NASA Holds Special Day For Women Working On Curiosity Team
June 27, 2014

NASA Holds Special Day For Women Working On Curiosity Team

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

In recent years, there has been a push to encourage girls and young women to become interested in the STEM subjects—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. To further this aim, and celebrate the anniversary of the Mars rover Curiosity completing its first Martian year this week (687 Earth days), NASA and the Curiosity team planned a special staffing day on June 26th.

Each day that Curiosity spends on Mars requires several dozen team members completing tasks on Earth the same day. On this special day, women fulfilled 76 out of the 102 operational roles.

"I see this as a chance to illustrate to girls and young women that there's not just a place for them in technical fields, but a wide range of jobs and disciplines that are part of the team needed for a project as exciting as a rover on Mars," said Colette Lohr, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"There's no practical way any one person could learn all the disciplines needed for operating Curiosity," she said. "It takes a team and we rely on each other."

The women participating represented a wide range of disciplines, from soil science to software engineering, from chemistry to cartography. Their duties for the day included assessing rover-temperature data and choosing where to aim Curiosity's cameras, among others. NASA created a special page on the rover's mission site called Curiosity Women's Day with descriptions of all the roles filled by women, as well as the names and locations of all the team members.

Lohr fulfilled the role of strategic mission manager, making her responsible for the review and approval of plans being developed and modified throughout the day. These plans would control rover activities three or four days in the future.

The majority of the engineers and managers for the Curiosity team are located at JPL in California. As is typical on any other day, the Women's Day team included members working in 11 other US states and four other nations: Canada, France, Russia and Spain. Curiosity has 10 science instruments aboard, each of which has people that evaluate newly received data and plan how to retrieve more data. Theme groups of other scientists pull together data from multiple instruments to create a list of priorities for upcoming activities.

Joy Crisp, Curiosity Deputy Project Scientist at JPL, was instrumental in organizing the day. She participated as the project scientist, a role that provides scientific leadership in the strategic planning process. She said, "The team has both scientists and engineers, but it's one team working together to accomplish the mission goals."

Each day, the team's plans for the rover have to be built around how much time, power and capacity are available. The operational team's roles, and what they focus on, falls into three categories. The tactical roles focus on the next day's activities, supra-tactical team members focus on rover activities two to five days in the future, and strategic members focus on planning for the weeks or months ahead.

"While some people are focused on today's plan for tomorrow, we need other people to be looking further ahead," Crisp said. "We wouldn't be able to plan complex activities for the rover if we started from scratch each day. We do a lot of work to get a head start on each day."

Curiosity has a larger operational team than either of the previous rovers: NASA's Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. In February 2008, Spirit's tactical team comprised of approximately 30 people and was staffed by nearly all women.

STEM EDUCATION IDEAS: Engineer Through the Year: 20 Turnkey STEM Projects to Intrigue, Inspire & Challenge (Grades K-2)