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NASA/JPL's Emily Manor-Chapman on Mars InSight and girls in STEM

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Jan 19, 2019, 12:03 PM EST

Emily Manor-Chapman is an engineer for NASA/JPL working on the Mars InSight mission that landed on Mars on November 26. The mission has been sending back pics from the red planet and is there to study what is below the surface. We chatted with Manor-Chapman about the mission and what they're looking to find, as well as how she got into science and getting girls into STEM careers.

We'll start right off with asking you about how you got into science.

For me, I got interested in space exploration at a really young age. Actually, when I was starting to read, I got one of those learning to read books about Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first steps on the moon. And for me, that blew my little kid's mind. My god, people can go into space, and they go to the moon, and I think that just really captured my imagination, and from there on I wanted to be an astronaut growing up. 

How did that manifest in terms of schooling?

I wanted to be an astronaut, I really liked space, but I really didn't know how you had a career in that besides being an astronaut until I got into high school and then I started having older friends who were going into engineering, and that's where I first started learning about what engineering was. And I was able to do some job shadowing at local companies and really starting to figure out what can you do with engineering. 

And then going into college, I seriously searched on the internet, what degrees do astronauts have. And that's where I found out that aerospace engineering was a thing. So then I figured out, you can go to school and learn how to build stuff that goes into space. 

What sort of sci-fi influences and genre influences were big in getting you into the career? 

I kind of hated sci-fi growing up.


I didn't really have anyone around me who was super into sci-fi, so I didn't have a lot of exposure to it. And I read a couple books, but I read The Time Machine and stuff, and that was not the best book to start a kid off with for sci-fi. So I was like, sci-fi is stupid. Also, I think there was at that time, growing up in the 90s, it wasn't like it is now for kids, where it's cool if a girl likes science and stuff. So I think there was still that general only nerds like sci-fi thing. Today it's like, it's cool if you're a nerd and like sci-fi. 

So I think I definitely just more focused on non-fiction. I was in the young astronauts' club where we learned about astronomy and things like that, as opposed to really watching a lot of sci-fi. In high school is when I really got into Star Wars, because my friend's little brother had a VHS of The Phantom Menace, and I was like, I'm going to watch this. And I was like, oh this isn't bad. And I went and dug out my dad's old Star Wars tapes and started watching those, because I do remember seeing Star Wars as a kid, A New Hope, and not liking the trash compactor scene because I thought the monster in there scared me. And that was the only memory I really had of Star Wars. So I was really getting into it in high school. 

Tell us what your job at NASA/JPL entails. 

So my title at the Jet Propulsion Lab is a systems engineer. And what a systems engineer does is, I'm usually focusing on how parts of our mission or our spacecraft work together. So what I was doing for InSight, which just landed on Mars this week, I started out as a payload systems engineer. And what that means is, we're looking at... instruments are built by separate teams from the team building the spacecraft. And we're looking at how are those instruments going to interface with the spacecraft. Are they building the right instrument, are they building the right thing from the spacecraft side so that those things are going to fit together and work well together?

So when we're doing in systems engineering, what we're doing is we're looking at two parts of something, and how are they going to work together. And that goes throughout the mission. It's not just looking at how pieces of hardware fit together. It could be how our team's going to work together, how is our data going to get from Mars to Earth. So systems engineering goes throughout a space mission, so there's lots of cool ways that you can do system engineering and it gives you really cool high-level views of how the whole system works together.

What can you tell us about launch day?

It was an amazing day. InSight is only the eighth mission to land successfully on Mars. So as you can imagine, we were all very nervous, also very excited, because when you look at the numbers less than half of the missions before Monday that had ever gone to Mars, whether it was a lander or an orbiter, had ever been successful. So there's definitely an element of risk any time we send something to Mars. We were very excited, but also very nervous. It went so perfectly. It was so fun getting to watch it with my teammates. I was in there screaming, jumping up and down when we landed successfully. And then we got two pictures from the surface of Mars that day taken with our cameras on board. Oh my god, just seeing those pictures, and knowing that they were on Mars, it's so hard to explain. It was great.

