Tracy Drain | Deep Space Exploration, Earth-Like Planet Discoveries, & The Search for Life
Tracy Drain is a Flight Systems Engineer working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Over her 20-year career, she helped develop, test, as well as operate a variety of robotic spacecraft to explore our Solar System.
Above all, Tracy is a life-long learner herself, she loves encouraging people of all ages to nurture their curiosity and explore the wonders that are all around us every day.
Update – Tracy asked us to include this quick correction to the podcast.
The lines and darkened areas on Europa clippers are in natural color images, not just the false-color ones that have enhanced contrast. To see example images side by side, click this link from NASA’s Galileo Gallery. To sum up, listen to Tracy’s episode to discover more about her work.
EXPAND TO VIEW EPISODE TRANSCRIPTION
spacecraft, people, planets, europa, star, places, kepler, mars, scientists, figure, moon, earth, design, mission, develop, find, jpl, system, engineering, asteroid
Tracy Drain, Presenter, Aaron Moncur
Aaron Moncur 00:00
Hello, dear listener, we are looking to add a new member to our engineering team again. Ideally, we’re looking for a Senior Level Mechanical Design Engineer in the Phoenix area who has experienced designing custom automated machines, equipment and test fixtures. Also, having working experience with controls and system integration would be a big plus. If you’d like to apply or suggest someone, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Being an Engineer Podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities. Enjoy the show.
Tracy Drain 00:47
When you think about like, what if there were little green men out there somewhere and we didn’t send the radio signals? How can they come here? Well, even if they came here once every, you know, 10,000 years, say, for the last billion years, like there would have been nothing, nothing nothing. And now we’re spewing out no, right.
Aaron Moncur 01:20
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Being an Engineer Podcast. Today we’re talking with Tracy Drain, who has worked for over 20 years at NASA on a variety of deep space missions and is currently the Lead Flight Systems Engineer for the Europa Clipper Mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL in Pasadena, California. Tracy, welcome to the show.
Tracy Drain 01:44
Thanks, Aaron. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Aaron Moncur 01:46
All right. Well, I’ve been super excited to talk to you. I’ve got tons of questions, and we probably won’t get through all of them, which is fine. But let’s start with a question that I asked everyone at the beginning, which is how did you decide to become an engineer?
Tracy Drain 01:59
It was an interesting path for me to decide to become an engineer, I was one of those kids who was interested in a variety of things. At one point, I thought maybe I’d be a lawyer, maybe I’d be a pilot, maybe I would be an archaeologist, I was kind of all over the place. But one of the kind of constant threads through my interest when I was much younger was science fiction. My mom introduced me to Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, all of that great stuff. And I really did love math and science through most of school. So when I was around the junior and high school, and I started to think about what I would study in college, I wanted something that would give me some kind of path to working in the space industry. And back then I’m old enough, he said, 20 years old enough, we didn’t have the internet. And so I didn’t actually know what an astronomer did all day. And who would hire me, so just go study space. And so engineering seemed like a safer option. And inside engineering, I was even too chicken to go for aerospace, because the thing we knew about the aerospace industry is that it had its ups and downs. And what if I couldn’t get hired, blah, blah, blah. So I studied mechanical engineering, since that would be nice and broad. And I figured any mechanical engineers to build spacecraft. Right. So that’s how it came about.
Aaron Moncur 03:03
Excellent. Excellent. Well, we all know that mechanical engineers are the best engineers. Of course, you might have nuanced opinions about that as you move further along in your course. But mechanical engineers are all friends of mine. All right. Well, one of your responsibilities at JPL has been to identify mission system fault trees, in other words, identifying things that could go wrong, and figuring out ways to prevent or handle them, can you share maybe a specific example of a risk that your team identified, and then what you did to mitigate that risk?
Tracy Drain 03:37
I can. Yeah, so even though I studied Mechanical Engineering in school, when I got hired at the lab, I got hired in as a systems engineer. And I’m sure we’ll talk more about what systems engineering is, but it’s kind of thinking across the broad flight system to determine all sorts of things. And what could go wrong is one of those threads. And when we’ve developed the fault tree, you kind of start with a main critical thing that must go right like lunch about that. We’d like lunch to go. And for lunch, to be considered to be successful, several things have to happen, you need to be on the right trajectory to wherever you’re going. You need to be power positive, not running out of power, you need to be able to communicate with the ground, and you have to have your thermal system stable, like nothing is running off getting way too hot or running off getting way too cold. So if we take the power, for example, in order to have really healthy power on your spacecraft, especially if your solar powered like Europa Clipper or Juno or Kepler or MRO, the other things that I’ve worked on, if you have big arrays that need to get deployed, they have to be folded up like origami to fit inside the launch vehicle fairing. Once you want a bunch of things have to happen for those solar arrays to get deployed and get pointed at the sun so you can be generating power for your spacecraft. And there’s all sorts of things that could not happen in order to get your solar arrays deployed, like the hinges might get stuck or the commands might not go out or the restraints that keep them locked together might not fire so we think through all of those things, and then we try to figure out what can you do in the design so that the failure can’t happen literally. Or if it can happen, is there a redundant part or something you can swap to so that the spacecraft will still do its job. So when we think through the fault trees, we end up with hundreds of different little things that we have to go in and figure out how to design out or to mitigate. And then you have to figure out how to prove it’s going to work either via analysis, or test or some other things. So it’s a it’s a big process. And it’s lots of fun. It’s a little bit scary. It can totally keep you up at night. But it’s it’s one of the more interesting parts of my job.
Aaron Moncur 05:35
Is the fault tree more or less an FMEA?
