Spotlight: What I Do As a NASA Engineer
Exploration of space, whether using telescopes to observe the sky or probes sent to distant planets, is the culmination of the work of thousands of people working together to solve the myriad problems that arise when you try to go beyond what seems possible. …
Since there are so many aspects to the job, describing someone as a “NASA engineer” can of course mean a thousand different things. On this occasion, we had the opportunity to speak with Edward Gonzalez, an EMC engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Edward told us about his experiences, his work and how he ended up at NASA.
Tell us about your current position and how long you have been in it.
My name is Edward Gonzalez and I am an Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I have been here for a little less than a year, but in this short time I had the opportunity to get my hands on many amazing projects: the electronics that will be on the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope , the instruments fortheMars 2020rover , the LDSD flying saucer and Earth observatories. such as Grace Follow-On and SWOT .
My job as an EMC engineer is to make sure that all the electronics on the spacecraft don’t interfere with each other. We can see the effects of EMC in our daily life when you turn on the blender and the lights dim, or when your cell phone hums through the speakers just before receiving a call. On a spaceship, such interference can ruin work and scientific data, and in the worst case, can lead to the end of the mission! My job is to minimize the effects of interference by analyzing the electromagnetic environment (usually by hand calculation or computer simulation), writing the requirements for that environment, ensuring that spacecraft and components are designed appropriately based on those requirements, and ultimately ensuring that to make it all work.
What prompted you to choose your career path?
In fact, I had no intention of engaging in any engineering activity until the end of high school, and even then I was reluctant. I played guitar a lot in high school, so I wanted to go to college to record music, but the little voice in my head wanted to make sure I got the job after graduation. I heard that a lot of music engineers were electrical engineers, so I chose this and figured I could do a little bit of music recording. When I got my degree, I fell in love with beautiful mathematics and physics, which connected our thoughts to quantifiable reality. Recording music became more of a hobby of mine, and instead I became involved in philosophy.
After I graduated from college, the semiconductor company I interned with last summer hired me full-time as a reliability engineer. Part of my degree was in semiconductor physics, so it was a great learning experience for the first few years. For three and a half years there, I gained a lot of experience in test development, requirements writing and project management, teams and budgets.
In the end, I wanted to try something different from the corporate world. For me, space exploration has always been one of the finest manifestations of human ambition. I remember watching a video ofthe Curiosity JPLrover landing on Mars in 2012 and my eyes got a little blurry, so JPL came up first when I started looking for a job. I took a course in electromagnetism in college and thought the EMC position would be fine for me when it came up. When I applied, I didn’t know much about the specifics of working at EMC, but it sounded cool.
How did you get a job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
The chances of getting a job by applying through the official website are usually considered low, but that’s exactly what I did. I found a list for an EMC engineer and applied through the JPL career page. Later, I found out that my resume was different in part due to my work experience, but mainly due to the lessons I took in college.
I received my BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering (with a focus on Electrical Physics) in a five-year program from the University of Southern California. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum qualification for engineering positions at JPL and I would say a master’s degree is generally preferable. Many specialized positions may require a doctorate (especially scientific positions). In my case, I felt that the bachelor’s degree was the foundation of what I really wanted to study in the master’s degree, and the master’s degree prepared me for the engineering rigor needed to get started.
While some people like to say (almost proudly) that you never use what you learn in school, in my case it was the other way around. Everything from simple geometry (“soh-cah-toa ” is more useful than you think) to Fourier transforms of linear chirp functions, I’ve come back to my cool notes more times than I can count. It’s great to see that all these decades of study and tuition money are being put to good use! However, I would say that flexibility of mind and a genuine curiosity about new things are some of the most important qualities of NASA engineers. Each project has its own problems, and the previous solution to the problem may not work (read: will not work) in the next one. The desire to return to high school math classes while studying Martian geology or superconducting magnetic flux anchorage helps to understand and ultimately solve these problems.
What are you doing besides what most people see? What do you actually spend most of your time on?
While I don’t spend most of my time on one thing, I do spend a lot of time writing / analyzing procedures and reports, and attending any related meetings. Good documentation and communication is critical to avoid repeating the same mistake twice, duplicating work already done, and being awarded / recognized for a job well done.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
The previous Aerospace Career Review summed it up pretty well: People tend to think of engineers as smart people who spend most of their time alone. In fact, I often work with other engineers and managers to exchange information and make decisions about spacecraft requirements. Even when I work in a lab, it’s almost always with a heterogeneous group of engineers. Building and testing a spacecraft on schedule and on budget requires a collaborative effort. Also, while many engineers at NASA are “smart,” it is better to say that they are very passionate people with an interest in engineering and space. I think that for many in our culture this is usually equated with “nerd”, which is unfortunate because it can lead many people astray from a path that they might otherwise find fascinating.
In this regard, another misconception is that we are all like the characters in The Big Bang Theory. For this reason, I’m not a huge fan of the show …
Also, with this line of thought, how do people usually react when they hear you work for NASA?
“Hey, you are quite normal and not like the guys from The Big Bang Theory!” Although, at least that often, people are usually very excited to hear that I work for NASA and want to know what the next big step in space exploration will be. I am an optimist, so I believe that this is a general excitement about what humanity is striving for.
What’s your average uptime?
