Let’s take a wonderful dive into the scientific tech of JPL with engineer David Rosing.
Geeky Parent Guide: Thank you so much for taking time to share some insights into your world at NASA. How long have you been a scientist, and what is your current role at JPL?
David Rosing: Please, I’m not a “scientist.” I’m an “engineer.” It’s like calling G.R.R. Martin a “Producer” or a “Director.” It just doesn’t fit. In the STEM industry, there are three types of mindsets, just like there are three similar types in movie-making. You have the scientist (the writer in movie-land), the engineer (director and production staff that makes the movie from the script into individual scenes, then stitches those together), and managers (producers) who control workforce, budgets, and other issues with the studio. For a space mission, the scientist comes up with the reason to go to the planet, the engineer makes and flies the spaceship and instruments to the planet, and the manager makes sure everyone gets hired and paid.
So, I’m an engineer. I’ve been at JPL for 40 years, currently working on Mars Sample Return to go to Mars, drill holes into rocks, and bring those rock samples back to Earth.
GPG: Did you always love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) growing up? Was working for JPL something you’d hoped for at an early age?
DR: Airplanes. I was always fascinated with going to the airport to get Dad from a business trip. I’d collect every flight timetable (back when they were printed). I built model airplanes, both plastic and balsa, and flew (mostly crashed) the Cox gas-powered model airplanes. Dad worked for Samsonite, which had the exclusive distribution for LEGO when I was growing up, so we got boxes of bricks and new prototype motors and gears. Built and flew Estes model rockets, and followed every manned Gemini and Apollo flight as much as I could.
2001: A Space Odyssey was a turning point; the spaceships shown in that movie (for 1968, mind you) were mind-blowing. The idea of color screens in the cockpits, to jaunting to the moon for a weekend outing, to a hotel in orbit with (gasp!) video phones, and even a flat panel the thickness of a piece of paper that showed an image was AWESOME!! (Saw it in the original Cinerama, too, which was, well, something we can’t repeat nowadays.) Now, I’ve got those screens on my iPad, in my airplane, and on my phone . . . . .
I could hardly wait to get into Earth orbit.
GPG: Which projects have you worked on during your career that stand out to you, whether it be the amount of work put in, a team you got to work with, or the overall outcome?
DR: Wrong question. What have I worked on that DIDN’T stand out? I started off from college working on the first spaceship (Galileo) that would go into orbit around Jupiter. Then, I worked on an instrument that later discovered over 60,000 galaxies in the night sky that had never been seen before. (Note, you’re in ONE galaxy, the Milky Way.) Another instrument had to measure temperature of liquid helium (2.77 degrees above absolute zero) in Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle to an accuracy of ½ nano Kelvin. (.0000000005 degrees K. If New York to Los Angeles was one degree, we were measuring about a tenth of an inch on that scale.)
And, of course, getting the bugs worked out of the instrument that flew on Cassini to Saturn that measured minerology of objects by observing the spectrum of the reflected light from the object from thousands of kilometers away.
One instrument we were to deliver to the Aura spacecraft to study Earth ozone, carbon monoxide, and water vapor was in its final test mode and when it was finally assembled only nine months before final delivery the optics bench had warped to the point where the entire instrument was nothing more than a $165 million paper weight. We had to find a way to find the problem, fix it, qualify the fix for flight, and ship it out the door in less than four months. So, we did.
GPG: What are some of the mission goals of the Jet Propulsion Lab? How do JPL and other branches of NASA support each other to work toward achieving so many different endeavors in the science community?
DR: On Mars Sample return, the Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL) leads the study of the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that will take the rock core samples from the surface of Mars to low Mars orbit. The Langley Research Center and Ames Research Center (Hampton, VA, and Palo Alto, CA, respectively) specialize in atmospheric entry modeling and construction of atmospheric entry vehicles, so we partner with them to use their expertise. Note that every other NASA “Center” other than JPL is run by NASA itself. JPL is actually run by Cal Tech under contract to NASA. I’m a Cal Tech employee, not a NASA government employee. In techno-babble-speak, I work at an FFRDC (Federally Funded Research and Development Center).
GPG: What are the challenges that you enjoy the most, whether it be tackling multiple projects at the same time, processing an abundance of data, or sustaining projects that can take years and years to manage and complete?
