Transcript: Space4U podcast, Erin Roethlisberger

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello. I am Colleen Parith with the Space Foundation. And you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the amazing people who make today’s space exploration possible. Today we are joined by Erin Roethlisberger from Lockheed Martin. Erin is the mission operation system lead for the insight Mars Lander.


In this role, she is responsible for successful operations of the spacecraft in flight and throughout the land admission previously, she worked on the interplanetary mission experience on grail and Juneau missions. As a systems engineer and for Maven Mars, reconnaissance, orbiter, or MRO, Odyssey, grail, Juno.


Oh, Cyrus, Rex performing real time operations. She lived in England for four years. Working on ISDN and G S on DOD projects. She is a master of science and mechatronics, which is mechanical and electronics engineering in case you’re like me. And didn’t know what that stood for. I’m from the university of Denver.


And she has a bachelor of science in physics from the Colorado school of mines. She lists some of her interests as farming, including plants and birds, running, cycling, and pyrotechnics. And I think everyone should have pyrotechnics listed as one of their interests. Cause that’s pretty awesome. So thank you so much for joining us today, Erin.


We’re thrilled to have you. Yeah, but it’d be here. So first of all, can you tell us a little bit about how you got your start? Start with being a Mars Explorer. Well, uh, as I mentioned, my previous experience, I have to start with moon explore with the, uh, with the grail program. Um, I, uh, I’d been working in engineering and in England and Northern England.


And when I moved back to Colorado, I started to search around among the various dogs that Lockheed had down here. Here in, in Littleton and, uh, saw a posting for part of the, uh, commercial civil space and deep space exploration study space exploration, and came to the interview and was just basically like a kid in a candy store.


So I was super excited at the prospect, even, uh, working on an interplanetary mission. Um, something I think that I kind of saw in colleges and definitely saw with Lockheed when I first applied and just super excited to, to get the chance to be a part of it. So when I joined, I joined with the grail mission, uh, when that happened.


In 2012, uh, moved over to the Juneau mission, which was the  fly by operations. The year that I worked on Juneau, when that scaled back then I, you know, to, to complete the rest of its crews, before it arrived at Jupiter, then I popped over to insight and I’ve been working on insight since the beginning of 2014.


Awesome. Now growing up was being a planetary scientist, something you dreamt of doing. I don’t think that I knew the career existed as a kid. You know, I think there was a lot of things. Kids like many kids have fascination with astronauts and space as far as what you could actually do in space or work within space beyond being an astronaut.


I didn’t know. I don’t think I knew what careers were out there probably until. Until college. Okay. So as a kid, and even as you went into college, did you have a favorite subject that you liked to study? Um, do you feel like any of those subjects are really what puts you on the path to be. Coming what you do today?


I think I was, I was drawn to math or I did partially because I did well in math. And I think part of that is because of how it solids its own Gould and the challenge of solving puzzles. Um, as far as Reno solving problems, solving puzzles is very, very much in my major and the more you get into. To certain math problems, especially algebra, you know, it is false.


It’s almost more like solving a puzzle than it is just an assignment or that it’s just, it’s more, it’s more like solving a puzzle. And I think that’s where I was kind of intrigued or kind of hooked by with, um, math classes and not to say that there weren’t for a level of math classes that had me banging my head against the wall, but then there was, you know, I took physics classes and mechanical or mechanics.


Physics classes where you could take a lot of those equations that you’ve learned in algebra and trigonometry and make predictions and have them come out accurately because of the map and how that math governs the physical world, I think was, it was probably the, you know, it was probably a revelation, I think, you know, especially early physics classes where, you know, you’re, you’re launching the marble across the room and it does exactly what you’ve predicted it to do.


The paper was just, you know, it was, it was fascinating and it was cool and it was, you know, just applications of math that I dunno were fun. I guess I always enjoyed math as well, but you know, a lot of times we hear, well, you’ll never use this as an adult, but we don’t always realize. That math really isn’t everything that we do.


