- Aerospace Engineer
“I am currently working on the Psyche mission, which is a NASA mission that will explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche. It is a unique and intriguing body in the asteroid belt that, unlike most other asteroids, but similar to Earth’s core, is mostly made of metal.”
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a division of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). We are the sole federally funded research and development center for NASA. Because we’re based at a university like Caltech, we’re able to do the high-risk, first-of-its-kind research for NASA in areas of robotics and space exploration.
At JPL we specialize in one-of-a-kind spacecraft. We test these spacecraft using special equipment, simulating the way things will operate in space. We create electronics and software to trick the spacecraft into thinking it’s in space. For example, with the Perseverance Rover that recently landed on Mars, my team produced data and signals and fed it into the spacecraft system so that it thought it was flying to Mars. We tested the parachute deployment by putting a rocket on it to get it going fast enough and high enough so that the atmospheric density would resemble what it would be on Mars. We simulated the landing on Mars thousands and thousands of times, just to make sure everything worked. With the Ingenuity helicopter, we tested the Rover offloading it correctly and tested its flying capabilities in the Mojave Desert. But the first time we saw the helicopter actually work in real life was when it landed on Mars.
I am currently working on the Psyche mission, which is a NASA mission that will explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche. It is a unique and intriguing body in the asteroid belt that, unlike most other asteroids, but similar to Earth’s core, is mostly made of metal. There are a lot of questions about the origin of Psyche. Some theories posit that it is a leftover fragment from the birth of the solar system. Other theories suggest it is the remnant of some catastrophic impact. Regardless, Psyche presents what may be our only opportunity to study part of a planetary core that’s frozen in time and space, and understand how magnetic fields are generated by metallic cores. This will help us understand our own planet since we don’t have the technology to drill into Earth’s core—no matter what the movies suggest!
The equipment and systems I design help the team to operate mission control before and after we launch. There’s usually one engineer who is tasked with flipping knobs and buttons to create errors that the mission team would then have to diagnose and solve. I remember after we landed the Curiosity Rover, one of the engineers said, “Wow, the real landing was so much easier than running those tests against your equipment!” I took that as a compliment because it meant they were well-prepared for landing because of my system.
We are creative pessimists, in a sense. We’re always trying to figure out how many ways a system might fail, and we design to overcome that. We’re always paying attention to the ways in which something can go wrong. For example, in space, radiation can periodically zap your computer and make it reboot. On Earth, that’s no big deal. But if this happens when you’re in the entry, descent, and landing sequence, there’s a very tight margin of just a few seconds before the spacecraft hits the surface and the computer has to work. So we try to build redundancies into the system to make it more reliable. Even so, you’re still not entirely comfortable until you see it actually working the way it’s supposed to work.
I think the challenging part of what I do is sifting through real issues versus non-issues. It’s managing and quantifying risk. For example, recently we were dealing with a crucial memory component for one of our systems that had incomplete radiation data on it. Now, remember I mentioned that radiation can adversely affect computer systems in space, causing a bit to flip and potentially killing your mission. In this case, we had to determine whether the risk was greater to continue on with the incomplete data or to hit pause and work on fixing it, which would cost about $50,000. I asked some key questions to better understand and quantify the risk, and it turned out that this potential issue really only happens about once a year. That meant that it was a risk we could manage.
I love working on these one-of-a-kind projects. We’re being real explorers, and that is exciting to me. So much of what we do is theoretical—we often don’t know for sure if it’s going to work until we actually launch into space. So we really are explorers in the sense that we get to see these things happen for the very first time.
My dad heavily influenced my pursuit of this field. He himself studied civil engineering back in El Salvador, and had gotten the equivalent of an Associates' degree there. He was also a science fiction fan. He and my mother came to the U.S. in 1968. The space race was going on at that time, and he wanted to be near where the action was.