So we launched actually May 5th, from Vandenberg Air Force Base. We were the first mission planetary mission to ever launch from the west coast, so that was really a fun first. And it took us about six and a half months to get to Mars.

So what are you looking for to happen with InSight now that it's there?

So InSight is the first mission to Mars to focus on what's going on below the surface of the planet. All of the other missions we've sent have focused on the surface or the atmosphere. With InSight, we want to learn what's going on deep inside the planet. So it's what we call a geophysical mission. We're focusing on how did terrestrial planets form and evolve, and what are they made of. So we carry instruments that can tell us what are each layer of Mars made of. How is heat moving around inside the planet? What kind of seismic activity is going on Mars? And that informs us about how Mars formed and evolved, and also terrestrial planets, Mars and Earth are both what we call terrestrial planets. They're rocky planets. And so by learning about Mars, we'll actually be able to apply what we learn to Earth and other rocky planets as well.

So is this the sort of thing that's going to be taking up all of your time, or are you working on multiple missions at once?

InSight is mostly taking up all of my time. I do spend a little bit of time on other missions as well. Up until early this year, I was also working on Juno, which is a space probe to Jupiter. And now I've started doing just a little bit of work for an Earth mission that's called NISAR. It's a joint NASA-Indian Space Agency mission, where we're going to be measuring... it's an Earth orbiter and we'll be measuring changes in land mass, water, ice coverage, things like that.

I don't know if you even have a typical day to day, but if you do, what would it be like?

Well right now, I'm working on InSight. Now that we've landed, the next about three months our focus is on deploying our instruments. So we carry two instruments that we actually want to set onto the surface of Mars. So we carry a seismometer, which we use here on Earth to measure earthquakes, and we're going to use it on Mars, to measure Marsquakes. But to get the best data with that, we need to put it on the surface of Mars. And then our other instrument that we carry is a heat probe, and it actually is like a self-hammering mole. You can think of it as a large nail, and it will hammer itself down up to 16 feet underneath the surface of Mars. And it trails behind it temperature sensors, and it's going to tell us how warm Mars is inside, and how that temperature over time changes.

So obviously for when it drills into Mars, we have to get that onto the ground, too. So InSight carries a robotic arm that will lift those instruments up off the top of our lander and put them onto the ground. You can think of the arms as that carnival claw game.

So we pick them up and get them onto the ground. So that's what we're going to be doing for about the next three months. The way we do that is we plan a day at a time for Insight. We work about four to five shifts a week. We have a very small team so we don't work every day. And we'll come in for that day, and we'll say, okay, look at the data we got from the day before, and say, are we ready to do the next step? And we'll plan out that set of instructions that we want to send to the lander that day to do the next day. 

So we basically plan a day at a time. So that's my typical day right now. And what we've been doing this week is, I was working every day, looking at the data that InSight's sending back to us, and deciding what we want to do next. And so we have what we call an operations room, and so everyone who is either looking at data or writing instructions to send out that day, we all work together in that room. We usually have about ten-hour shifts, so we'll sit in that room altogether, and we'll work together and get that plan made.

Obviously just doing missions like this is going to get a lot of kids interested in STEM careers, but what would you say is a positive push that's happening right now, or are there any programs you're seeing to help get girls into STEM?

I think there's just been such an awesome proliferation of programs looking to when I was a kid, to what we have now, and one of them is just the internet. It's so much easier to now find those opportunities, or find people who do the things that you think are interesting. It's so much easier to make those connections. But the Girls Who Code program is really cool. So I think my advice I always gave, was if you think you like something, then go learn something about it, whether it's finding some resources on the internet, or going to a camp about it. Try it, learn something about it, and if you decide it's not for you that's fine, go on to the next thing. But I think there are so many good learning opportunities for kids and girls out there now.

You can follow Emily Manor-Chapman on Twitter @EnginerdEmily. You can keep up with the Mars InSight mission here.

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