"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Tracy D. Drain, NASA/JPL systems engineer on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Let's go back to March 10, 2006, about 1:47 in the afternoon. Right on schedule, you lose contact with the orbiter as it passes behind the planet. What's going through your mind?
Drain: You know, it's a little weird, but for me and most of the people in the control room, that was actually a time to relax. Because everything happened up to that point right on schedule. The pressurization happened when it was supposed to, the thrusters fired, the burn was looking good. So since we had no more telemetry to worry about, it was kind of time to take a break and relax. People got up and walked around and went to have some ice cream. It was just a little bit of break time for us.
Signal: When you established the signal again about a half an hour later, you looked pretty elated.
Drain: Absolutely. Even though things are going right on key, it's still after the end of that half an hour, you have your fingers crossed, your toes crossed and your eyes closed and you're just hoping things are going to come out OK. So it was great when it came right back when we expected it to.
Signal: And it did come out OK. This is a $720 million project through the year 2010, and there have been a couple of failures in the past, before your time at JPL. A lot must have been riding on its success.
Drain: That's right. Now, there was one moment in the control room where we were all a little anxious, and that was waiting for the pressurization to happen that occurs 35 minutes before the burn started. So we still had data, we were still watching, and we all kind of had our breath held on that one. Because we knew that there had been some trouble with the pyrovalves of the same kind we had on board our spacecraft. A couple months before we did the MOI (Mars orbit insertion) event, we had actually changed the sequence of how we were firing those pyros. ... As soon as that happened and the pressurization happened when we expected it to and everything looked good, then we could all kind of relax a little bit.
Signal: What was your job on that day, March 10?
Drain: My job was just to be the commentator. I had been a part of the team developing the Mars orbit insertion event, but I didn't have any responsibilities as far as answering polls on the Net or anything that day. I was just in the control room to translate all the jargon and the acronyms that people were saying to the public so people watching TV would be able to follow along.
Signal: What do you think of Google Mars?
Drain: That is fantastic! We were playing with it the day that it came out. It's really nice, how they have it linked to articles. ... I think it's great.
Signal: As far as most people are concerned, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission is really just starting now that it has arrived. But for you it started five years ago.
Signal: What have you been doing the last five years?
Drain: That would take almost five years to tell you. As a systems engineer, your job description covers a lot of things. Way back in May 2001 when I first started, we were still defining requirements for the mission. Those include things like, how big is the orbiter going to be? How much power is it going have? A huge range of things.
We had just opened up the proposal so that different spacecraft companies would make a bid in order to give a design of what they think a spacecraft could look like in order to do this mission. We selected Lockheed Martin not long after I joined, to actually build the spacecraft. From then gosh. What was I doing? I spent time developing fault trees for the mission. That's where you take a look at the high level things that need to happen for the spacecraft to be successful, and then you drill down into all the different things that can go wrong and find ways to either stop those from happening, or respond to them when they do, to make sure your mission's going to be safe and can continue. A whole slew of things between then and now.
Signal: There are engineers and there are scientists. Scientists want things, and engineers have to make it happen.
Drain: That's very accurate.
Signal: Are you involved in the diagramming and creating the different pieces of hardware that go inside the spacecraft?
Drain: Not exactly. The system engineer's job is a little bit higher level than that. We're the people who make sure that all the different components in the spacecraft, and all the different parts of the product as a whole, work together.
For example, you have your electrical power subsystems engineer, who is responsible for sizing your batteries and your solar rays and telling you, "You have this much power to work with and it's going to get to all the different components on a spacecraft this way." And you have your telecom engineer, who's saying, "OK, we need to have this big, gigantic high-gain antenna to get your downlink rates." A systems engineer would say, "Well, your solar arrays are attracting the sun, your high-gain antenna is tracking the Earth, let's make sure they don't bump into each other." Those kinds of interactions are what system engineers are there for.
Signal: This orbiter is a lot bigger and heavier than anything that we've sent to Mars before.
Drain: That's right.
