What I Do
My official title is deputy uplink systems engineer, but what I really do is teach the computers on the ground to speak the same language as the spacecraft. I have taken a very complex, but general computer program and made it understand all the commands that the Mars Pathfinder knows. The people on the science and instrument teams then use this tool to build sets of commands called sequences, which, when sent to the spacecraft, accomplish a specific task: take pictures of an area around the lander, turn a particular instrument on for a certain length of time and use a specific setting, that sort of thing. In addition, I train people to use this tool, to update it as changes to the command set are made and once we launch, to help coordinate all the sequences that need to be sent in a specific time period so we don't use too much power, or try to point the camera in two directions at once, etc. (Other people will be checking these things too, but having several people on it means we're much more confident we won't do something wrong.)
My Career Journey
I've always wanted to work in the space program, ever since I was a little girl watching the moon landings. In school, I studied chemistry and planetary science, did research experiments into the reactions of gases caused by exposure to sparks, and analyzed pictures (from the Mariner 9 mission) of Mars' south pole to study its polar cap. I sort of fell into working on missions when I got a job working on the Hubble Space Telescope for one of my old teachers. I worked on an oceanographic satellite called Topex, which is collecting buckets of data about ocean currents that will help make weather forecasting more accurate. On Topex, I built the sequences; on Pathfinder, I've moved up the line, working on building the sorts of tools that I used on Topex.
Likes/Dislikes About Career
The best thing about my job is the excitement of seeing and working on something that will be going to another planet, and of being on the spot, or know the folks who are, when new discoveries are made. The worst thing is that people who aren't trained as scientists or engineers (or haven't done that sort of work in years) oversee many aspects of the mission that require that sort of knowledge and training, and how unsettling that is to everyone who works here.
When I was a Kid
I enjoyed reading, particularly science fiction. I went to many science fiction conventions where I learned about science and science fiction side by side, in a relaxed and stimulating atmosphere. I also took theater classes and ballet and was in many performances, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The theater classes included all the backstage duties as well as performing, so I learned a lot about working together and how different teams working on different portions of a project come together to make something really neat. This is very similar to how a spacecraft is run, so that training has come in handy. If you wanted to aim for working on mission operations, learning teamwork and problem-solving skills would be a good start.
Something that meant a lot to me when I was a kid was when a friend of my father, who was in the Navy, brought me a chip off the heat shield of one of the Apollo capsules. This man didn't work on a ship, but he knew how interested I was in space and found someone who was on one of the recovery ships and got that flake of paint for me. That was really special.
People who Influenced me
I remember all my science teachers, but I'm not sure whether that's because of the people they were, or because I was already interested in science so I paid more attention to them. I had one science teacher in ninth grade who was very influential; I remember wanting to be as smart as Miss Dunkle when I grew up. And Mr. Hamilton, my high school chemistry teacher taught me that if I didn't know how to answer the question, put down what I did know, then try to work forward from the beginning and backwards from what was wanted, until I could fill in the middle. That has helped a great deal, both in college classes and in learning new jobs.
I live in Los Angeles, am married and my husband's name is Bruce Briant. We have no children, but two cats, Butterball (yellow and white with long hair) and Shortstop (a calico), who are brother and sister. I'm the youngest of seven children, and have three nieces, three nephews, and one nephew-in-law. When we all get together, it makes quite a crowd!
One thing Bruce and I like to do is to make and wear costumes. We make historical costumes, which we wear to dances, about one per month, and to things like renaissance faires. (Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may know of Civil War groups, Revolutionary War groups or medieval groups that do these sorts of things.) We also make science fiction costumes, which we wear to science fiction conventions, sometimes on stage, sometimes just to walk around in. The historical costumes require a lot of research because we like to make them as close as possible to what people actually wore hundreds of years ago. The science fiction costumes require a lot of imagination and creativity. How would you make a dress for a wedding in zero G? What would a warrior from a planet with gravity three times ours look like and wear? I'm always learning (or inventing!) new techniques in sewing or hat making or shoe making or make-up. It's really a lot of fun. I hope one day to be a mission specialist on a shuttle mission. And I still take ballet and I still read science fiction...
Some costumes we did for a competition at a science fiction convention. I am the "nice lady" in white. We won awards for both presentation and workmanship.
|This costume is a replica of one worn on the tv show "Deep Space Nine" by Major Kira Nerise's evil twin, the Intendant.|