Tracy Drain 05:39
Ah, so yeah, I’m glad you asked that question. So for people who don’t understand what an FMEA is, but we think of it as the failure modes, oh, wow, failure mode effects analysis, I can’t remember that phrase right now. But that is more of a bottoms up thing, the fault tree is top down, think of what you need to work and then start drilling down to the different levels of branches, the more of what happens if this inside a component, this resistor fails, this capacitor fails this right, and then you figure out what it does to the output of that component and how it impacts the system. And so we have to look at all the funny guys as well, and then figure out whether we have got than joining together from the top down and the bottoms up and didn’t miss anything that we should be taking care of at the system level.
Aaron Moncur 06:23
Got it. So your teams will look at both, then.
Tracy Drain 06:25
That’s correct, yes.
Aaron Moncur 06:27
Okay, and then figure out if they match up. And if there’s a disjointed section somewhere, you figure out well, how do we make sure that it doesn’t stay this bounded like that, and we actually mitigate the wrapping.
Tracy Drain 06:38
That’s a good way to make sure that we’re not dropping something through the cracks.
Aaron Moncur 06:41
Okay. Also, before I go on, I should say, congratulations, in general, on the perseverance mission, I don’t know if you were directly involved with that one. But just as a part of the NASA organization, what a tremendous success.
Tracy Drain 06:55
Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Yeah, I personally did not work on the Rovers. However, way back in my career, I did work on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for about six years. And if you were watching the coverage, you might have remembered hearing Mr. O mentioned as one of the orbiters that was being a really asset, as it was as as the rover gets down on the ground. And MRO Is there a high resolution camera to take a picture of the rover on its parachute as it was going in, which is pretty amazing to me, that we can still do that kind of thing. So way back in the past, I had fingerprints on an orbiter that helps.
Aaron Moncur 07:29
That’s right. Well, on the shoulders of giants, right? That’s right. Very cool. You you were also part of the Kepler Project, which was the mission to to hunt for Earth, like planets orbiting other stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. But I guess if first of all, were any found, and then how would NASA know that an earth like planet was found? In other words, what are the parameters that you look for? And how are they detected by your instruments?
Tracy Drain 07:58
Yeah, so I’m Kepler. For those of you folks out in the audience audience who have not heard of the Kepler mission, please do yourself a favor and go look up what it has discovered, because it just really revolutionized our understanding of how common planets are in our galaxy. So you can think about it this way. There are lots of ways that people had in the past since like the late 80s, early 90s, to be able to find exoplanets with our planets orbiting other stars. And some of the ways kind of make it easier to find super big planets that are really close to their star. If you think there’s this like Doppler Effect you can get if you see us, if you’re looking at a star, and there’s a really massive planets orbiting it, that planet is tugging on the star and makes a wobble and the stars position relative to the earth. And you can detect that and use that in order to learn some things about the planet. But as you can imagine, like stars are whopping big, pretty bad the planet really close to the planet to the or to the star to be able to see that not going to be Earth light not going to be habitable, the thing that Kepler did, and there’s there’s lots of other methods which that would, which have their pros and cons, the thing that Kepler did was to look at the light coming from a star measure the brightness of that star, and for planets that are aligned, right, so they’re kind of think of a hula hoop going around the star with us looking at the hula hoop edge on and the planets are passing between the star and the sun, then it’s like a little dot that blocks sunlight coming from that star. And if you have a sensitive enough way to measure the light coming from the star, you can test the depth and brightness as the planet goes by. And using combining follow up observations from the ground. You can use those things to determine how big the planet is, how close it is to its star, what its orbit is. And so scientists can figure out the habitable zone around a star which is not too close so that you won’t be burned to a crisp like Mercury not too far away so that you won’t be frozen like Pluto, but in the right distance so that if you had an atmosphere and if you had water, it could be liquid on the surface. So that’s that’s the thing that we’re looking for. The thing that’s important about the size is that if you’re too small, like Mercury, you can’t hold on to enough of an atmosphere, because like the hydrogen and oxygen, those things will leak out. But if you’re too big, you’ll hold on too much of that. And you turn into a gas giant like Jupiter like Saturn, which has way too dense of an atmosphere and not not really much ground down there in order to be able to harbor life. But if you’re the right size, then you have enough gravity, maybe if you if you’re still molten inside, you can develop a magnetic field hold on to an atmosphere, those are the things that make scientists go up, then you can find something that’s been the right size and in the right habitable zone around their star. And so when Kepler first started, the way they pointed the spacecraft, it was pointed at a patch of sky in the constellation Cygnus the swan, about the size of your palm held up against the sky, it was looking at well over 100,000 stars monitoring them for that dip in brightness. And, and they chose it so that there were three transiting planets who call it that are lined up right that we could see them pass in front of the star. And so but they were like really big, really close to those stars with that orbit period of like a couple of days, right with their year with a couple of days long. And so those popped right out of the data, we do that the instrument was working super exciting. And then you just have to watch for months and months and months. And over time. That mission was in its primary mission for about four years, they built up this huge data set and literally have discovered hundreds of planets like hundreds and I think.
Aaron Moncur 11:27
Tracy Drain 11:27
Get the number of planets that are in the data set. It’s somewhere around 4700 or so I haven’t looked in a while. And the number of planets that have been confirmed by follow up observations is well over 2000. And there’s a certain smaller number that is like Earth size, and in the habitable zone, which is more than you might think. I’m gonna say a number. But again, I haven’t looked in a long time, I think it might be in that 50 range. But go take a look. There’s all sorts of information online, which is just fantastic. And the thing about the Kepler data too, they did some other things. And their secondary mission was they lost a couple of reaction wheels and needed to point in a more and less challenging away at different parts of the sky. But for the primary mission, the number of planets that were found just in that small patch of sky, if you extrapolate that across the whole Milky Way Galaxy, the scientists have said that, on average, not every star has a planet. But on average, there’s one for every star, some stars have none. Some stars have six, some stars have more. And if you like just multiply that out by the number of stars that are in our Milky Way Galaxy, there’s probably something like well over 100 billion with ad planets in our galaxy, like anywhere you look in this guy’s shirt
Aaron Moncur 12:39
With 100 billion planets, or 100 billion potentially habitable planet.