Signal: And it's able to collect and send more data than all past Mars missions combined?
Drain: That's right. If you want to think about this way, the quote I like the best is that you can take a typical DSL data rate, and the data rate from the Earth to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, wireless, is three times a typical DSL rate. So if you can imagine getting that all the way out, hundreds of millions of miles to the planet Mars it's kind of fantastic.
Signal: What's on the orbiter? What will it be doing?
Drain: We have quite a large suite of instruments. We have six science instruments and three engineering payloads. One of my favorite instruments is the SHARAD shallow subsurface radar, which will allow us to see below the surface of the planet down to about a kilometer and see where there might be pockets of frozen water ice buried. Those will be really fun areas to send missions in the future.
We also have a spectrometer that is looking at the surface. It can tell by the different types of wavelengths of light that it is seeing, what kinds of minerals are there on the surface. It will be able to get a more detailed map of the whole mineral composition of the surface, which is pretty cool. Another good thing for determining where to send future missions.
We also have some instruments on board like MARCI (Mars Color Imager) and the Mars Climate Sounder, which are going to be looking at the atmosphere and trying to get a better understanding of dust levels in the atmosphere, water vapor in the atmosphere; to understand the whole climate cycle of the planet.
Signal: There is no oxygen in the Martian atmosphere
Drain: There is a teeny-tiny bit of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere. I think it's like 95 percent carbon dioxide and .05 percent oxygen (and 3 percent nitrogen and approximately 1.5 percent argon).
Signal: So the theory is that there must have been more oxygen there in the past?
Drain: The theory is, especially, there must have been more water there in the past
Signal: Which would require oxygen, right?
Drain: Well, at least oxygen trapped with hydrogen somewhere on the surface; not necessarily released in the atmosphere.
Signal: OK. Back to the orbiter. Launch was delayed.
Signal: What were the problems and did you have to fix them?
Drain: I personally didn't have to do anything. I remember on the second day, the problem, I believe, was that they couldn't tank the launch vehicle all the way up. They were having trouble. They tried some manual tanking and that didn't work, and they finally decided to scrub the mission.
The funny thing is, in the control room, we all had up the spaceflightnow.com Web site, because they are always really up to date on what's going on. We were watching them populate their Web site, and they said the launch has been scrubbed. We're looking around at each other going, "It has? Really?" And then a few seconds after that, it came out. ... Now, that delay was probably because those of us in Pasadena weren't always tied in directly with the team down (at Cape) Kennedy, so we didn't hear what some of the launch vehicle guys were saying. But that was really funny.
Signal: Thinking about the launch vehicle this spacecraft is so heavy two tons?
Drain: Yes, 4,800 pounds.
Signal: They had to use an Atlas-V rocket for the first time (for an interplanetary mission)?
Drain: That's right. Actually we would not have been allowed to be the first launch ever of the Atlas-V, but when we selected that launch vehicle, they were still doing their testing program to verify that the launch vehicles were fine. By the time we launched, there had been (five) flights of the Atlas-V.
Signal: The orbiter launched Aug. 12, 2005, and on Sept. 7 there was the fourth largest solar flare in 15 years
Drain: I wasn't aware it was that big. But yeah, we noticed it. Absolutely. Our guy, Phil Barela, one of our mission assurance people, came by ... and was poking us all about, "OK, do you remember what capacity the spacecraft has for dealing with solar flares?" And we're all like, "What?" That got our attention. We didn't actually have any problems form that solar flare, which was nice.
Signal: It made people nervous?
Drain: Yeah, we were watching the data sharper than normal, just making sure everything was going to be fine.
Signal: And on March 10 it arrives. We've got a lot of stuff out there now.
Drain: We have three (orbiters), and then there is Mars Express.
Signal: Which is European. And then we've still got those rovers tooling around the surface. What can we learn from this that we're not learning from the things that are already there?
Drain: Well, there are a couple of things that we'll learn from this that we aren't learning from the things that are already there.
