Join the Cosmosphere on Thursday, July 30 at 6:30 am CDT as Michael Staab, Cosmosphere Camp alumnus and current Fault Management Systems Principal Engineer for the Lunar Lander and Lunar Gateway programs at Northrop Grumman, joins us for a virtual event leading up to the live launch of the next Mars rover: Perseverance. Perseverance is set to launch at 6:50 am CDT on July 30. (this time is subject to change.)
Perseverance’s mission is to search for ancient life on the Red Planet. Staab will offer insights about the rover and its mission before the launch and commentary during live-streamed NASA event. Following the launch, Staab will take questions from the Cosmosphere’s online audience.
To learn more about the Mars 2020 mission, go here.
What happens when two Cosmosphere Camp alums get together to talk about space, science and Mars? You get this amazing article from an insider perspective!
Cosmosphere Mars 2020 Q&A with Cosmosphere Camp Alumni, Michael Staab and Sandy Marshall
“From Hutch to the Moon”
by Sandy Marshall
I recently sat down with fellow Cosmosphere Counselor alum Michael Staab, an engineer working on NASA’s Artemis mission to the Moon. We talked about the in’s and out’s of working for NASA, piloting spacecrafts, the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, and what he learned as a Flight Director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Tell Us About Your Journey From the Cosmosphere to NASA.
After working at the Cosmosphere as a Camps counselor, I went to college at Wichita State and interned at the Armstrong (formerly Dryden) Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. NASA stands for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” and I was working on the type of work you’d find in the first “A.”
We focused on quiet supersonic work, building intelligent flight control systems, and working with the flight test engineering group. After graduating from Wichita State, I worked for a year at Boeing, got a Masters at Georgia Tech, and was hired as a Flight Controller for Cassini at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was very lucky to work on a bucket list of projects by serving as a Flight Director for a mission, flying a spacecraft around Saturn, and watching the Spirit and Opportunity landings.
I’m now working as the Fault Management System Autonomy Engineer for Lunar Missions at Northrop Grumman Corporation, with a focus on the Gateway lunar outpost and Lander on NASA’s Artemis mission.
What’s the Main Purpose of Artemis?
Artemis is a crewed spaceflight program aiming to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon’s lunar south pole region by 2024. Seeing as how we’re half-way through 2020, the timeline is accelerated and pretty exciting. Thanks to NASA’s partnerships with multiple agencies and countries, we’re on a solid path towards success: and once we’ve accomplished certain goals with the ISS and Commercial Crew program, we’re heading back to the Moon.
Tell Us About Your Role in the Upcoming Lunar Mission.
As a Fault Protection Engineer, I keep the spacecraft from doing something it’s going to regret. Fault Management and System Autonomy is a combination of software and distributed sensors that monitor the spacecraft’s health and performance. When something happens on the spacecraft, software detects and executes tasks to protect hardware, maintain system performance, and ensure the completion of mission critical activities. Examples include maintaining cabin pressure and temperature, restoring power to devices, swapping to redundant hardware, and creating levels of autonomy so the spacecraft can effectively run on its own. It’s a unique discipline of systems engineering that requires in-depth knowledge of a lot of other engineering disciplines, which makes it both challenging and rewarding.
And since we’re focusing on the upcoming Lunar missions at Northrop, my job is a bit different: at JPL we were sending robots to Mars, and at Northrop we’re sending people to the Moon.
So How Does That Change Your Approach to Spacecraft Design and Function?
Well, along with sending robotic spacecrafts to Mars, such as the Perseverance rover targeted to launch later this month, we’re now planning to send men and women to the Moon. At JPL, we like our spacecraft, but they don’t have to support people. Sending people into space requires a different way of thinking, because you have to design a spacecraft that can maintain pressure, a breathable atmosphere, and a certain temperature…because people don’t like it when it gets too hot or too cold.
It’s been interesting to make the transition from working at JPL, with a focus on robotic missions to Mars, to working at Northrop and building systems for people to live 300,000 miles away from Earth.
What Are the Main Priorities of Mars 2020, Which Is Targeting a Launch in Late July?
Mars 2020 will aim to answer one of the great questions in history:
Was there once ancient life on Mars?
Previous Mars missions have taught us a lot about the red planet. The Pathfinder rover proved we could perform geology on a mobile platform. Spirit and Opportunity took the mobile capability, and showed Mars once had water on its surface, a thick atmosphere, and a very temperate climate. The Phoenix lander proved Mars still has water in the polar ice caps, and the Curiosity rover proved Mars once had the right chemistry to support life.
Basic life requires four primary elements: organic chemistry, a solvent like water, an energy source like the Sun, and time. Time is the big requirement, because you need chemical reactions and processes to happen over hundreds of millions of years.
Geologists are looking for locations on Mars, such as the Jezero Crater, once an ancient river delta, to determine if ancient life might have existed on Mars.
They’ll send the Perseverance rover to Jezero Crater, along with an array of instruments to help determine signs of ancient life. These include spectrometers to determine the chemical composition of rocks and soil, a suite of cameras for high resolution imaging, a laser to burn oxidized iron off of rocks, and a ground-penetrating radar to help paint a picture of the site’s potential to once support ancient life.
