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Highlighted Team Member: Susan Ensor
Software Engineer Oversees MESSENGER Science Operations

Susan Ensor with her father, Phil, circa 1986Susan Ensor with her father, Phil, circa 1986.

From the seven instruments and the radio science experiment on the MESSENGER spacecraft, hundreds of thousands of images, millions of spectra, and many other types of data have been collected, and the more than 10 terabytes of science products created from those data will be analyzed for decades. The mission’s Science Operations Center (SOC) enabled the team to collect and catalogue the data, and for the last eight years Susan Ensor has led the center’s efforts.

Ensor, a computer scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., for nearly 30 years, didn’t come from a family of scientists. Her parents both grew up in rural Illinois, where her mother attended a one-room school through eighth grade and later became the valedictorian of her college class. Her parents met when her father participated in a donkey basketball game – literally, a basketball game in which players compete on donkey-back – at the high school where her mother taught. Her father was Goodyear Corporate Director of Organizational Development, and both “were always extremely supportive of my education and career, with my father encouraging me to do something significant and non-traditional.”

Her father, Phil Ensor, coined the term “functional silo syndrome” in the late 1980s, generating considerable discussion then and since around the structure and culture of business organizations. “His use of the term ‘silo’ reflected his rural Illinois origins and the many grain silos he would pass on return visits as he contemplated the challenges of the modern organizations with which he worked,” Ensor notes. “Those trips and the experiences on my maternal grandparents’ farm were a big part of my childhood.”

Susan Ensor with her son, Alex, then 3 years oldSusan Ensor with her son, Alex, then 3 years old.

She attended Ohio State University with an eye toward studying math and ended up in an honors program that conferred a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. When the opportunity arose to complete a dual master’s degree program in math and computer science, she eagerly enlisted.

One of her earliest assignments at APL was designing and implementing the flight software for the spectrometer processor for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope (HUT) that flew on the Astro-1 and Astro-2 shuttle payload missions. She recalls performing the final testing of the software, alone in an APL lab, with one eye on a small black-and-white television. It was January 28, 1986, and the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter, Challenger, was launching. She watched in horror as — 73 seconds into its flight — the shuttle broke apart, leading to the deaths of the five astronauts and two payload specialists aboard.

“Equally horrifying was the realization that with HUT originally scheduled for the next shuttle launch after Challenger, how near we came to losing our own payload specialist, Sam Durrance,” Ensor said.

After HUT, she worked in a variety of capacities — software requirements developer and implementer, software lead, test lead, mission system software engineer — on the NEAR, TIMED, CONTOUR, STEREO, and New Horizons missions. “One high point among many was being summoned to patch the X-Ray/Gamma-Ray Spectrometer flight software on the NEAR spacecraft so that it could collect gamma-ray data from the surface of Eros after the first landing on an asteroid,” she said.

MESSENGER has been Ensor’s longest-duration assignment, starting with her role as lead for the team developing the MESSENGER instrument flight and ground software for nearly four years and several years later followed by her role as the SOC lead.

The SOC supports data management and analysis, receiving science-related telemetry, reformatting and cataloging this telemetry and related ancillary information, retaining the science data for use by the MESSENGER Science Team, and preparing data archives for delivery to NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS) archive, as well as providing assistance to the instrument and science teams in visualizing their data, executing their algorithms, and generating higher-level data products.

Susan Ensor at her piano at homeSusan Ensor at her piano at home.

“I loved the challenge and camaraderie of contributing to both the critical flight systems on the MESSENGER spacecraft and the important science operations infrastructure and tools for delivering the science data to the team and the PDS, for which the final delivery of data is now being prepared for release in May 2016,” she said. “It couldn’t have been more exciting for me than to first contribute to the instruments required to capture the science data and finish by contributing to making those data available to the MESSENGER team and the world.”

One of the more memorable MESSENGER moments for her was at the time of the first MESSENGER flyby of Mercury in January 2008. “Standing around a computer monitor in the Science Operations Center in the presence of Robert Strom (who had been part of the Mariner 10 mission to Mercury more than 30 years earlier) and other team members, witnessing the first image from the side of Mercury previously unseen by human eyes, and feeling the deep awe and appreciation of those present for that sight … these moments were incomparable.”

Ensor said these assignments and the chance to work with many talented professionals have been extremely gratifying. “I have been very fortunate in the opportunities I have been given, and my advice to young people is to be open to new and different challenges, as they can be growth opportunities and career building.”

While not at work, Ensor enjoys music, art, cooking, the outdoors, and the success of her 26-year old son — a biochemist pursuing a career in Washington, D.C. She greatly valued being a stay-at-home mom to him for the first five and one half years of his life. For the last seven years, she has also managed the Illinois farm that has been in her family for nearly 150 years and is still operational.

Although likening her mix of activities to reaching for the stars with her feet firmly planted on the ground may be a stretch, Ensor said she feels that what she has taken on has been well worth the effort.


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