The thing about the visible instruments, the cameras that take pictures every time we go to Mars and look at something at a higher resolution, we find things that we don't expect. What we really want to do is go take a closer look at aome of those areas that were surprising for us, look even closer and see if there's something more there that can help the scientists understand what process caused that morphology on the surface.
You'll remember those pictures sent back from the (Mars Global Surveyor) and Odyssey that show those crater walls with the gullies down the sides as if they might have been carved out by liquid water in the past. We really want to get a closer look at that and help the scientists figure out what might have caused that.
Signal: This is going to be able to see things from 190 miles up that are as small as (an office desk).
Drain: That's exactly right.
Signal: It seems like the images we've seen from past Mars missions are already so sharp
Drain: They look fantastic. But we'll be able to see things up to about five times higher resolution than we have seen in the past.
Signal: OK, let's talk about Tracy Drain. Or Tracy Williams, was it?
Drain: That's right.
Signal: You grew up in Kentucky. What did your parents do?
Drain: My mom was a manager at McDonald's for a while, and then that drove her completely crazy, so she decided to get a different job. She has been working at Dr. Bizer's VisionWorld, dispensing eyeglasses for a long time. She divorced from my father when I was pretty young. She remarried, and my stepfather let's see. He worked for a security company for a while, and then he sort of did handyman jobs. He really does a lot in lawn care these days.
Signal: When did you develop a interest in what you're doing now?
Drain: I was such a geeky kid. Way back when I was about 6 or 7, when I started devouring science fiction books at a ridiculous rate, is when I kind of developed a interest in the space program.
If you remember those "Childcraft" books they used to have to go along with the Encyclopedia Britannica my mom got a set of those when we were pretty young. I think it was book No. 4; it was all about Earth and space. The first time I read that story about how they think the sun and all the planets in the solar system formed from a big cloud of dust, I was completely blown away. I am like, "One, that's really kind of crazy; can that really be true? And two, why do people know that? Its not like there was anyone around 4-1/2 billion years ago." So that really kind of fired my imagination from that age.
I didn't decide right away that I wanted to be a engineer, but I was always very interested in science from that point on. It wasn't until some time in high school that I started looking toward engineering, because I wanted to get a job in the space program but I wasn't sure how to go about getting my foot in the door. Engineering seemed to be a decent path to do that.
Signal: You eventually studied mechanical engineering at the University of Kentucky. At what point did you make the connection with NASA?
Drain: It was pretty early on. It's kind of funny. They had a co-op program at the University of Kentucky where you work six months someplace and then you go back to school for a semester, and back and forth. When we were sophomores, near the end of our sophomore year, the counselors really encourage, especially, engineers in a technical field to participate in the co-op program so you can find out if you really want to do that kind of job, or if you want to jump ship and do something else.
I walked into the co-op office and said, "Hey, I always wanted to work for NASA," you know, ha-ha, and they said, "Well, we've got this contact at NASA/Langley here in Virginia." I'm like, "No way!" So they got me a phone interview, and I shipped out to Hampton, Va., to work there for I think two semesters and two summers.
Signal: It was an internship program?
Drain: That's right.
Signal: Do you have to be a great brain to get into NASA's internship program?
Drain: No. Especially for me, it seemed kind of random that they just had this contact and I talked to them. I mean, I'm sure it helps that I was in engineering, and that was something they could easily use in a lot of the places and a lot of the projects that they were working on there. But I think there were interns there who were in business and material science, all sorts of things.
Signal: What steps would a kid in Saugus have to go through if he wanted to intern at NASA or JPL?
Drain: You'd be surprised. I mean, there tends to be an easier road if you're in the math and sciences part, but I've met a lot of people who have become employees at JPL doing things like art and graphics and of course, business administration. We need so many different fields at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that you really need to pick something you like and then use that to get in, instead of doing something you might not like so much, just hoping you can get here.