So like you said, to be able to see you, the marble doing what you put on paper, you know, I’ve always found that it’s a lot of fun to see and realize, well, maybe we do use it in real life. We just don’t always think about it. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I totally agree. So can you tell us, like how do you prepare to explore a place that is truly remote?


Like. Mars somewhere, uninhabitable, uninhabitable, excuse me, without the right equipment or the communications between here and there, where it’s not instantaneous, there’s that lag between it? How do we prepare for that, uh, piece by piece essentially? So when you, when you get into. To engineering and specifically systems engineering.


One of the things that we do are that there’s, you’ll hear a lot about is the systems engineering fee. And that’s where you take something at its highest level. Like say, I want to do a Mars Lander and you start breaking it down piece by piece. And then you say, okay, well I want to do Mars. Standards, they will.


What are the major aspects of a marginal Mars, Lander, then you think communications, thermal power, and then you take each of those sections and you break them down even further to say, well, how much power do we need? And what’s the temperature going to be like where we land. Everything we do here is pretty specialized.


So it’s not like you, even though we base the insight Lander off of the Phoenix, Lander, our environment, and our mission is completely different. So we can build on what we’ve learned, but we have to take everything and adapt it for a custom, a custom solution, passing out this specific problem and a custom solution because there’s no to interplanetary missions that are, that are quite alike.


So yeah, everything we do is. Costume. And so we have to take each problem and basically break it down and come up with a solution that works for that environment. And for that particular science missions, especially to make sure that we get the support structure in a, in a spacecraft that the scientists need to do that mission on Mars.


Okay. And you said that you’re currently working on the Mars insight Lander. Um, and you’ve mentioned new, he said at the beginning, there’s many different interplanetary missions you’ve worked on. What prior jobs and, and experiences prepared you to do this type of work even before Lockheed, perhaps? Well, I don’t know that anything quite prepares you in the sense that, you know, like I said, everything.


Everything we do here is, is pretty custom as far as skills and, and, you know, you need to be able to learn, um, you need to be able to treat everything as a learning experience and. You know, a big, a big part of this is trying to be able to track and organize all of the individual cork and specialty, you know, specialty items associated with, with doing a Mars, with doing a Mars, Lander.


Do you have a teacher or a mentor? Someone that’s inspired you? Um, not really. I mean, I had. Teachers, you know, in my past that were, um, influences getting bad and nobody really that, you know, nobody that, that, uh, I can say specifically led me to a position in space. So I don’t think, okay. Was there anything about space in particular that intrigued you?


You know, I studied. I studied physics. So there was a point where we did, I had a classical mechanics course, and we did a number of, um, plottings and recreate, you know, plottings of interplanetary trajectories. And at one point we had done some computer modeling. To recreate Voyager, Voyager trajectories.


And I think that, you know, the well, again, sort of the puzzles of hearing spacecraft among planets governed by, um, physical laws, you know, since it’s, you know, the gravitational. So in working with that and the times, and the discoveries that came back from some of those missions and the Quebec from all of the missions were, I mean, they’re just unlike anything else that we dealt with, even just from a subject to material.


I think in any of my other classes, When it was, you know, kind of reignited, probably that childhood fascination with space and astronauts, but you know, further out and we could, then we could send people than we’ve ever been at, you know, we’ve been able to send people. Absolutely. And that kind of takes me to my next question here a little bit, you know, we know there’s.


A lot of challenges with getting beyond the moon right now. So what are some of the challenges to just landing a spacecraft on Mars? Right. I mean, what are not the there’s everything has to go, right? Especially when, you know, when you’re trying to land a spacecraft on Mars, we talked about this a lot leading up to.


To, to EDL or, you know, and talk to the leading up to UDL, as far as, you know, you don’t come in at exactly the right speed and exactly the right angle and exactly the right location, you could burn up or bounce off or wind up trying to land in an area that’s full of hazards and just not be able to touch down safely.