If these elements are in place, the rover’s Sample Caching System will drill a hole into the rock, extract and seal sample, and leave the samples for retrieval by another mission (Mars Sample Return) to return those samples to Earth, which is currently under study by NASA and the European Space Agency.
Mars 2020 also has a pretty cool flying instrument called Ingenuity, which will demonstrate heavier-than-air flight on another planet for the first time, and MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), which will produce oxygen from the Martian carbon-dioxide atmosphere.
What Typically Happens Behind the Scenes During a Launch?
Well for my part, I won’t have a role in the Mars 2020 launch…I’ll be an interested spectator just like everyone else.
The challenge with flying to Mars is that with interplanetary navigation, we’re aiming for where Mars is going to be 8 months from now, and not where Mars is today. So to fly to Mars, the Mars rover has to lift off in the launch vehicle during a precise window, reach an elliptical orbit, and then hit a specific location in space at a specific time in order to travel to the planet.
So the engineers not only have to make sure that the spacecraft is in working order to launch, but also in the right condition to actually fly to another planet once in Earth’s orbit flying over 17,500 mph.
During launch countdowns, we’re typically making sure that the spacecraft and systems are ready to go. For example: maintaining the proper level of battery power is critical, and the lithium ion batteries in the Mars rover have to be charged to a specific state. Temperature is also a big factor: we want to make sure the spacecraft’s electronics aren’t too hot or too cold.
For the Mars 2020 Perseverance launch, United Launch Alliance will be managing the Atlas V launch vehicle, so they’ll be coordinating the launch alongside JPL, who’s managing the Mars rover spacecraft…and both ULA and JPL will coordinate with the 45th Space Wing, who will be managing the physical launch range in Florida.
What Was It Like Working as a Mer Flight Director at JPL?
Well, it’s funny, I actually had this reputation as the spacecraft “Grim Reaper,” because two of the missions I’d worked on during my first few years had gone away. The first, Cassini, was intentional; the second, Opportunity, was not.
I was the Flight Director on shift when a dust storm began to grow over the top of Opportunity, and also later during the recovery process. Once we found out about the dust storm, there was very little we could do. And even though it was a hair-raising week, it was one of the best experiences of my career: I learned about how to lead a team, how to manage a crisis, and how to make good decisions based on limited information.
What Lessons Did You Learn About Managing Teams in High-Pressure Situations?
Spaceflight is about managing risk: and the most important lesson is that no matter what happens, when the chips are on the table, you have to remain calm and stay focused.
You also have to trust your team. When I’m working as a Flight Director, I’m leading experts in a wide variety of fields and subsystems that affect the spacecraft. So if I have a subsystem expert who’s recommending a specific solution to a specific problem, and I know she’s been working on a particular subsystem for over a decade, then I’m going to trust her in that moment and follow her lead.
It’s also important to solve problems one at a time, and do what you can with your information and tools. Gene Kranz, the legendary Flight Director, famously said: “Work the problem, and don’t make it worse by guessing.”
After all: when you’re working on something that’s over 100,000,000 miles away, there are things you just can’t control.
What’s Your Advice for People Looking To Learn More About Working at NASA?
I’ve always been inspired by NASA’s work, and the fact that the agency serves to ask fundamental questions of the universe through peaceful exploration. How did the solar system form? How does the universe work? Does life exist elsewhere? What does that tell us about us, and our place in the galaxy?
Engineering is fun because it’s challenging…and if you want to work at NASA, you have to like challenges. And an early curiosity about these questions led me to attend, and later work at, the Cosmosphere Camps, study engineering at Wichita State, and eventually work at NASA.
What Was Your Favorite Part About Working at the Cos?
The Cosmosphere really meant a lot to me, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing campers get excited about space exploration and build on sources of their inspiration.
For obvious reasons, I keep up to date on the current trends in the space industry, especially the Commercial Crew and Artemis missions. Now that I’ve applied to join the Astronaut corps, that’s even more the case. I think being the first Cosmosphere camper and Wichita State Alumni to go to space would be the highlight of my career and a real game-changer for both these incredible institutions.
Michael Staab (@AstroStaab) serves as Fault Management and System Autonomy Engineer for Lunar Missions at Northrop Grumman, and is a former MER Opportunity Flight Director. Michael holds a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Wichita State University, a M.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Astronautical Engineering and the University of Southern California. He is an Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer for the United States Navy, aspiring Astronaut, and former Cosmosphere Camps counselor.
Sandy Marshall (@MarshallSandy) is an Emmy-nominated writer/producer, TV/film actor (Odd Squad, The Dilemma), former director at the world famous Second City, and entrepreneur. A longtime space enthusiast, Sandy is Solar System Ambassador for NASA’s JPL, 3x NASA Social Alum (having covered the first night launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy), and co-producer of REACH: A Space Podcast for Kids. He an alum of Drake University’s Board of Trustees (his alma mater), and former Cosmosphere Camps counselor.