There's this one really wonderful lady who works at JPL who started off in a music career I think she was a singer. Then she started getting involved in how synthesizers work, because she was interested in that. From there, she got a little more involved in the physics behind that, and ended up working at JPL, managing a program that did remote sensing from the Earth using that same kind of technology. That's really a incredible road to get here. I had never really heard that before. So you really don't have to take the "geeky engineer nerd" path to make it in.
Signal: Watching old video on the NASA Channel or The History Channel from the Gemini project or even the Apollo project, you see that it was basically all men. How is that changing?
Drain: It's changing a lot. I think it has changed so much that that's barely even recognizable for me now. I mean, you notice its still more men than women, but nobody ever treats you any differently because you're a female versus a male. I think people at JPL are so focused on what they are doing, and they're so logical-minded and (they are) just here to get the job done, that they always treat you as another engineer.
If you're good at your job, they talk to you like a normal person. If you're not good at your job, then, like, OK, I've got to go work (somewhere else). But no one really seems to have any bias remaining in their minds about male versus female engineers.
Signal: You mentioned that on March 10 you were translating what was happening in Mission Control for the public. Do you work with the public in other ways? Do school kids come in and talk to you?
Drain: (Yes.) I really enjoy the public outreach aspect. When you talk to little kids about space, there's this instant fire in their minds. You can see their eyes open up really big and they just want to hear about it and they want to learn. That's really cool to see happen. And it's really fun to talk about my job because I like it.
So I get involved with our public outreach department when we have open houses, which we do every May. There's one coming up this May, where they just open up the whole lab to the public and there are displays for the whole weekend and everyone can just come and there are people there like me who will tell you what everything's about.
We also have tours from school kids throughout the year. One of the funny things is that a couple of days before the Mars orbit insertion event, things were pretty low-key; we weren't doing much else on the project; we were just kind of biding our time up to this moment, making sure the spacecraft is safe and healthy. So a lot of us were inside the mission control room, but it was kind of dead time, and inside the room that we were in, you can look out into the glassed-in area and see up on the second floor, there's a visitors' section where there is a glassed-in area for them, too, and they can look down and see you. School kids were visiting, and one of my colleagues was poking me, "C'mon, Tracy, let's go up and talk to the kids." So we snuck out and up the stairs and (said) hello to the kids and got a chance to talk to a couple of the groups that went through those days. It was a lot of fun. I enjoy that stuff.
Signal: OK, the orbiter has reached Mars; what will you be doing now?
Drain: For the next six months we will be spending our time aerobraking, which is where we dip the spacecraft into the Martian atmosphere in order to use that to slow down. We'll be doing that to shrink the orbit from this long, 35-hour orbit that it's in, down into our much lower science orbit. That's kind of a labor-intensive activity to be doing.
I am on the flight engineering team, and as a system engineer, I'll be one of the people who will be responsible for building the sequences that we send up to the spacecraft sequences of commands so that it knows exactly what to do and when to do it. We'll be doing a lot of that, over and over and over for the next six months.
At the same time, I will be helping to plan those activities that are coming next. Because before we actually get into our main primary science phase, we need to spend another month doing the final calibrations of the instruments, which is turning the instruments back on, doing the final testing out, making sure that everything is working the way it should. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Signal: How do you use the atmosphere to brake?
Drain: If you can imagine, you're driving in your car, driving about 50 mph because you know you don't break the speed limit around here and you put your hand out the window, you can feel the air blowing your hand back. It's that same sort of thing. I mean, we will be traveling at about 6,000 mph and the atmosphere is very thin, but at that speed, it is still going to be a decent braking force.
You have to be careful not to go too far in it, because the thing you worry about most is heating on your surfaces. You can't tell in your car at 50 mph because you're not going that fast, but you'll be bumping into the oxygen molecules, and those actually do raise the temperature of your components quite a bit. So we will be keeping an eye on that, the entire process.
Signal: When will it achieve its optimal orbit?
Drain: Late September.
Signal: And it's not until October or November that we start seeing pictures?
