Though Robin Vaughan has nearly 20 years of experience with interplanetary missions, MESSENGER has nevertheless presented her with a host of new challenges. As the lead engineer for MESSENGER's guidance and control (attitude control) subsystem, Vaughan coordinated, planned and conducted tests for spacecraft integration through launch, and now continues to monitor the craft's performance in flight.
"Being a lead engineer was new for me," she explains. "I was also not working directly in attitude control before I came here, so MESSENGER was my learning-how-to-do-it experience."
These learning experiences have paved the way for her most recent endeavor: NASA Goddard's Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) mission, for which APL is building two satellites. The mission, which is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program, will investigate the effect of solar storms on Earth's magnetic fields and radiation belts. Collected data could theoretically be used to make "weather predictions" for space.
"RBSP is in the early development stages, so it's kind of like going back to the drawing board. It's almost in the stage that MESSENGER was in when I came here in 2000," she says.
Thus, as someone who splits her time between these two different missions, Vaughan's work tends to vary dramatically during any given week, depending on which project is demanding more of her attention. "When I do something for MESSENGER there's immediate feedback that it's doing these things that we want it to do, whereas with RSBP it's not as concrete," she says. "It's still so early that it's harder to see how the fruits of your labor will turn out further down the road."
Despite playing critical roles for two different projects, however, Vaughan seems to be at ease with splitting up her time and adapting her frame of mind to whichever mission she's working on at a given moment. "I enjoy having the balance," she says.
Vaughan predicts that her work on MESSENGER will make RBSP easier to tackle. "Now I know more about what the pieces are and how they're all supposed to fit together," she explains. "Hopefully, it'll be a smoother path for RBSP than it was for MESSENGER."
When pressed to pinpoint one aspect of her work as her favorite, Vaughan cites the prospect of discovering new information about the solar system as her favorite part. "I'm working on these spacecraft that go out and explore all of these places in the solar system that we don't know a lot about," she replies enthusiastically.
She also gets a kick out of watching her solutions to problems work in practice. "We'll say, 'Okay, this is how we can make the spacecraft do that', and then we'll actually see the data from the spacecraft when it's done it and know that it all went right."
Prior to joining the Lab in 2000, Vaughan spent more than a dozen years researching, developing, and implementing navigation systems for a diverse array of spacecraft at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There, she worked on a number of high-profile spacecraft, including the Mars Pathfinder, Cassini, Galileo, and Voyager. She was an active participant in each stage of navigation system development, with a hand in everything from selecting data types, testing the ground tools, to flight operations.
Vaughan is one of three APL winners in recent history to earn the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Engineer of the Year award. She holds a PhD and an MS in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, and resides in Columbia, Maryland.
By: Hayley Brown, Johns Hopkins University Applied
I decided at a very early age that I wanted to have a role in space exploration, which was perhaps not surprising since I grew up during the height of the Apollo Moon program. Heading to JPL immediately after graduate school gave me my first taste of interplanetary missions. After my first experience with the Voyager 2 Neptune encounter, I was hooked.
I really enjoy being among the first people to see all the new data sent back from another planet and it's doubly rewarding when you feel you have been able to play a small part in getting the spacecraft to its destination. In a sense, I've been working my way backwards through the solar system, with Cassini at Saturn, Galileo in the asteroid belt, and Pathfinder at Mars. The opportunity to work on MESSENGER gave me the chance to add an inner planet to my list. I led the development of the spacecraft guidance and control (G&C) system. That subsystem ensures that the spacecraft maintains the proper orientation for protection from the Sun, for communicating with the Earth, or for pointing the science instruments at the planet.
I first heard the term "drinking from a fire hose" used to describe the educational experience at MIT. The term was certainly appropriate for me in that situation, but I have found it to apply equally well to some of my professional experiences. The MESSENGER G&C lead engineer position is perhaps the best example so far. I joined the team in September 2000, coming from 13 years of doing interplanetary navigation work at JPL where I did not have much direct interaction with spacecraft hardware. There was definitely a lot to absorb in switching over to a spacecraft subsystem with tightly knit hardware and software and also in coordinating the activities of a team that grew from three to a peak of six by the time we launched in 2004. Getting the spacecraft ready to launch was sometimes a wild ride, where we proved the truth of the statement "every minor detail is a major decision." There were many long days and nights struggling to meet the ultimate deadline imposed by the planets' orbital timing, which was (and still is) critical for getting MESSENGER to Mercury. The spacecraft development was a wonderful experience for me, proving that learning continues long after you leave school. I was privileged to work with many other talented people who taught me so much. I hope to take that pool of knowledge to other missions in the future.
I am also fortunate that work on the G&C system does not end with launch. Seeing the spacecraft perform the turns and burns as we designed it to do has been the most rewarding aspect of my work with MESSENGER. The first example of this came on launch day when the G&C system had to fire thrusters to get the proper spacecraft orientation after separation from the launch vehicle. The moments spent waiting for telemetry to arrive showing that the spacecraft had reached its proper orientation were quite nerve-racking. Since then, we have had many other memorable events, at least to a G&C engineer. We've put the spacecraft through a number of deep space acrobatics: rotating about all three body axes and even doing several "flips" and "flops" which switch the pointing of the sunshade relative to the Sun. We've fired all the thrusters, including the large main engine that we will use to insert into orbit around Mercury in 2011. We've had our first pictures and other data returned from the science instruments. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we will find at Mercury, as I know from personal experience that there is always something new and unexpected waiting to be discovered!
--Statement by Robin Vaughan about MESSENGER