Tracy Drain 12:44
Planet in general. The last time I read many years ago, when they were talking about potentially Earth size stars that are sorry, Earth sized planets that are in the habitable zone, it was something more around that, you know, single digit nouvion number but still like
Aaron Moncur 12:58
Wow, it’s still staggering.
Tracy Drain 13:02
Digit billion, I don’t remember it was a large number. It’s a lot anyway, about revolutionising our understanding of how common planets are in the…
Aaron Moncur 13:10
Tracy Drain 13:11
Aaron Moncur 13:12
So by measuring the light, you can determine approximately how big the planet is. And it’s it’s relative position with regard to its star. Is that right?
Tracy Drain 13:23
A few things you had to put together like the scientists had done some studies of the stars, and so they know roughly the size of the stars. And then when you look at the dip in brightness that gives you like, you know, you put a tiny area over a bigger area, you can kind of calculate the size of the planet that way. And then there were some other things they did me engineering, not scientists, they could do that to figure out the density of the planets. And I think in order to determine that the how close they are to the star, they had to combine that with follow up survey there’s there’s things they had to do Kepler to figure out the whole set of things that they understand about the planets now what they can’t do. And what I am personally excited to see a mission common leader is actually determine what’s the planet, but have direct evidence of what the planet is made of. And so if you take a planet that has an atmosphere, and then you shove it in front of it star, the light from the star comes through the atmosphere. And if you can subtract the spectrum of the star from what you get when the planets in front of the star, then you can get a sense of what the atmosphere is made of, oh my god. Interesting. And I know that there are proposals for missions to be able to do that kind of thing. And like people lose their minds when we’re first able to actually get a sense of atmospheres of any of the planets that we now know are out there.
Aaron Moncur 14:37
With today’s technology. Can you also tell if there is water added atmosphere?
Tracy Drain 14:43
That I don’t know, I do not know the answer to that. I personally would be surprised but then me not scientists. So I don’t know all the details of what they can do with instrumentation. I think that you’re able to tell if there was a signature of water vapor in the atmosphere. But as far as whether there’s liquid water on the surface I got
Aaron Moncur 14:59
Yeah, yeah. How long would it take with you know, current technology for us to reach one of these planets? This isn’t like a million years. years? Well.
Tracy Drain 15:09
Yeah, it’s a naseously big number. And so the way I think about it is this, the yes, there are ways that we know of that could theoretically get spacecraft to go faster. But the one I like to think about that people are somewhat familiar with is the Voyager Spacecraft, which is traveling, there’s two of them right heading out how the solar system that are traveling at something like 35,000 miles an hour, and if you if you can point those in the right direction to meet up with the closest star to us, which is four light years away, it would take a little under 80,000 years. And most of the planets that Kepler is found, at least when I was looking at their data many years ago, were in, you know, 200 to 2000 light years away. So I’m not exactly next door neighbor’s. I know that there’s a more recent mission that has been launched that is looking for much closer planets, but still it’s yeah, it’s frightening.
Aaron Moncur 15:22
Is there any bleeding edge research out there with that theorizes in the future? how we might be able to get our spacecraft going much, much, much faster? Are there not even any theories at this point? It’s just so far beyond us still?
Tracy Drain 16:20
Yeah. So I think you put enough maybe minds and theories and disclaimers? Yeah. But outside my field, and I haven’t gone to read extensively to be comfortable telling you something that would be like, Oh, look at this guy’s yeah. Now
Aaron Moncur 16:34
Tracy Drain 16:35
Yeah, I got, I would like to think so. Right? Like, I got my interest in space by watching science fiction. So please, somebody make that happen?
Aaron Moncur 16:42
Absolutely. Yeah. Okay, for this next question. I want to make it real clear that I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t be doing this. But how does space exploration help the human race? You know, like, why are we doing this? Why? Why explore deep space? Why explore Mars? Is there a singular goal that we have? Yeah, I just, I would love to hear your thoughts on that.
Tracy Drain 17:03
Yeah. So I personally have two different opinions, right. I’m a person who really resonates with that inner human curiosity to just know about things, right? When you look at little kids running around discovering things, that there’s there’s something about learning anything, understanding how something works, that feels intrinsically worthwhile, just for its own sake, even if it isn’t gonna show a specific benefit to you being able to find food or shelter or any of those things. And so there’s that intellectual just scratching that itch of knowing, right? That’s not very satisfactory. For some people. It is for me, but not for everybody. So the one that I find to be a little more practical, is that we live on this planet, we just talked about how far it is to get to some of the other places that might potentially be habitable. And we have really better not trashing it, it’s gonna be hard for us to go, you know, pull up stakes and move somewhere else. And so it’s very difficult to understand a complex system, like our planet and its climate, when you only have this one system to look at. And I think about scientists examining places like Venus where there’s been this runaway Greenhouse Effect, and then studying places like Mars, which we think might have been much warmer, much wetter, and it’s passed, but it’s atmospheric stuff. And now it’s kind of, you know, you don’t want to build a summer home there, we want to go Okay, that looks cool. But it’d be really hard to live on. And so when you study those places, and you’re able to refine your theories of how planets develop and evolve, and what impacts the different things that are going on, have on their climate, and makes you much more likely to be better able to understand the earth. So in my opinion, that’s one of the big drivers to study things in space. That helps us take care of our home a bit better.
