In February 2011, I started my career at JPL as a Systems Integration and Test Engineer. I was hired into the Environmental Test Lab (ETL), which is the group that manages and operates the facilities that simulate the various mission environments and test our flight hardware to ensure it will survive the extreme conditions of space. For example, ETL uses shakers and acoustic chambers to simulate the rocket launch and thermal vacuum chambers to simulate the temperatures and vacuum of space and other planets.
On my second day at JPL, one of my new co-workers asked if I wanted to go into the large shaker room to see the Mars rover being tested. I knew this was something I shouldn’t pass up, so I put on a bunny suit for the first time, walked through the air shower, and saw the rover, wheels up, on what JPL calls the ETL large shaker. It was quite the sight, and I realize now what a great and unique opportunity this was, especially so early in my career at JPL. This rover is named Curiosity and it is part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. MSL launched later that year in November 2011, and Curiosity landed safely on the Martian surface in August 2012. There’s a great video that captures the excitement for Curiosity’s landing on Mars, “Where Were You When Curiosity Landed on Mars?”, and you’ll see a familiar face at 0:41.
A little more than 8.5 years later, JPL is building and testing a new rover for the Mars 2020 mission. I moved to a different group in 2016, but I remain good friends with the team at ETL and work closely with them when I need to test flight hardware (or dust off my softball skills in the JPL Softball League). After learning the rover was on the ETL large shaker, I seized the opportunity to recreate my picture from 2011. This time the test setup is quite a bit taller, and I have a little more sass.
Every day at JPL brings new challenges, new engineering problems to overcome, and new things to learn. We are constantly pushing forward to meet ambitious mission goals and strict launch deadlines, which can be mentally and physically exhausting. Nonetheless, I can honestly say there’s never been a dull moment working at JPL, and the reward of being in the forefront of space exploration is well worth it.