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Tracy Drain: Flight Systems Engineer

5 minutes

(Tracy Drain) This is Jupiter. It's one of my favorite planets because it's just gorgeous. I'm Tracy Drain, a flight systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. A system engineer is the nerve center where the whole project comes together. Systems engineers know what everyone is doing and how every part of the spacecraft works and fits together. They call it the big-picture outlook. Other engineers focus on certain small areas and things can get lost in the cracks. Systems engineers see the broad project and make sure we don't forget things that could cause us problems later. It's a big job.

(announcer) Three, two, one. Ignition and liftoff of the Atlas V with Juno, on a trek to Jupiter, a planetary piece of the puzzle of our solar system. The mission I'm on is called Juno. This is Juno, and it is the first solar-powered spacecraft to go to Jupiter. Juno is an unmanned deep-space mission which is going to where it's hard to send humans with the technology we have today. Juno is like a big giant robot with eight science instruments that collect data about the planets and their magnetic fields. It's important for us to send robotic autonomous spacecraft to gather the information we would need to learn about the environment for when we do send people out to those distances. Here we are at the environmental test lab at JPL. What you're seeing here are large thermal vacuum chambers that the team can use to check equipment going up into space. The thermal vacuum chamber is like a soda can that you can suck the air out and make the outside really cold. When you put something inside, with the cold outside, it's gonna be like it's in space. When we shut this door, we would suck all the air out, creating a vacuum to simulate what the instrument would see in space. We can then shine light through this window from the solar simulator.

(man) There we go. (Drain) There it goes. The energy it produces is strong enough to cook a hot dog. It's a giant flashlight through which simulates the sun shining on something in space. That way, we can simulate as closely as possible the conditions this instrument is gonna see out in space. We discovered that when the spacecraft is closest to the sun, that instrument would get warmer than expected, warm enough that we might worry that the instrument could not do its job at Jupiter as well as it was designed to. Being creative and problem solving is something a systems engineer has to be comfortable with. There will be problems never seen before. They're gonna be complicated. I like to do many things. I read sci-fi and fiction. I also like stuff that's fun, like laser tag. I caught the space bug when I was around seven years old. I loved looking up at the stars and learning the names of the constellations. From being a kid to being someplace that's doing cutting-edge exploration of the solar system is incredible. I pinch myself to think that this is my career.

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Tracy Drain is a flight systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. As a child she became interested in space, and now she makes sure all the parts and systems in a spacecraft work as expected. She enjoys solving new, complicated problems. Part of the "Design Squad Nation" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

Design Squad Nation
Episode 1
5 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Design Squad Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Design Squad Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Design Squad Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Design Squad Nation
Episode 5
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Design Squad Nation
Episode 6
4 minutes
Grade Level: 3 - 8
Design Squad Nation
Episode 7
4 minutes
Grade Level: 3 - 8
Design Squad Nation
Episode 8
3 minutes
Grade Level: 3 - 8
Design Squad Nation
Episode 9
4 minutes
Grade Level: 3 - 8
Design Squad Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 3 - 8