Aaron Moncur 18:45
Great answer. I hadn’t heard that one before. very insightful. Speaking of Mars, do you think it’s it’s is it practical to expect it within the next, I don’t know. 50 years, 100 years that we could terraform Mars and people will start colonizing and living there
Tracy Drain 18:59
Would not that be cool. I really love what is it? Kim Stanley Robinson’s blue Mars, read about red Mars, green Mars, blue Mars, but all those are so so good. So I’m speculating right? As a person who loves fish, I’m sure that there are theories that make sense to me personally. But when we talk about short timescales, that’s when it starts to fail. My last test, right, B, and I think about it this way. There are there are scientists and adventurers who do like exploratory trips to places that are very inhospitable on the earth, like the Gobi Desert, like the Himalayas, right places where you don’t need a spacesuit, but it is very difficult to get there. It’s very difficult to survive. It’s difficult to grow food and have water and all those things. And when we think about it, if you ask somebody, do you think we can go set up a sustainable colony in the Gobi Desert or at the top of Mount Himalaya and the next however many years, you think we’ll probably have a well that’d be hard right? This understand the complexities. And then when you think about a place like Mars, it’s even harder to get up there. It’s even harder to grow. Like, you need a space if you need air, and you need all of these things. And so when I personally, again, this is the opinion of Tracy during the night, NASA think about short timescales, it seems difficult. And also growing up, I heard, you know, we’re gonna have a sustainable outpost on Mars by 2000. But if you push the scales a bit more, what about 100 years? What about 500? years? What about 1000 years? Well, wow, then all sorts of possibilities open up. And I tend to think of the kind of work that we’re doing in space exploration now as necessary baby steps, if we’re ever going to get to those kinds of situations in the future. So I say, in general, yes. But be careful.
Aaron Moncur 20:46
Yeah, what do they say that mankind typically overestimates what we can accomplish in the short term, but underestimates what we can accomplish? Or what we can accomplish in the long term?
Tracy Drain 20:57
I would believe it and my husband would say that applies to me too, because whenever he asked me, how about how much longer you gonna be working tonight? I say one hour, and then three hours later?
Aaron Moncur 21:07
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that sounds like oh, this is the final design, final design three times later. And is it the final design? That’s always the final design? Until it’s not? Alright. Well, a lot of your experience has been with risk mitigation, which necessarily includes verification and validation testing. This is something that is near and dear to my heart, since the core of our business is developing the equipment to do this sort of testing. So first of all, can you explain what are verification and validation? And then can you maybe walk us through how these activities are carried out using an example hopefully, from from one of your past projects?
Tracy Drain 21:45
Yeah, I think about it this way, when we are going to design a very complex system, one of the things that you have to do is set all the specifications upfront, so that when you’re cutting metal or wiring harness, you’re actually doing the right thing. So for folks who aren’t familiar with the word requirement, I think of it as rules, the design has to follow in order to eventually meet the objectives that you’re going for. And verification is when you’re doing whatever testing, analysis, inspection, all of those things to show that your final design actually satisfies those original requirements that you wrote. And validation is near and dear to my heart, because it’s okay, so we’re smart, but we don’t know everything. And maybe if you think about your top level objectives, great, perhaps you didn’t design the define the requirements absolutely perfectly, so that it will actually do the thing that you were looking for. So validation is kind of thinking about, so forget about the requirements, pretend you didn’t write any, and think about what it is that your spacecraft or your car or your whatever it needs to do, and then develop additional testing, inspection, analysis, whatever, to show that your final design is actually going to do those top level things. And if I give you an example, say, and I’ll pick on their apartment size, something very simple. Say that we said our solar arrays need to meet a certain power generation of x, right? And so you can take the arrays, you can stick them in a chamber, you can shine fake sunlight at them and measure the power output and say, Okay, did I meet the requirement that I wrote or not check? But on the validation side, you’re like, Okay, great. So if I’m generating that much power, can I actually do all of the things with the spacecraft that I said, I was going to do, like, we’re going to put it in orbit around Jupiter, it’s going to be at this attitude with the solar arrays away from the sun for this long or toward the sun for this long, and then you generate an analysis that shows that a power scenario, okay, I’m generating this much power. And now I’m on the batteries. And now I’m on the solar arrays and you show going through a step by step here, all the activities the spacecraft are going to do, whether it all hangs together in the end, and you end up with enough energy to do all that stuff. Or if you don’t, because it doesn’t matter what you wrote in the requirements are supposed to generate x amps, right? That it doesn’t hold together and a full scenario with all those details, the might still have to go and make a change.
Aaron Moncur 24:03
Yeah, okay. Well, you’re part of the Europa Clipper Mission now, which will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life. Can you tell us a little bit about what what are conditions like on Europa? I mean, is it just one big solid ice shell around the entire moon? How thick? Is that shell? Is there definitely an ocean underneath? Or is that yet to be verified? What’s going on there?
