bit scary, but in a good way.

What's your ultimate goal for your career?

I'm not really sure yet. I'm definitely still exploring. I think internships are a great way to do that, so I'm planning on doing as many as I can in as many different fields as I can. Beyond that, I think my overarching career goal is to keep learning. I don't know where that will take me.

Speaking of future careers: If you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars in the near future, what would it be?

Wow. That's tough. I would love to be one of the people who goes to the Moon. I don't think I would want to go to Mars.

Why not?

It's too far. I like Earth a lot. It's probably my favorite planet. So I wouldn't want to get too far from home. But I would love to go to space. Going to the Moon would be a nice, happy medium.

Have you ever thought about applying to be an astronaut?

Not seriously. I wanted to be an astronaut for the first couple of years in college. But I thought about it some more and about how much training you have to do, and I didn't want to dedicate all my time to training. I thought I could use engineering instead to help us get there.


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 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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Computer Science

  • Kim Orr
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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.

Explore More


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 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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Careers, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Starshade

  • Evan Kramer
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Sawyer Elliott holds a model of a rover like the one he's developing at JPL

Roll aside, wheeled rovers! Sawyer Elliott is developing a cube-shaped rolling robot to go where no rover has gone before. Find out how the NASA Space Technology Research Fellow from Cornell University is fashioning a rover for extreme environments, what inspired him to go into aerospace engineering, and where he most wants to travel in space.

What are you working on at JPL?

I work on extreme terrain mobility, so being able to maneuver through terrains that traditional rovers have a tough time traversing.

What does that entail?

I work on a rover that, instead of driving around with wheels like traditional rovers, hops or rolls by itself and is actually a cube or tetrahedron. So we look at how well it can do this rolling motion, how power-efficient it is, and its capabilities in different environments.

What kinds of environments are we talking about?

Microgravity environments [where gravity is very weak, such as on asteroids and comets] are a big one because it's difficult for wheeled rovers to maneuver through those types of environments. Also places that are extremely rocky, where it's difficult for wheeled rovers to get into.

What’s an average day like for you?

I do a lot of analyses on the rover, looking at the dynamics and the controls. I look at how it interacts with the environment and make sure my controllers work as expected and that the math I've done is reasonable. It’s a lot of sitting in front of simulations. But in the end, it's nice because I get to see the robustness of the controllers and if they actually work in a realistic environment.

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How do you feel you're contributing overall to NASA/JPL missions and science?

The hope is that my work is advancing the capabilities of not only this type of rover architecture – so how we do our cube-type rolling – but also controls and planning for rovers in general, making them more autonomous, making the planning better and our modeling of the systems better.

What got you interested in engineering in the first place?

I think it was mostly my father. We traveled a lot to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and I got to see the Saturn V there. Anyone who has seen the Saturn V loves rockets because it's amazing. After that, I was basically sold. I got my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and now I am getting my graduate degree in aerospace engineering. I'm only getting more and more interested as I go, so I guess that's a good sign.

What's your ultimate career goal?

My ultimate goal would be to be a senior researcher or a senior fellow at some place like JPL or another NASA center or research center.

OK, now for the fun question: If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I think going to a microgravity environment would be most fun. It's cool to explore places that have crazy environments, but just going to any microgravity environment, where you could go ballistic just by jumping or leaping, that sounds so fun to me, to complete half an orbit around an asteroid.


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: Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, Student Programs, Opportunities, Engineering, Robotics, Rovers

  • Kim Orr
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Marco Dolci did not set out to become a NASA engineer. Instead, like many of Dolci’s pursuits, the career path presented itself on his lifelong quest “to know” – that is, to answer any and every question that crosses his mind. As a boy, his never-ending stampede of questions became too much even for his ever-patient parents, so they presented him with a book, 1001 Questions and Answers on Planet Earth. But rather than satiate his quest for answers, it spurred him to seek more.

