Meet Tracy Drain: Systems Engineer at NASA

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Photo Credit: Tracy Drain on episode from The Planetary Society

Earlier last month I visited NASA JPL to watch as the spacecraft Juno entered orbit around Jupiter. I was a social media ambassador for NASA Social and it was there I saw Tracy Drain go into detail about what she does as a Systems Engineer at NASA. So I got in touch to get the story about Juno!

When did you join Mission Juno and what is your job?
I joined the project in May 2009 after working on the Kepler mission (and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission before that). One of the things I do as a Systems Engineers is spend time thinking of things that can go wrong during a mission and what we can do to either prevent those things from happening or ensure the mission can continue even if they do. When you are trying to do something complex like send a spacecraft to Jupiter or Mars, you need “generalists” who understand how everything works together. In the Aerospace industry (and other fields as well), we’ve learned that problems can slip through the cracks if we only focus on individual components or subsystems (like telecom, power, thermal and so on). Systems Engineers make sure the mission is designed to ensure that all the subsystems work efficiently and effectively together. We are involved in a lot of the different aspects of the design and our duties change dramatically depending on the stage of the mission.

What is the most important skill you use as a Systems Engineer?
As a Systems Engineer I am not an expert on every subsystem but the goal is to anticipate how all parts of the system would affect other parts (and how they all work together as a whole). Aside from that technical knowledge, it is equally important to be a great communicator and be able to understand the perspectives and insights of others.

What is an example of a task a System Engineer would do?
As mentioned before, Systems Engineers often look for what could go wrong. A fault tree is one tool we use to seek out and address those potential problems. We start out by listing the objectives that need to be met to ensure a critical phase of the mission is “Aside from that technical knowledge, it is equally important to be a great communicator.”successful (the Launch Phase, for instance). For example, the spacecraft’s power system needs to be “power positive” (generating power) and stable soon after launch, for the Launch Phase to be considered a success. The next step in developing that piece of the fault tree would be answering the question, what would make the power system not be stable? One item could be that the solar arrays did not get deployed. So the next step under that branch of the tree would be to ask what things could lead to the arrays failing to deploy. And so on. And to answer those kinds of questions and work our way down to the individual faults on the tree (what we call the “leaves” at the ends of the branches), we work with the subsystem engineers (the specialists in their specific areas) to determine how dangerous each situation would be and if we could work around it if it occurred or if we need to prevent it from happening entirely. This kind of analysis helps identify the vulnerabilities in the overall system and helps ensure we design a robust system that can handle the unpredictability of operating in space.

Photo Credit: PBS Design Squad

Did anything surprise you with Mission Juno?
Space travel is complex and sometimes things don’t always go the way you would expect them to, no matter how careful you are. We design spacecraft to detect when they are experiencing a problem, and put themselves into a safe state. Something like that happened when we flew by the Earth to get a gravity assist in October 2013. During the Earth flyby we knew that the Earth would block the sun from reaching the solar arrays for a short period of time, and the spacecraft would be using the energy stored in its batteries. Except during launch, this was the only time that would happen during the mission and we of course planned for it in our power analysis. But the spacecraft interpreted the power drop during that period a little differently than we did when we were doing our analysis on Earth. Even though the amount of power used from the batteries was perfectly fine, the spacecraft thought that it had a problem and entered safe mode. We understood rather quickly what had happened, and made adjustments to the way we were doing our analysis so we were in sync with how the spacecraft was handling things. But when things like this happen, we take the opportunity to step back and ask ourselves whether anything else like that might be going on in the way we operate the spacecraft, so we can catch any other similar potential issues before they occur.

What would be your advice for students who are handling their own disappointments when things don’t go as planned?
Disappointments in school can be jarring. I got two D’s during my freshman and sophomore years – ouch. I realized in my sophomore year of college that it was important to ask for help. Someone I know put it really well: she said she realized at some point that if you aren’t doing well at something it isn’t necessarily that you aren’t as smart as the other kids, but that they may already be asking for help and making use of all of their resources. Fortunately I was given that message really early. Chemistry and Thermodynamics are the subjects that were a struggle for me. I learned that my school at the time allowed students to repeat up to 3 classes in their undergraduate years and replaced the older grades with the new grade. Sometimes people just need to see something a second time to really absorb the subject, which was certainly true for me, for those two. I also joined study groups, which helped a lot. I feel fortunate that no one told me I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer during this time just because I wasn’t making straight A’s in every subject. I have seen students drop out because of that kind of discouragement, only to wish later that they could have taken steps to improve and eventually earned their degree.

“Your GPA can be important but it does not always determine if you will or will not get hired.”