Tracy Drain 24:33
Hey, definitely sound like the person who was like talking to the scientist to figure out why we even want to send the face out there in the first place. And so for people who haven’t seen a picture of Europa, please go find one. It’s very cool. It looks a bit like a like a cue ball. Only when you look at the the pictures that have like some exaggerated contrast. I’ll say it’s kind of like a dirty cube all but a bunch of scratches all over it and some areas where it looked like someone dropped it in the dirt right? So it’s this Moon, that scientists are pretty sure has a thick shell of ice. We don’t know how thick it is. That’s one of the things that Europa is intending to help us get more of a sense of can be 25 kilometers, maybe 50 kilometers, I am making those numbers up scientists, please don’t hate me. But we’re trying to pick up the trolls. And down that down inside underneath that thick, I shall have however depth, the scientists are pretty sure that there’s a ocean like a moon wide ocean of liquid water, that’s probably more than twice the Earth’s oceans combined. And so way down at the bottom, they think there’s probably a rocky floor. And what’s super exciting about that is you have this moon, that and the reason they think is still liquid. By the way, hopefully, I don’t mess this up too badly. The engineer not scientists, but the moon going around Jupiter, the differences and tidal forces that it feels kind of like squishes and pulls it. And when you think about taking a paperclip and bending it back and forth, back and forth until it breaks and then you touch the end, you can feel that heat there, the friction from the material moving together, that’s kind of what’s happening to Europa as it orbits and so that heat on the inside keeps the water melted. And maybe down there is enough of a heat source that you can think about on earth oceans, or you get those hydrothermal vents. And so way down in the water where there’s not any sunlight getting down there, but you have this energy source from the hydrothermal vents. And you have all this water and you have the necessary chemical ingredients for life as we know a gym, which is CHNOPS is the acronym, let’s see if I can get this right carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur. And those things mixing together with the energy source can potentially develop into all of the molecules that can combine in ways that you need to form life. And so scientists think it’s possible that all of those ingredients exist down under the ice shell of Europa. And we’re super excited to try to study the moon with our spacecraft. We’re not landing yet there were have plans at NASA in general for later at some point in the future, but we’ll be we won’t actually be orbiting the planet. The moon constantly is too difficult to do that because the moon is like buried down inside one of the nasty parts of Jupiter’s radiation field. We’re actually orbiting Jupiter in this big orbit that we tweak in order to fly by Europa about 50 times during the mission. So we kind of fly by really close. And when I say really close, when I first joined the mission and heard what our altitudes are going to be, I’m like, really, is there a zero in there? I think I lost her in the 25 kilometer range. And there are some that are 50 kilometers in 100, which is like, wow, think about something that far away from the earth and then using Europa and Jupiter’s gravity to do low flybys like that. So we’re gonna close the surface, and then like, examine it with all of our instruments that the spacecraft is festooned with in order to learn things about the magnetic field about the the field of particles that we’re flying through, we have a radar that’s one of the key things to help us understand what the ice cell thickness might be there spectrometers to let us get a sense of what materials on the surface because those cracks that have those darker materials seem to be places where when you’re like stressing the moon, but those tidal forces we talked about that water could be coming up and then like spilling onto the surface and refreezing one of the reasons why that moon is so generally smooth. When you look at our moon, you can see crater after crater after crater. Because there’s not like wind and rain and water weathering the surface. But when you look at Europa, it’s pretty smooth. It does have some craters, especially that one giant really pretty one. But not that many, the surface is pretty geologically young, because it seems to be getting resurfaced with upwelling of water over time.
Aaron Moncur 28:39
Interesting. How, when you send a spacecraft off into deep, deep space, how do you ensure or at least mitigate the risk that some kind of space debris, you know, like an asteroid or something doesn’t crash into it, it just destroy it before it gets to its destination?
Tracy Drain 28:57
Yeah, when we’re sending spacecraft from the Earth to somewhere else, there’s all sorts of things we have to think about in the space environment that the spacecraft is going to have to get through in order to get to its destination. There’s the radiation environment that it’s in, there’s tiny little micro meteorites, which you’re talking about. So the kinds of things that we do is some areas need to be better shielded than others, in order to make sure if there are these tiny impacts that it won’t cause damage. But when it comes to bigger things like asteroids, this is something that I found super fascinating and, and it’s a fun thing that I was disillusioned with, in terms of science fiction, because in movies, when you watch spacecraft going through the asteroid belt, you see people having to swerve and avoid asteroids or like huge boulders all over the place. But when I looked into what the asteroid belt distribution actually is, for any asteroid of a size is big enough for us to even know it’s out there. The the distance between individual ones is just obnoxious. It’s like a couple 100,000 kilometers, it’s
Aaron Moncur 29:56
Oh wow. So that much risk of crashing into them.
Tracy Drain 29:58
There really is it’s like, we don’t even have to be like, where’s the asteroid you’d be like winning the lottery. You actually did one of those suckers on your way
Aaron Moncur 30:06
Wow. Well, that works out well for your team. Right makes things easier. Yeah. Okay, going back to Europa, if there is an ocean under that ice shell, and if we did find life there, what do you think that we do with it? Well, I know there, this is a future scenario that we know nothing about. So it’s almost an unfair question. But what do you think we would do next?
Tracy Drain 30:33
Yeah, totally future scenario. Again, since Europa Clipper is not landing and the lander that we’re going to send down, I we’re still, I’m not involved in that when people are talking about the details of what it will be able to do. I don’t know, the likelihood of us actually being able to find things even if they are way down there under the surface, right. But I’ll talk about it as if I were writing a science fiction movie, because that, personally, I think that finding life somewhere else in our solar system will just be very paradigm shifting, right? Because we have this idea that Earth is special that life is only evolved here that it can’t be anywhere else. And the instant, you have a real example, that isn’t just someone’s theory of it really happening somewhere else, it will just change the way we think about life in general, in my opinion. Now, there will be this conversation that you might have heard of this elements, I’m gonna mess up the phrase that there actually has been an exchange of materials between bodies in our solar system, right? There are asteroid or meteorites that have landed on the earth that we can tell have come from Mars, right? So it’s not like they’re completely separate. And we’ve learned things like well, you say, well, wouldn’t the journey from Mars to Earth had to sterilize anything on there anyway, but there’s it’s really interesting story that I heard about, from the lunar lander days where there was a, I think, a component in a camera, maybe that was left on the surface of the moon for some time. And one of the later missions brought it back. And they did a scraping and like, stuck some things in a culture and they can actually get bacteria spores that had been left on the surface of the moon for like, at least a year, I can’t remember how long go look at the story factory people, but they survive, they had gone bacteria can go into the spore like states where they are dormant. And then when they get back to a place that has nutrients and whatever else they need to grow, they can grow again. So there’s this interesting idea that, that this exchange of materials over long periods of time and bodies of the solar system could have spread life around. And so I think it’ll add some urgency to people trying to figure out is that what could have happened? Like, if we were to find evidence of life on Europa, that thing has happened? or could they have been independently developed? Like, I don’t know. But I will be like, sitting back with a bowl of popcorn watching the scientific discussions happening.