Drain: Even later, actually. In the late September-October period is when we will be doing those final science calibrations. I guess it depends on how those turn out, whether or not they will be speedy to release those to the public. And then there are a couple of weeks of what we call solar conjunction, where the sun is between the Earth and the planet Mars, so we can't do any spacecraft commanding. We can't get any data down.
The real science phase will start in early December, and then you'll really start seeing an outpouring of data from the spacecraft.
Signal: The orbiter already has broken records for the amount of data sent back in a single day.
Drain: Absolutely. Even just doing the testing that we've been doing, it has just shattered the records for that.
Signal: What will you do after this six-month period? Will you go off to find another project?
Drain: I plan to hang out the first couple months of mapping. My whole goal of being on this project was to see the entire phase of a mission from its inception all the way through operations. So I am definitely going to stay around until at least until early 2007.
Then I have to decide whether I want to go work on a different project or go back to the advanced studies world, which is where I first started out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That's where you're trying to imagine what types of missions we will be sending to the planets in 2010, 2020. It's really just trying to push the boundaries of technology, to help see where the whole program is going to go.
Signal: Isn't it like, today, the Reconnaissance Orbiter arrives at Mars with hardware and software that was planned five years ago so it's like, five-years-ago stuff is getting there today?
Drain: Exactly. There's a big time lag. You can imagine if you buy a laptop five years ago, what kind of capability difference you have between the one you can buy now.
Signal: How unusual is it for somebody to stay with a program from inception to now?
Drain: You know, if you'd asked me that question five years ago, I would have probably told you it's pretty unusual. But most of the people I came on board with are there, so it seems like that's more the norm rather than the exception. I think for missions like Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter where it's like a five-year time frame, that's not as usual (as it would be with) Cassini, where it was years in development, or in earlier missions like the Viking and Voyagers that were years and years and years in development.
Signal: One goal of this project is to identify future landing sites
Signal: When will we send people to Mars?
Drain: That's an open question. It seems like every time it gets answered, the number pushes out a little farther and farther. But hopefully sometime in my lifetime.
Signal: There are some things that will arrive in about 2008 and 2010. What will they be doing with well, two-years-ago technology?
Drain: We have got the Phoenix lander, which I think is going to launch in 2007. They will get there right at the end of our science mission in late 2008, and we're going to be a relay orbiter for them. We will be listening to their signal as they come in, and once they land, they will be able to uplink their data to us, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and then we can send it back to the Earth. That way, they can use a lot less power which helps them out quite a bit because they are only sending something 200 miles versus the millions and millions of miles back to Earth. They're going to be a lander, so we really need to pick a good site for them to go for science, because they won't be rolling around, looking around for other things.
Let's see. Then we will have the Mars Science Laboratory. That's going to launch, I believe, in 2009, and if we're still there we still should be there doing our mission we'll be able to do relay capability for them, too. I don't really know what instrumentation they are going to have aboard those, but the MSL should have a very long roving distance capability, so that one is going to be neat to see.
Signal: What would Tracy Drain, systems engineer, like to see the collective "us" do with all this information we're getting from Mars?
Drain: Wow. That's an excellent question. I am not sure I have a short answer to that.
One thing I have to share is that as an engineer, I tend to focus on the "how we get there" as opposed to "what we do with the information while we're there." As part of the rehearsals we have been doing for the primary science phase, I get to sit in on some of the meetings where the scientists pick sites that they might be interested in taking data from, that had been looked at by previous missions in lower resolution. They talk about what they look like, how they might have been formed, why they want to go back and that's getting me excited because these are a lot of things that I've never seen before. You'd think that working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a Mars mission for five years, I would know all there was to know, but no. So it's very eye-opening for me.
I think what I am looking forward to seeing is the scientists coming to a better understanding of how the planet Mars was formed, and using some of that information to understand a little bit better the morphology of our own planet.
One of the things that I like to tell the kids about why it's good to study other planets is because the more you learn about other places, the more you can understand by analogy how the Earth was formed and also the more you come to appreciate the fact that the Earth is very special and is very unique and we need to take care of it.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.