Today, Dolci still asks a multitude of questions, but the answers he finds through his own determination and curiosity, which have taken him from studies in linguistics to physics to aerospace engineering to robotics – and across the world, from his hometown of Lodi, Italy to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Dolci first came to the Laboratory in 2013 as part of the JPL Visiting Student Researchers Program, or JVSRP. Having just earned a master’s in physics, Dolci was pursuing a second master’s in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan when he entered and won a scholarship sponsored by the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Scientists and Scholars of North America Foundation. His prize: a paid internship at any North American laboratory. He says JPL was the obvious choice.

Marco Dolci in Joshua Tree

Dolci in California's Joshua Tree National Park. Photo courtesy: Marco Dolci

“I chose JPL because it’s the best place to work on anything related to space,” said Dolci, adding that he only learned later that the laboratory is located in California, a fact that made it all the more desirable. “I just wanted to come here.”

Dolci spent two months working on concepts and proposals for missions designed to study black holes, protoplanetary discs, X-rays and cosmic rays. He became the lead author on a science paper about the latter, and the team was so impressed with his work that Dolci’s internship was extended another 10 months.

After a year, however, Dolci’s visa was up and so was his time in America and at JPL. But his next step was clear: He would find a way to come back. “I was really impressed by JPL, both for the people that I found here, who are open to learn and challenge themselves,” said Dolci. “And the fact that it puts on the table resources that allow great projects.”

So Dolci formulated a plan. First, he entered a PhD program in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin, which in Italy offered the chance to spend part of his studies abroad supported by his university. He also applied for the US Diversity Immigrant Visa program, sometimes called the "green card lottery." With only 50,000 people across the world randomly chosen for green cards each year from about 10 million qualified applicants, it was a long-shot – but luck was on Dolci’s side.

In 2016, Dolci returned to JPL to do research for his PhD under the JVSRP program – but this time with a green card in hand.

For the last year, in concert with his PhD thesis, Dolci has been helping develop technology for a possible future NASA mission to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. In 2020, the agency will send a rover to the surface of Mars, where one of its goals will be to collect samples of Martian rocks and soil that could be returned to Earth in the future. Getting those samples to Earth would require a series of never-attempted feats, each with unique challenges.

Dolci is helping develop a device to transfer the sample from a container launched from Mars to a spacecraft that would carry the samples home. It would all need to happen remotely, in space, without the device jamming or exposing the samples to contaminants.

Having always approached problems from a theoretical perspective, Dolci says the chance to get hands-on with actual hardware has opened his eyes to new career possibilities.

“I think that you can really learn something when you put your hands on it,” said Dolci. “Otherwise, yeah, you know the theory, but there’s an ocean between theory and practice.”

Recently, Dolci’s manager encouraged him to apply for a job at JPL. He used the invitation as a chance to explore a career move – one that would take him beyond theory to start building devices capable of answering questions.

"I'm looking for a unity between science and space technology,” said Dolci, who will start his new job in JPL’s Robotic Vehicles and Manipulators group in November. “Robotics seems to me to be the best place in which these two interests find the common point to be able to provide a technological answer to scientific problems."

Marco Dolci in front of the Space Hab at the California Science Center in Los Angeles

Dolci poses in front of an astronaut workstation called SPACEHAB on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy: Marco Dolci

Dolci admits with a sheepish grin that he still has another big aspiration. In four years, once he becomes a US citizen, he plans to apply to be an astronaut. For now, though, he’s focused on learning all he can, continuing to ask questions and finding new ways to seek answers.

“I consider myself really lucky to be in a place like JPL,” said Dolci. “Working here is a possibility to keep moving up, to become more mature in terms of deciding who I am, what I want to do, where I want to contribute.”

To others looking to follow his trajectory, Dolci says while luck helped push things along, it was the power of determination, his quest “to know” and a support network of family, friends and mentors that made his dreams a reality.

“I would have never made it to JPL without the support of someone who has bet on me,” said Dolci. “Don’t give up on desiring good things. Dare mighty things because we are made for great things.”

Explore JPL internship programs and apply at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the reach of NASA's Office of Education, 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: Intern, Internships, JVSRP, Mars 2020, Robotics, Science, Engineering, STEM

  • Kim Orr
READ MORE