Emily Eelkema Stough
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory / California Institute of Technology
Spacecraft Operations Engineer

Emily & the first image from the Mars InSight Lander

Synopsis of Job: What do you do?

I am on the uplink team for the InSight Mars Lander. Along with a team of other engineers and scientists, I help to create a set of activities for the lander to do each Martian day. I have also been on the operations teams for the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), the Mars Curiosity Rover, and the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

The general process for operating the InSight Lander is the same as for Mars Rovers, but our first objective is very different. .  Most spacecraft arrive at their destination and can starting doing science after just a short checkout period.  However, the primary payloads on InSight (the Seismometer and the Heat Probe) must be moved from the deck of the Spacecraft to the surface of Mars before they can start collecting data.  We have a high-level “deployment timeline”, which lists the main things that we must do each day, to get the payloads safely on the ground and ready to start their science mission. This process will take approximately 3 months.

Each day, our team starts with the deployment timeline activities, then adds in any support activities that the lander must do (such as communication sessions with Earth.)  We take the entire plan for the day and model power consumption and data collection, and check for any errors. Each team then writes and deliver sequences that operate their element, and we review them and bundle them up to send to Mars.  When we get the results of that day back, we can start planning the next day.

Impact of Profession:  How does a Space Operations Engineer make a difference in the world?

There are many, many articles about the importance and impact of space exploration, that are written very eloquently.  My short answer is this:

Through robotic exploration of space, scientists can learn more about our solar system and our planet.  Understanding our planet helps us to better protect it. Space exploration in general has also led to many technologies that are used by people every day (example: communications satellites).  Also, Space exploration provides inspiration to people all over the world.

Typical employers and/or industries: (Government, private sector, public sector, geographic areas, etc)

Most scientific space exploration is funded by the government.  There are some private companies working on commercial space initiatives like launch vehicles and satellites.  Most space companies that I know of have offices on the coasts.

Educational Qualifications – What do you typically need to enter and/or be successful in this career?

A Bachelor’s degree in engineering, science, or computer science is the minimum needed.  Many of my colleagues also have master’s degrees and/or PhDs. Internships, being on a robotics team or other practical experiences are useful.

Any other special pre-requisites or qualifications?

The most successful people have good communication skills and the ability to work in a team.  Also, spacecraft operations requires a lot of patience. Whenever there is a big event, like a Mars landing, the public only sees the most exciting part of our job.  It is VERY exciting, but it is preceded by years of careful planning, and often having to start over if one approach doesn’t work.

What do you think youth should do to prepare for a career like this?

Participate in some type of team activity. Study math, science, and computer programming. Keep asking questions. Be curious.

Please share any personal reflection on this career.

When I was growing up, I always wanted to be an astronaut.  I was in elementary school in the 1980s and robotic spacecraft didn’t exist at that time. I didn’t really consider spacecraft operations as a career.  In fact, I had been at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for almost 4 years before I got my first assignment as an operations engineer. I really enjoy being part of a team that works together to operate a spacecraft.  I feel that our work is very ‘real’… the commands that we write turn into real action by the spacecraft. It is very satisfying to see the images and science that result from our work.

I personally don’t have much robotics experience. I didn’t take classes or have exposure to physical hardware. I don’t have programming language experience, but a lot of my colleagues do.

Another aspect about my job is that it’s similar to event planning. You have to think about the whole timeline and what you have to do in sequence. A lot of times you are managing conflicting requirements. You have to balance resources with priorities. Communication is a big part of my job. I got early experiences being on the IT Student Board and in other leadership positions while I was in school. I planned events and activities. I worked on a team and had to communicate with them to be successful. Those are skills that I use every day.

You can have almost any background and be relevant at JPL. One of our team members has a degree in Economics. He works on the computer systems. We have a whole Business section that includes departments like: Accounting, Media Experts, Logistics, Outreach, Supply Chain, and Legal. We even have a small team in a design studio that have art backgrounds.

If you want to work in the space industry, there’s likely a place for you in your area of interest.