I have a flexible schedule, but I decided that most of the days I will be in the office from 8:00 to 17:30 / 18:00. If I have deadlines, an early call to international partners, or a flight equipment qualification (testing equipment that will actually fly on a mission), the hours may be longer, but this is usually reasonable. People know how not to send too many emails outside of business hours, so I usually don’t have any surprises in the morning.
I can’t talk about all NASA centers as the JPL is run by California Institute of Technology, but we also use a 9/80 work schedule: on any given two weeks, you work eight 9-hour days (no lunch), one 8 hour working day. (Friday), and every second Friday is a day off. It’s pretty cute.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
For quick inquiries and clarifications, it is better to call than email. I found that walking into someone’s office was okay, but it’s easy to get caught up in a long conversation. Not that I hate chatting, but sometimes you just have to do something!
Also, a little written planning goes a long way. It’s easy to give up drawing a simple diagram of what you are going to set up, what equipment or people will be required, when you are going to do it, etc. pants, you will be surprised how many little things you forget. It’s not that you haven’t forgotten anything if you plan ahead, but at least you’ve thought about most of it in advance.
What are you doing differently from your colleagues or colleagues in the same profession? What are they doing instead?
When it comes to providing data to managers and engineering teams, some engineers prefer to prepare a data package for presentation to managers, but I prefer to submit my own inputs when needed. After making regular presentations to vice presidents and senior vice presidents in stressful situations in my previous job, I have learned how to deliver presentations regardless of who is in the room.
What’s the worst part of a job and how do you deal with it?
I noticed a little more bureaucracy here than in my previous job. There are many documents leading up to and beyond formal proficiency tests, and most of the issues are in the hands of change management. It can take a long time, but I understand the need to document everything, given the complexity of even small space programs. On the other hand, JPL is of the opinion that if you have a crazy idea and need to do more informal tests, people will support you. Overall, this is a pretty good compromise.
What is the most enjoyable part of the job?
No two days are alike. An abbreviated list of what I could (and did) do in a given week could be: work on a magnetic simulation of the spacecraft, build and test a prototype to validate the simulation, present the results to systems engineers, write reports, plan to do a completely unrelated test on the test bench of the rover in the laboratory the JPL MarsYard and help develop requirements for Mars in 2020.
The people here are amazing. I’ve never seen so many people who are passionate about what they are doing and want to share what they are working on. Some of the people here are world experts in things like planetary science or the landing of 1 ton objects on Mars, but you won’t know when you bump into them in the cafeteria.
The biggest benefit for me is the tremendous satisfaction of knowing that what we do serves not only the nation, but all of humanity. Some of the spaceships I’m working on will be looking at Earth so we have the data to protect it through better legislation, business, and personal choices. Some spaceships will explore other planets and celestial bodies so that we can learn more about the context of our existence. The impact of projects at NASA and JPL is unmatched, and I’m glad I can play at least a small role in that.
How much money can you expect at your job?
The average starting salary for a person with an electrical engineering master’s degree working in high technology in Southern California is about $ 75,000 to $ 85,000. With good productivity, wages can range from $ 90 to $ 100 over 3-5 years. It can be more if you switch from one job to another or work somewhere, for example, in Silicon Valley.
How are you “progressing” in your field?
In general, there are at least two paths: management or technical expertise. Engineers and scientists occupy most of the leadership positions here. These range from line management that oversees the oversight of a specific type of engineer (eg EMC Engineering) to supply management that oversees the design of entire subsystems and tools for a project (eg European Magnetometer) to project management that leads teams at all levels throughout the lifecycle of a particular project (eg Europa Clipper). Having just started, I cannot speak specifically about how they came to this. But beyond the typical management traits such as “working well with people” and “seeing the big picture,” I have actually noticed that most managers have a good understanding of the evolution of space programs and have a very broad understanding of various scientific / engineering concepts.
However, if you really enjoy doing detailed design, this is a viable career path too. My mentor from JPL held the same position for 52 years (!!!) until he retired this year. He has worked on everything from Voyagers to the soon-to-be-launched InSight lander . Along the way, he literally wrote a textbook on specific EMC topics and many other NASA technical guides that are still widely circulated today. At some point he was asked to move into management, but after trying for a while, he realized he didn’t like it and went back to technical work.
What do people underestimate / overestimate in what you do?
If we do our job right, the spacecraft will work exactly as planned. Engineers are aware of the consequences of an EMC malfunction (which is usually pretty awful), but if everything goes right, it is the culmination of numerous engineering judgments, some of which have to do with EMC. As a result, it may seem a little ungrateful, but the success of the mission itself is quite satisfying.
What advice would you give to those who want to become your profession?
If math, science, and engineering seem interesting, then don’t let anyone or anything convince you that you are not the right fit for the job because of your “intelligence,” socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or gender. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it (especially with math, as it is at the heart of almost everything).
I believe there are many more people who are capable of STEM studies than they think. Perseverance is often mistaken for pure intelligence, and it is unfortunate (if not tragic) that the two are so often confused. There is a reward if you stick to it; there is obviously a financial reward, but more importantly, these fields are beautiful in some way, unlike art and music. There is something inexplicable satisfaction that comes with taking a simple idea, manipulating it in such a way as to keep that idea true (“mathematics”), but also to reveal a grain of understanding of the world, and then turn that understanding into reality.
I don’t think STEM is for everyone, but there may be more creative engineers and scientists than there are today, and it would be a shame if these opportunities were ruled out for the wrong reasons.