Aaron Moncur 32:44
How fun to think about that? Well, it’s Jurassic Park says life we’ll find a way. Right, exactly. Oh, shoot, I had a question in mind. What was it was about we’re talking about potential life on Europa. Oh, I know what it was, in general, among the circles that you run in the basically at NASA, is there consensus where people tend to think you know, what, statistically there probably is life somewhere else in the universe? Or are most people in the camp of now that’s crazy, there’s no such thing as life or Green Man or anything like that we’re alone, we’re special, is there a consensus one way or the other.
Tracy Drain 33:28
So I personally have no idea that there was a consensus, and I would be shocked to my toes if there was.
Aaron Moncur 33:34
Tracy Drain 33:34
But I will tell you my own personal view on that, right. And it comes from my experience working on Kepler and kind of being embedded in the search for planets. And the thing we talked about earlier about how many planets there are, but how far away they are. And also about just the just time and how deep time is. And I love those things where people say, if you compress all of the history of the earth, like from the formation of the earth to now into a single year, then then people will appear on the I can’t remember what the what the value of that is like way toward the end, it’s like a second to midnight or something. And when you think about like, what if there were little green men out there somewhere, and we didn’t send a radio signals? How can they come here? Well, even if they came here once every, you know, 10,000 years, say, for the last billion years, like there would have been nothing, nothing, nothing at all right. And so I personally think that even if there were a possibility for there to be not just microbial life out there but other kinds of life that we would recognize as something that could be interacted with a so freaking far away. I personally cannot see how we’re ever going to get there and be just we could be separated by millions and billions of years and so likelihoods of people being around at the same time in different places and able to communicate to me things vanishingly small, so I tend to be quite a bit of a pessimist. on that scale, but my own personal thing.
Aaron Moncur 35:02
That’s really interesting. I had never thought about the fact that we’ve been sending out radio signals for what, 50 years or something, which is nothing, right? Like it’s like a nanosecond or something in the grand scheme of the universe.
Tracy Drain 35:13
I think it might be almost 100 years now, what was it? Like in the 1930s? Maybe, but anyway, it’s still a nanosecond, right?
Aaron Moncur 35:19
Yeah, right. It’s relatively speaking not much time. Okay. Well, you’ve been an engineer for a long time now. How focused should we be? Should engineers in general, especially younger engineers, be on intentionally finding our role versus just kind of letting ourselves fall into the right more role organically?
Tracy Drain 35:38
Ah, that’s a good question. And my thoughts on that have totally evolved over the years. And I tend to be a little bit in the organic camp. And some of it is because right, when we study engineering, in my opinion, the main thing you get out of a bachelor’s degree in engineering is not, here’s some equations. Very well, I can do stressing out, it’s not really that it’s really learning how to learn and learning how to think logically, I think in engineering, either in mechanical or chemical or electrical or computer sound like pick, your favorite thing really is there to train you and how to think and how to be able to take massive problems that no one’s ever solved before and develop a framework for attacking them and how to break them into smaller pieces. And in order to make your way towards a solution, instead of sitting there just throwing something at the wall to see what’s and then I think a master’s degree in engineering is to kind of put a polish on that and also to train you better how to think more independently, depending on what school you go to, and how strong they are in terms of labs, and independent studies, or projects and all of that stuff. A lot of the undergrad classes can be like open the top of your head for insert information. And like do this problem. Now there’s no problem with just like it and not so much in the find your own path, like here’s, here’s a very ill defined problem, go figure out what to do with it, which is kind of what we need to do in our everyday jobs. And then a PhD, right is pushing that even further and being able to like, extend what we know, in general so that other people can use that and build on the work later. And so when it comes to how definite we should be at exactly what we want to do, I think that because that engineering background, makes you capable of doing so many different things, it’s not necessary to really neck down individually or immediately. And I also think that I mean, there’s internet now. But it’s hard to just know what’s out there and to know what kinds of things you could go do. And for the people who are coming out of school right now, five years from now, there might be opportunities, which literally don’t exist right now, for me, studying mechanical engineering, but knowing that I was intending to go towards the space direction. When I interviewed at JPL in 2000. That was the first time I had heard the phrase systems engineer, literally, like that was that. And as they described to me, I’ll take this opportunity to say a little bit about what that job is, is the person who needs to know enough about all of the different things that need to work together in a complex system to get something done, so that we can make the right trades and decisions, both in design and both as you’re testing and things are working right. What are our options? What can do I know it’s gonna cause some pain over here, but it’ll be better overall for the system, same thing and operations, we launch spacecraft that don’t do exactly what we think they will all the time, what are our options? What can we do about it, I really enjoy that kind of jack of all trades, generalists, and being able to work with the people who have deep detailed knowledge in specific areas, but might not necessarily appreciate those cross system links, to understand why picking something that to resolve a problem that is the best of their area might suck somewhere else, and therefore not be the ultimate best thing to do for the overall mission. I had no idea that that job existed when I was studying engineering, super thrilled to hear about it. When I was in the interview, I like begged and pleaded to get hired, and then worked with a lot of very experienced systems engineers to figure out how to do that job. And so in the rest of my career, right, it’s really cool for engineers working at the lab, because there’s so many projects going on at any given time. We need systems engineers, both at the flight system level where you’re trying to figure out how the thermal system and the telecom system and power and flight software and all of those things work together. But you also need them one step up at the project system level where you’re trying to figure out how the spacecraft and the instruments and the launch vehicle and the ops, folks and the ground data system all work together, but also the next level down where if you take something like attitude control, we have a bunch of different sensors that that spacecraft will use to figure out where it is like star cameras or sun sensors or whatever. And you have a bunch of different actuators like the little reaction wheels that you spend to make yourself spin the opposite direction and the spacecraft or thrusters, you have to figure out how all those things work together as their own system as well. And so it’s cool to me that when you get trained in the thought processes that are very valuable to a systems engineer in terms of design and solving problems, You can apply it across all levels in something like a spacecraft design. And I’m sure that the same thing goes for other elements industry like aircraft or cars or, or factories, right, since engineering thinking is really cool. So I’m still answering your question whether people should have a definite goal or the organic about it, I think that as you are working in your field, and seeing the other things that are going on around you, you learn more about what it is that you could be contributing to you learn more about what it is that you’re interested in, opportunities come and go at times that you can’t really define. So it pays to understand the kinds of things you’re interested in. And then just keep an eye out for when things crop up and be open minded to be able to move into them and learn and grow as you go.