DR: Doing something that has never been done by anyone else in the world. And getting it to work.
GPG: Are there any projects you are working on currently that you can discuss with us? What are the goals of these missions?
DR: Mars Sample Return can finally be discussed (a little) now that the government agencies that provide our funding have recognized the missions required to accomplish the task. There are three missions as just one alone could not do everything. The first (M2020) will launch in 2020 to rove the planet surface and take the core samples from the rocks. (Of course, it’s rocks; it couldn’t be something easy like regolith? Nope, the scientists want rocks, the denser the better. OK, granite it is . . .) The second mission has to land six to eight years later, send out a fetch rover, collect the samples, and return those to the MAV (also landed with the fetch rover) and launch those into orbit in a basketball sized container. The third mission has to 1) find that basketball from thousands of kilometers away, rendezvous with it, capture it, package it into a sterile container, put that into an Earth Return vehicle, fly back to Earth, and then drop off the Earth Return vehicle so it can land (with the samples) for retrieval and further study.
GPG: Are there any programs that parents can look to take advantage of for their kids or teens that are interested in STEM fields? Also, can college students get a jump start with any internships that might help them toward a career with JPL or NASA?
DR: The summer is crowded at JPL with interns. They’ve had great fun, and I’ve used them for concepts of the MSR sample container and packaging. By all means, apply.
Kids and teens interested in STEM have the hardest time in the interim years between the fun, kid-friendly stuff at local museums (tailored for young kids) and the things they learn later in college. So, things like robotics competitions (like NASA FIRST) or anything similar to where they’re learning electronics, software, & mechanical engineering and how to make it all work together will provide valuable insights on how mechanical and electrical things work and interact with each other. Remember the old saying that my friend has up in his office that reads, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
Here at JPL, one needs solid foundations on BOTH the theory AND the practice.
Other things that can work is fixing the family car. Nowadays, there are lots of computers interacting with sensors and all sorts of mechanical devices. It doesn’t hurt to learn about how all those things work. And what better way to learn than to try and fix them?
And, of course, there are Computer Aided Design tools and 3-D printing machines that let one design their own parts, then build them.
Don’t underestimate LEGO, though. The Mindstorms computer stuff is pretty amazing and WAY better (and more fun) than the motors I had when I was growing up. Some of the Technic kits have some incredibly complex transmission systems (one motor, four different geared output functions) that are a marvel to figure out where and how the power is transferred from the one motor to where it’s supposed to go.
GPG: In all work, it’s always a wonderful thing to come home and geek out over something. What do you enjoy doing, watching, or reading in your spare time? Being an engineer, are you a fan of certain science fiction films, books, or TV shows?
DR: Hmm, well, I fly my airplane once a week. To do that, one must keep it maintained and cleaned. (Ever wax an airplane? Total pain in the butt! But it’s cheaper than repainting it every 15 years, so it’s gotta be done. Then, there are annual inspections, avionics upgrades, etc. ad nauseum.) An airplane is about the closest thing one has to a spaceship that represents the culmination of all technologies: There’s aerodynamics, propulsion, electronics, and hydraulics all crammed into a machine that has to be light enough to fly the desired payload with decent performance.
Of course, one has to keep making things, so when my flight simulator console didn’t work the way I wanted it to, I bought an end-mill and made my own, machining my own parts from "real" metal (not the cheesy, 3D-printed stuff).
Then, there’s listening to music, which I do every time I can when my wife is out at a comic con. (I can’t play it when she’s writing.) There’s always an improvement one can make to the electronics, cables, speakers, or the room treatments to improve the sound.
GPG: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us today. Are there ways that people can support JPL or keep tabs on any current or future projects?
DR: Come to the JPL open house. It happens once a year. We got slammed the year Andy Weir’s The Martian came out and had to shut the doors for the crowds. So, get your tickets early and come to the place where things happen that (I think) happen nowhere else in the world.
Oh, and write to your Congress-folk and let them know of your support. We can’t do this without public support. We know we could get de-funded at any time if the politics ever decide we’re not worth it.
We want to thank David Rosing for taking the time to share his experiences and to give us a wonderful and fun look at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If you want to find out more, follow JPL online or check out our latest article where you can further explore JPL with your kids.
Until next time, happy parenting and happy geeking.