I also think students should realize that they can short change themselves if they get caught up in the focusing on just getting their A and keeping a super high GPA. That can lead them to be overly focused on memorizing (vs. really learning) and regurgitating problems that are just like the example problems (vs. being able to use an understanding of fundamental concepts to work out how to solve new problems). Your GPA can be important but it does not always determine if you will or will not get hired, and whether, if you are hired, you will be a great engineer. For example, someone shared a story with me that they were hired with a GPA of 3.0 even though they were competing against students with much higher GPA’s. They were lucky to be brought the attention to a researcher who was specifically interested in hiring women for an internship. But after landing the internship, the student demonstrated that she had a really good work ethic, learned a lot during her internship and did a fantastic job with the task she was given. Because she took advantage of her time as an internship to really show what she could do in the real world, she ended up getting hired as a full time employee.

What is your advice to other students, especially other female students, looking to enter into the space industry?
Take advantage of your time in school to really learn how to learn. Take advantage of internships because they give you the opportunity to learn if that field is right for you and for you to make a reputation with a potential employer. You also want to realize that just one internship is not going to be representative of the engineering experience you might have everywhere else. If you don’t like the environment you find yourself in the first time, don’t give up on engineering (or computer science or whatever your field is) without at least considering trying a different department or company first.
“Take advantage of internships because they give you the opportunity to learn if that field is right.”As for entering a male dominated field, sometimes people are uncomfortable with a large male to female ratio. Sometimes well-meaning people who give female students negative messages about this just don’t understand how the much world is changed for the better (like my grandfather, who used to go on and on about it). Or they haven’t had the same opportunities and want to spare you from disappointment because they think you also won’t be able to land a job as an engineer. My story has been rather “boring” when it comes to this… I made friends with a couple of other female mechanical engineering students and so never felt like the odd-person-out in classrooms that were predominately male. In of the places that I have worked as an engineering intern or full time employee (GE Appliances, NASA Langley and JPL), I have never felt like I was treated any differently from the male engineers. So my perspective is that being a female in a male dominated area didn’t have an impact on my career, as far as I can tell. But in general, I would tell students to seek many opinions when they are trying to get a feel for how to weigh different factors in making difficult decisions. If they are worried about being a female engineer or scientist etc., they should talk to female professionals, teachers and counselors to get multiple perspectives on what things were like for them. The internet is out there as well (which we didn’t have when I was growing up!), and that is a great place to find find role models.

What should a student major in to become a Systems Engineer?
“The most important lesson from college is learning how to think critically.”There are differing schools of thoughts on how to become a great Systems Engineer and people will argue about which path is best. Some think you should start with expertise in a subsystem (like telecom, power, thermal, etc.) before moving into the realm of Systems Engineering. Others argue that it is better to start out as a Systems Engineer (so you can get used to “big picture thinking” right from the start) and then learn more about how the subsystems work. Personally, I think either path can work well. As far as what to take in school, I think any of the basic engineering tracks allows you to get a great foundation – Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace engineering, Electrical Engineering, etc. Or Computer Science. Even a Physics or Math degree can be a great place to start for someone who eventually wants to be a systems engineer (though most people I have met who started in one of those areas went on to get a Master’s degree in one of the engineering disciplines before getting a full time job). I know that some schools now offer Systems Engineering as a major, but I’m not sure if I would recommend starting there (vs. starting with a different discipline, perhaps working for a while and considering a Systems Engineering Master’s degree later). It would be a good idea for students to talk with other professionals and teachers to get other perspectives. And it is worth repeating; the most important lesson from college is learning how to think critically and learning how to learn, and you can do that with almost any major. Definitely for someone like me, working as a Systems Engineer on deep space missions, you are going to learn most of the skills you need on a daily basis after you get on the job.

Who inspires you and why?
My mom is still the person who really inspires me. She does not come from a technical background, but the reason she inspires me is because she would always do anything she was asked to do to the very best of her ability. She never went to college but she rose to be manager at McDonald’s. She left that job while I was in high school and moved on to do something entirely different, working at a place that sold and repaired eyeglasses. She has become one of the well-respected people at her store, and they seem to really want her to take on a management position there as well. She has always been interested in space, Star Trek and Star Wars – that is certainly why I developed an interest in space myself. And she has always been my cheerleader, encouraging me to do well in school and to achieve my goals. Even though I’ve technically “arrived” as a professional in the Aerospace industry, she still encourages me to keep chasing my dreams.

What is next for you?
I really love the kind of work that I am doing. I’m not sure what will be next for me after Juno; but I kind of have my eye on the upcoming mission to Europa. I would be happy to be a Systems Engineer on that mission at some point; but we will see how things turn out. One thing that is great about working at JPL is that there are always new things to get involved in – you never know what may be next!

Learn more about Tracy Drain by watching these videos from PBS and The Planetary Society


Written by:

Cami is about to start her senior year in Mechanical Engineering at Boise State University. She currently holds a Machine Learning internship at HP and is looking to break into industry with Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. After starting with the NASA Aerospace High School Scholars she has also participated in other NASA programs such as Microgravity University Undergraduate Research. She is also a committed and active volunteer for other STEM and Diversity groups and organizations. Stay tuned to see what she does next!

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