Aaron Moncur 40:44
When you started your position at JPL, you were interviewed by some people, maybe a lot of people, maybe there were multiple interviews, they determined if not the whole day, in terms of it is Tracy, a good for the fit for this position. Tell me a little bit about the opposite. You have you mentioned to me before that you felt like it was really important for you to interview your bosses and feel like you know, is that a good fit from from the other side? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tracy Drain 41:12
I can. And the interesting thing is, I didn’t actually know that when I was first coming on board. That’s something that I learned more when I was inside JPL. And then trying to decide what next rules I would be taking as I was moving through projects. And so when I was first interviewing to get hired, I mean, I was, you know, nine engineers coming out of school, you’re just terrified. You just want everyone to like you, please hire me, right. But it was, it was really, I think the thing that I did understand, and I’m really glad about was that the interview process is so difficult because people they have this tiny window of time, if you they’re trying to feel out your technical knowledge, they’re trying to feel out things as intangible as your ability to learn systems engineering is very, very important to be a good communicator, because you’re listening to people working very specifically and their areas, not necessarily having good insight into other areas. And you have to be able to integrate what they’re telling you integrate with a bunch of people are telling you figure out the right decision, ask the right vibe, like all of those things. And if you don’t like working with people, like don’t do that job. And so I think it’s from from an interviewers perspective, they can kind of sense those kinds of qualities with someone when they’re just on the phone in an interview setting. Later on in my career when I was on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for about six years. And then after that was going to go off and work on Kepler for a couple of years, I got a an email from someone with the subject of your next job. Like, who are you? And what are you talking about. And I got to meet with that person who has been really during the chief engineer for caterpillar at the time, and got to listen to him describe what was going on with the mission is about a year and a half in launch, why they wanted to bring me on board what they wanted me to do. And I had an opportunity to ask him some things about his role, what it is that he was doing, what the rest of the team was like in the project culture. Because when, I mean, I was only on Kepler for two years, but I was on MRO for six, and then later GMO for nine. And when you’re in the midst of a specific team of people for that longer period of time, and you’re spending, you know, eight hours with these folks every day more time than you spend with your friends and family at home a lot of time, then you want it to be an environment that you that you find. What’s the word I’m looking for? You don’t want it to sound good. We like to work with good people who are supportive of each other who like to have a lot of fun, right? It’s it makes a big difference. I think that it’s easier for people to be creative when they’re in a VR environment like that, and forces one that day like really don’t want to be in all day long. And so I always now when I’m about to go take on a different role. I go like talk to various and sundry people on the projects that I’m considering going to just to feel out what it’s like.
Aaron Moncur 43:54
Yeah. Talk to me a little bit about mental fortitude. I mean, you have a stressful job. There is a lot riding on decisions that you make. And I imagine that you feel a lot of stress at times, or at least I would if I were you. And I think a lot of people can probably identify with what that feeling. Based on the role that you have and and how your career has progressed at NASA, I’m going to assume that you have gotten to be fairly good at dealing with that stress. Is that attributable to just the fact that you have really great DNA, you got lucky? Or is this like something that you have intentionally a skill that you’ve developed over time?
Tracy Drain 44:35
Yeah, no, it’s actually the question in quite that way before. So you know, I do think I was always one of those just disgustingly happy kids. No way. Some of it is a little bit baked into my personality. Right. But okay, so and then I’ll tell you in the middle of my career, what my thought process is like is it has evolved recently in the last year because I’ll give you the background. So yes, there’s a lot of stress. Right, because you can put in years of your sweat, blood and tears and to try to get something to work, you have a launch window to make, right. And there’s there’s just a lot riding on what you’re doing just in terms of money in terms of time in terms of prestige for the lab that you’re working for, like you really want it to work. And you can you can get a little crushed by that if you don’t have the right mentality. And so I tend to think about it this way. Yes, all those things are true. Yes, we want it to work. Yes, we will work 80 hours when necessary in order to make it work. But it’s not open heart surgery, right, no one’s gonna die on the table if something goes horribly, horribly wrong. And for me, that’s kind of a perspective to keep it from becoming something that gives you ulcers or like raises or blood pressure too high or anything like that. Now, I don’t know what open heart surgeons tell themselves in order to not be under that much stress. But that is kind of one of the perspectives that I tried to keep personally. Now, when I joined the clipper project, it was really interesting, because I came onto the project as the lead flight systems engineer about six months before a major review that we call our critical design review, which is a five day affair across the entire project, where we have all of the different leads for the various and sundry areas, stand up and talk about, here’s what’s going on with our design, here’s our technical issues. This is why we think we’re going to get to the end game, right. And the point is to get a bunch of senior people from within the lab and external to the lab to look over things with a fine tooth comb and help you find things that you haven’t thought about that could become problems that you need to be spending some more time and attention. So it really is a time where you want to air all the problems, all the major problems and make sure that we’re doing the right thing. And with with the spacecraft as complex as clipper or any of the missions that we send, it’s just it’s an incredible amount of information just to understand periods, and synthesize and then figure out how to get it across to someone in a coherent way. And also, make sure that you you have your handle on all the things that you should have a handle on at that time. And it was challenging. I mean, COVID started in March, I joined the project full time on july first CDR was in there near the end of December. So it was just crazy down. And I had never worked that many hours, every