My father never actually became an engineer in the U.S. But throughout the various careers he had, including running a gas station and working on cars, he would describe engineering as the act of working on machines, diagnosing their problems, and figuring out how to make them work. I was often his helper whenever he worked on something, and he always explained to me what he was doing, whether it was changing spark plugs, or fixing brakes. We also worked on fixing outlets and plugs and the electrical system of our house—though he warned me never to play around with that. But this instilled a deep curiosity and a bit of fearlessness in me.
My parents never sent me anywhere during summers, so out of boredom I would take things apart. I’d look at the vacuum and wonder how it worked. I’d take it apart, see what made it clean and pick up dust, and put it back together again. I did the same with other objects, and they always continued to work when I put them back together—until I got to the stereo. It never did quite work after I reassembled it.
My favorite memory as a child was playing “space traveler” with my sister and our friend. There was a huge ficus tree in the backyard with really nice white bark. We would climb the tree with a box of crayons and draw all sorts of things on the bark, and pretend it was our rocket. There was the engineering level, where we would draw levers and knobs to make the rocket ship go. A few boughs up was the navigator’s seat, and I would draw a solar system map there. We would climb the tree and pretend we were off to explore Mars and Pluto. Our bikes were parked next to the tree, so we’d lower ourselves down and rove around on the bikes, “exploring.” Then we would return to the tree and climb back up to fly back home to Earth. I think I was in first or second grade at the time.
Later on, when I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad took my siblings and me to Edwards Airforce Base to watch the first space shuttle land. I remember him waking us up one morning, really early, and telling us we were going on a trip. We didn’t know where he was taking us. He just said, “Get dressed and let’s go.” We fell asleep in the van on a trip that seemed to take forever. When we arrived, it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. But I noticed a lot of cars lining the road, in the middle of an empty desert. We asked my dad what we were supposed to looking at. He just said, “I’m not sure. We’ll know it when we see it.” Then all of a sudden we heard the Sonic Boom! Boom! That was the sound of the space shuttle entering the atmosphere at supersonic speeds. We just stared in awe in the direction of the explosions and watched the space shuttle land with two chase planes next to it. It was awesome!
I was really interested in space exploration during middle and high school, but it felt a bit like saying, “I’m going to be an NBA star player.” In other words, it felt unattainable. I dialed down my aspirations and thought I would just be an engineer. “Aerospace engineer” was not part of my vocabulary until much later.
In my junior year of high school, my guidance counselor told me about a program at the University of California, Davis that was geared towards minority students. This program allowed you to explore different engineering disciplines over the course of a week. I jumped on this opportunity. On the first day, we explored civil engineering, and I knocked it out of the park. They couldn’t believe how on the money I was with surveying, using little telescopes to measure things. We also explored chemical and electrical engineering, and I did well in all of them. Still, none of them really excited me to the point where I could imagine myself in that field for the rest of my life.
But then there was the day we explored aeronautical and aerospace engineering, and that’s where I fell in love. I loved planes, I loved spaceships, and always found them fascinating. After that experience, I decided that was what I wanted to do. I was going to be an aerospace engineer.
I went to the University of Southern California and got my Bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering, as well as a Masters's in aerospace engineering with an emphasis on space sciences.
My career had always been a source of pride and joy for my dad. Whenever I met his colleagues they would say, “Your dad talks about you all the time.” I often took him to landing parties—the last one I took him to was for the Curiosity Rover landing. He was overjoyed to be part of that experience. It was as if he was living out the dream he had as a kid, listening to science fiction on the radio and exploring planets.
As a lead engineer for the Psyche mission, I assemble teams to do the development and testing of the flight computer. This is the brain of the spacecraft that tells it how to get to Psyche and how to enter into orbit. It needs to operate for at least a decade. It’s my responsibility to negotiate delivery dates for the various units. There are five in total—three that remain on Earth, and two that go to Psyche. I ensure those are delivered on time. There’s a lot of teamwork and organizing, as well as budget management.
