Tracy Drain’s job is to literally “go where no one has gone before.” Drain is systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. In this cellphone image, she stands with one of her childhood inspirations … Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura. The image was taken when Nichols visited JPL on Aug. 15, 2016, during the time when Tracy was the deputy chief engineer for the Juno mission to Jupiter.
So what exactly does a systems engineer do?
This is what Drain does in her own words: “When you think about a spacecraft and all the different parts that are necessary to make a spacecraft work, there are engineers who focus on designing/build each of those specific areas (like telecommunications, thermal, attitude control, etc.). But a systems engineer is responsible for knowing enough about all those things so that we can make sure they come together in acohesive flight system design that will accomplish the overall goals of the mission.
The things I do on a day to day basis change over the life cycle of a mission. Early on, you’re involved in developing the requirements, which are the rules the design has to follow so you can meet your mission goals. You work with people at all the different levels (project, spacecraft, subsystems like attitude control, etc.) to make sure all those rules are written properly to drive the design process. Then you participate in confirming that the design actually does meet those requirements by weighing in on which analyses and tests to perform. You work with the other engineers to review analysis and test results -and when some things inevitably don’t go exactly as planned, you work with the team to figure out what to do about it.
“Then after launch and during operations, we’re busy flying the spacecraft. I would help develop command products that would be sent to the spacecraft to do activities. It’s all about monitoring the information that’s coming down from the spacecraft, making sure it’s responding the way it’s supposed to, and if things go wrong, understanding what happened and helping the team get the spacecraft back on track.
“It makes for a very exciting, never-a-dull-moment kind of job!”
After leaving the Juno mission, Tracy became the deputy project system engineer on the Psyche mission, which is slated to launch in August 2022 to visit the asteroid (16) Psyche.
Image Credit: courtesy of Tracy Drain