day, week after week. For my entire career. Like it was just it was such a pressure cooker. And it was interesting because it actually made me go and, and do a little more thinking about mindfulness, which is I mean, mindfulness is kind of becoming more mainstream these days. But I think about it this way, it’s a way of, of appreciating the present moment, no matter what you’re doing. And so instead of working those 80, sometimes 90, or what even more hour weeks going, I just I need to get through this until I can get to the point where I can relax, but finding ways to find little micro relaxations and like just breeze through through the day, right. And if you could just take a three minute break and figure out a way to be a little more centered and do that perspective shifting, and not feel like you’re going to die. It’s like it really put a fine polish on my way of thinking about it that way. And even if there’s there’s so many things technically that I’m able to contribute on this mission, that I’m learning from this mission, that I’m going to continue learning as we go and get the spacecraft to launch and all the way out to Europa. But that’s actually going to be one of my main lessons learned from spending time on this mission. And I didn’t expect that at all, to be honest with you, is how to calm yourself. Yeah, it’s how to how to, how do I say it and it’s one of the things you say paragraphs and paragraphs, but it’s hard to like, boil down to a specific sentence, but it’s how to be okay, and to still be enjoying the moment, even when you’re in the midst of things that otherwise might be very, very distressing. And I’ll give you an example. Right, when you’re presenting at CDR in front of like, very senior people remotely, but COVID, and trying to articulate all the things that need to be said and the design trying to make sure you’re being clear so that they can give you the feedback you need in order to do the right thing. For people who aren’t fans of public thinking that could be kind of a terrifying thing. But my perspective on it was like this is the only time in my career that I’m going to get to be the lead flight system engineer, leading the team, leading my flight system engineering team through a critical design review, like this is it like and even if it’s stressful, just enjoy it, because it’s never gonna come back again, and turn that piece of your brain on as a way to be in a more healthy headspace while getting through it.
Aaron Moncur 49:29
Yeah, that’s fantastic. Are there any other tools or strategies that you use to kind of calm yourself down and allow yourself to see I don’t know the the silver lining, so to speak?
Tracy Drain 49:41
You know, I think one of the things because I’m a systems engineer and like a huge part of our job is not just all the technical details and solving the problems and making the right choices, but it’s also seeing the full context around those choices. And it’s surprising to me how sometimes, a lot of the things that we’re doing depends on heavily on the people who are involved. And it’s not it’s not only about personalities, right, I think I’ve been very fortunate over my entire career to work on teams where the people mesh very well. But it’s also just about communication styles. There can be times where we’re in a meeting, we have several options on the table, we’re trying to figure out the right one, maybe we’re under the gun in terms of time pressure, maybe we’re freaking out because there’s some serious technical risk associated with them. And people’s blood pressure can get a little elevated. And it can be really difficult to make a choice because there’s a lot riding the line sometimes. And I think it’s important to remind myself and to, like, verbally remind the people on the team, we are all trying to do the right thing. We’re all trying to get to the right goal. We all want a spacecraft that works. We can’t do 10 of these options. We literally have to pick one. And and I think realigning people that way so that people don’t get so emotionally attached to a single solution when multiple solutions could actually work is important because it can knock some of that unnecessary stress off the edge while we’re just trying to get some get a get a decision made.
Aaron Moncur 51:04
Yeah, yeah. Great advice. Well, I have just one more question for you. This one I think is going to be kind of a fun one. William Shatner or Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk and also Michelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Lieutenant Uhura visited you and JPL at some point in the past. What what was that like?
Tracy Drain 51:24
Yeah, I love that. You said they did it to me. They came to see me.
Aaron Moncur 51:28
Right, they stopped by JPL as well.
Tracy Drain 51:30
That’s exactly, yeah, insanely fortunate to get to see them while they were at the lab. And because I cut my science fiction baby teeth, sitting next to my mom watching the original Star Trek. Just how just insane It was. It was the coolest. And I was so I was such a fangirl. I wasn’t even embarrassed about them, they could take a picture with you. And I love that they were both just very gracious people. And I know they’ve had a lot of practice dealing with fans, and it’s cool for them to come to the lab. I’m not gonna lie. Did you really work there? Yeah. And so I think it was it was really, I think charming to find ourselves in a mutual appreciation, that kind of environment, which was just like I was on the floor die. Because they love the work that we do. And I still love the things that they had done back in the Star Trek land. So it was it was magical, like, marvelous.
Aaron Moncur 52:20
How cool. Well, that’s just terrific. Tracy, thank you so much for spending some time today. You have been a delight to speak with and I really, really appreciate you taking time out of your crazy hectic schedule to make some time for the podcast.
Tracy Drain 52:35
Absolutely. My pleasure.
Aaron Moncur 52:40
I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of Pipeline Design and Engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at teampipeline.us. Thanks for listening
We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Being an Engineer Podcast.
Help us rank as the #1 engineering podcast on Apple and Spotify by leaving a review for us.
Find us under the category: mechanical engineering podcast on Apple Podcasts.
Being an Engineer podcast is a go-to resource and podcast for engineering students on Spotify, too.
Aaron Moncur and Rafael Testai love hearing from their listeners, so feel free to email us, connect on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and subscribe on Apple Podcast and Spotify!
About Being An Engineer
The Being An Engineer podcast is brought to you by Pipeline Design & Engineering. Pipeline partners with medical & other device engineering teams who need turnkey equipment such as cycle test machines, custom test fixtures, automation equipment, assembly jigs, inspection stations and more. You can find us on the web at www.teampipeline.us.
You’ve read this far! Therefore, it’s time to turn your headphones up and listen now to this episode to learn all these. Don’t forget to tell your friends who might like this too!