On any given day I’m reading a lot of emails, and I’m attending scheduled meetings, somewhere I’m an attendee, and others where I’m the organizer. Engineering is a team sport, so I work a lot with other teams working on making the spacecraft run. There’s a lot of coordination that needs to happen, so I’m communicating via phone, email, or instant message to make sure we’re all keeping abreast of developments or setbacks. Whenever we uncover a problem with the system, I work to resolve it without creating a cascade of problems. I do a lot of troubleshooting.
JPL is unique in that it’s very similar to a college campus in the way it’s laid out and the way people dress. The dress code is a mixture between the management types who dress up, others who dress more casually, and the engineer types who are somewhere in between.
It’s a casual, collaborative environment where people try to solve problems together. In that sense, it doesn’t have a very corporate feel, unlike other aerospace companies. The other companies may be trying to project an image of confidence that they can accomplish whatever they’re working on, whereas we’re those crazy guys trying to do this thing that no one has ever done before.
There are times when you’re working alone in your office, where you might just plunk your things down and have an hour or two of focused work. But most of the time you’re meeting with other people, working together on a project, and problem-solving together.
There are times during the mission life cycle where it’s easier to have a work-life balance. During the early phases, for example, you can have more of a 9 to 5 day. But there are other times, like when the mission takes off when you’re working much longer hours. My team right now, for example, is working on environmental testing for our flight computers. This consists of a 24-hour, 10-day test. They’re working round-the-clock, on 10-hour shifts. But we learn to pace ourselves because we don’t want to burn out at a crucial time in the mission life cycle.
One of the myths is that you study one thing, and you do that thing for the rest of your life. With engineering, you're constantly learning, because there's always something new to learn in terms of technology or technique. It’s a lifelong learning profession, and you're always gaining new skill sets. For example, I work a lot with flight computers. You might think my formal training was in computer science. But in fact, I took one electronics course and one software course, and the rest I learned on the job.
Another myth is that engineering is all about math. That’s not true. There’s a lot of communication and writing as well. I’ve been published in at least four publications. You may have great engineering ideas, but you need to communicate them in a way that people understand. You need presentation skills to convey how a piece of technology works. You need to write memos and emails that are persuasive and clear. You can’t just write an equation to get past that challenge.
Take your English and writing courses seriously—you're going to need them. Learn how to construct persuasive arguments. Sometimes the techniques you might learn in a debate team come in handy too. They help you not to take it as a personal attack when someone disagrees with you or questions your process or methodology.
There are a number of ways to get into this industry. In addition to aerospace engineering degrees, you can also study electrical or mechanical engineering. There is also a role for the bio-sciences, as we often have to think about microbes and contamination control on the spacecraft; we need to make sure it is biologically clean so that data from our sensors are accurate. The material sciences are also important, because we deal with extreme environments, going from below freezing to above boiling on a regular basis in space. We are also dealing with radiation and its effects on materials. Electronic devices need software to run, so computer science and computer engineering also play a role.
As a young man, I sold myself short in a lot of ways. I applied for college on my own because my parents didn’t really understand the system here. I didn’t dare to dream big, even when I got into all the colleges I had applied to. Even though I loved USC, and am very happy with the education I received there, there were ways in which I set limits on the kinds of colleges I could apply to, and I talked myself out of even trying. I felt I wasn’t deserving or smart enough, even though I knew I was built for this line of work. I would tell my younger self, then, to take the risk of aiming higher.
The other thing I would tell my younger self is to go ahead and do that study abroad program. At the time I had the perception that it would only add to my financial burden after college—I had pressured myself into keeping my costs down and getting out of school as fast as possible, which made a study abroad opportunity seem out of reach. I was born in Los Angeles County, and have lived here my entire life. I’ve never left. Being able to live and thrive in another place would have opened my mind and shown me what’s possible. It would have really expanded my world. Knowing that now, I would tell my younger self, “Just go. You’ll be okay.”
- Aerospace Engineer
“Each other’s lives are our best textbooks.”– Gloria Steinem