What it takes to get a job building robotic explorers of Mars for NASA

After a happily uneventful seven-month journey, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is expected to safely reach the Red Planet and enter orbit Thursday before deploy the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity prototype helicopter he transported to the surface of the planet in search of evidence of ancient microbial life.

However, this expedition has been going on for much longer than Perseverance traveled through interplanetary space. First announcement in 2012, the mission marks the culmination of nearly a decade of work by hundreds of machinists, designers, rocket specialists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. But not just anyone can be hired there, working for the world’s first production facility for spacecraft and construction equipment that will adorn the surfaces of neighboring planets.

For Mohamed Abid, deputy chief mechanical engineer of the Mars 2020 mission, the path to work at JPL began in Tunisia, where he grew up. “After high school, I did my master’s and my first cycle in Europe,” he told Engadget. “Then I came here to the United States for my doctorate.” Getting good grades obviously helped to increase his chances of landing a job at JPL, said Abid, but “having internships, participating in internships was really essential. It gave me what I needed to get to where I am.

“There are the kind of people who … just put in their hours and leave.” Others, they tried more to absorb everything they could to develop the subject they were working on; whether it’s building parts, designing parts, writing code, whatever. So try to go beyond and above, ”he advised. “It has a different connotation where ‘yeah, he or she has completed an internship and they provide a report’ versus’ yeah, they did that report and on top of that they provided additional help to the company. “”

Abid also advocates for potential JPL candidates to develop and nurture their hobbies, whether it is walking around the garage while doing homebrewing robots, learning ethical hacking, or even just painting and painting. other traditional arts. That extra hands-on experience just might be the extra push needed to convince recruiters to hire you over an equally qualified competitor.

These additional qualifications can also help newly hired JPL employees move up the agency ladder. “It takes a village to build one to raise a rover,” he continued. “It’s a whole team and then you know the interests of the individual based on their affinities, what they are comfortable with and what they want to be.”

“Everyone has an interesting story to tell about how they got here and what worked well for them,” added Abid. “All kinds of skills are needed to build this equipment so that NASA will encourage its employees to continue these extracurricular activities.”

the National Geographic channel

While these experiences can help you stand out from the rest of the applicant pool, you will still need to pass your interview, which, as Abid notes, is “very attribute dependent.” Some interviewers will ask tough questions like Google’s infamous “how many golf balls fit on a school bus”, while others will focus more on the candidate’s critical thinking skills or interpersonal skills, “how to work on the job.” within a team, how to behave within the team “, explained Abid.” There are no defined criteria. It is very dependent on the person, the needs. “

As Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer, Abid’s responsibilities at JPL are also quite varied, depending on what phase the project is currently in. For the design phase, it focuses on ‘do you have the right designs, is this the right design for us to use? What are the professions that we must put in place and what decisions must be taken to opt for one design over another? “

Once the project enters the construction phase, Abid has to worry about “are we building the right thing, what materials are we using, what are the analyzes we are using?” Basically making sure the team is asking the right questions and making sure that they, as he said, “come up with the right system that can meet the demands and constraints that we have for this super machine. trick complicated.

The testing and verification phase is particularly exciting for Abid. “Every time you write a test, you wish you had so many problems at the start of the project,” he explained. “Because you want to fix all of these problems right before you hit the red button to throw.” These problems can range from double-checking that the adhesives used to glue components together adhere tightly enough to ensuring that critical systems won’t break under the stresses of launch.

For Christina Hernandez, payload systems engineer at JPL, it’s about asking “why”. “We’re a bit of a handyman,” she told Engadget. “Our job is to be there. We’re not mechanical engineers, we’re not electrical engineers or software engineers – although a lot of us have that background – but our job is to look at the big picture and see this thing happen. in place.

“A payload systems engineer is basically the person whose job it is to understand the scientific instruments or tools that we use. PerseveranceHernandez added. “So the reason I particularly like payload systems engineering is that in addition to understanding the technology behind the instrument, the design, the coding, you also need to understand the motivation to do it and that. means you get an insight into the science [behind those systems]. “

Hernandez’s route to JPL was a bit more direct than Abid’s. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California with a Masters in Spacecraft Design and Space Environment Modeling, initially interested in building systems to collect space waste in low earth orbit.

“This problem fascinated me, so I learned basic programming skills [like FORTRAN] and testing skills, but more importantly, it was about critical thinking, ”she explained. “A systems engineer must be able to question all the disciplines necessary to arrive at a particular design [is being implemented]. “

Not all positions within JPL require such breadth and depth of knowledge. While some employees will move between roles and teams multiple times during their careers, others find and stick to their niche. “I mean it’s up to you,” Hernandez said. “I have met people who really like ties. That’s all they want to do, they’re really passionate about ties and it’s pretty cool because we need subject matter experts like that.

For Hernandez, the most fascinating part of the March 2020 production cycle was the verification and validation phase. “If you have a new technology that you are trying for the first time, you have to be confident in it,” she explained. “And then you go into that phase where you have your prototype of the instrument, we call them engineering models, and then you bring it to the test bed. For me, this is one of the most fascinating places in JPL.

This is partly due to the fact that the JPL test site hosts Optimism, an almost identical twin of Perseverance rover as well as one for the Ingenuity helicopter. Running tests on these, “you’re really starting to get into the weeds,” was that the right implementation of the hardware and, more importantly, how does it interact with the software? “

Ingenuity helicopter installation, JPL spacecraft assembly facility.  (NASA / JPL-CALTECHÂ)


“And so right after a critical design review where you know the designs are pretty stable, you start testing it at the system level,” she continued. “And this is where you know all system engineers are excited because you kind of start to know if the end-to-end system is going in the direction you envisioned based on your science goals and mission. . “

As the March 2020 arrival date approaches, the pressures on the team keep increasing. “One of the things that I find very unique about the operation right now is that we are preparing to enter Mars time,” Hernandez said. “And so during that time, the team is effectively working the Martian night shift. We will adjust our clocks about 37 minutes each day so that we can get all the instructions to the vehicle while it is sleeping, then the vehicle will perform those activities and we will get the data once we get to the next one. day.”

“Eventually you send the vehicle instructions for maybe three or four floors [Martian days, or 24 hours 39 minutes 35.244 seconds], “she continued. This can become a nerve-racking exercise as the team enjoyed the luxury of getting almost instant feedback from their tests here on Earth.” I’m used to testing computers. laptops in place. The hardware is there, I see the result, I see the data and I immediately adjust. And now it’s like that extra challenge, okay you designed it to be strong enough for him to take care of himself.

“One of the things that I appreciated is the automation and the intelligence of the vehicle, to be able to make decisions to protect oneself while taking advantage of scientific opportunities,” she concluded.

The March 2020 mission is scheduled to arrive at its destination on Thursday, February 18 at approximately 3:55 p.m. ET. Tune NASA YT Channel to watch the orbital insertion live and be sure to check Designed for Mars: the Rover Perseverance, premiered on Nat Geo at 8 p.m. ET Thursday for a deeper dive into what it took to design and build these incredible robotic planetary explorers – including a rare glimpse into the operations inside Building 179 and the “Area 151” clean room where Perseverance and Ingenuity were set up.

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