And so, um, yeah. And then, so thinking of, you know, when you relate to, if you hit that upper atmosphere, We’re it just the right speed and just the right angle, everything in your sequence to control your, your landing. It’s a pulsive landing has to go just right. Um, sort of the, the relay race with the each stage has to hand, hand the hand, the Baton to the next, to the next runner to the next stage.


And if anybody drops, you know, you’re out of the race. That’s a great way to think about it because it is, it’s a sequence of events, really. So, you know, on that topic here of, you know, landing on Mars, you’ll prior to actually landing on Mars, the media and NASA. So reported the seven minutes of terror. Um, and that’s, you know, the moments before, you know, the spacecraft has landed safely on the planet surface.


So I’ve got to ask, are those seven minutes as excruciating as the media NASA describes on some level, it’s a little surreal. So we had a groundbreaker on this mission where we had the first interplanetary cube, SATs trailing behind us, and they were able. So provide a bent pipe communications for us. The orbiter is at Mars and could see us.


Weren’t able to basically what we call vent pipe communications is where it can immediately turn that signal around and route it right back down to earth. So we are fortunate that one, we had these, these little CubeSats and as they functioned all the way to Mars and they did exactly what we needed. So they were able to turn that data around.


So there wasn’t any, while there there’s absolutely a lifetime delay. There’s nothing you can do about it. It kind of, the lifetime itself kind of fades into the back of your mind because you’re just looking at the data as soon as you get it. So you kind of, at least for me, I almost kind of forget that it’s already happened because you’re so focused on the data that’s coming in at that moment in time.


And just waiting for that next piece of information, that the fact that it’s already have to miss kind of, you know, it gets pushed to the back of your mind in favor of what you’re seeing in front of your eyes. Well, and I would think in today’s modern world with our cell phones and things where we’re pretty used to that instant gratification.


So maybe it’s better that you do forget that it has that lag and you’re just focusing on what’s there. Cause I know that can be really challenging for some people. Yeah. We, uh, we got. Boiled. Um, the first cause the first mission I worked at for Santa planetary mission, I worked was grail, which was a set of twin moon, orbiters and round trip lifetime to the moon.


And back is, you know, two seconds. And at one point we had this kind of funny thing where our, our voice nets that we use to, to talk, you know, and we’re doing a lot of the commanding on the nest somehow started getting broadcast over the Cassini nets at the time. So Cassini was a Saturn. Orbiter and AR are basically your spacecraft team chief for the grail, had a friend on the Cassini mission and she called him up and she was like, I am so jealous of your lifetime because we were basically receiving instantaneous confirmation of everything we were sending to the grail orbiters where Cassini was waiting seven hours.


I can see that it could be a little frustrating, almost. Well, how long and intensive is the planning process, um, for a Mars mission, you know, what does the review process for the mission entail? It kind of depends on how much detail. You want to talk about in terms of planning? Like, if you want to, if you talk about starting at the top level, when a principal mystery on a scientist proposes a study to say, you know, let’s study the interior of Mars.


Yeah. He says, okay, that sounds interesting. And sort of down flexes menu, start working on a proposal with, um, like Lockheed Martin. We’ll start working on a proposal with that scientist. That, Hey, here’s how we think we can technically achieve your, putting your seismometer, put, putting your experiments onto the surface of Mars.


And once you get to that level and that proposal, and you submit it for review to NASA, NASA says, okay, you know, that seems feasible. Cost worthy if you get selected. Uh, that’s when we really start getting into the detail. So when you hear about discovery, uh, global functions or new frontiers selections, that’s when we basically get the go to start that’s when we know we’re building a spacecraft.


So that can be years leading up to that process. In terms of the four, you actually get. Your program selected or your spacecraft and your science selected? I think authors rep actually submitted, I think twice before they were selected for a mission. Um, so yeah, yeah, that can take years guessing, you know, and I think if you talk to the inside principal investigator, he’ll tell you who’s been working on this for the last 20 years.


So once we get selected, that’s when we start diving. Into requirements. And then we’ll start down a series of reviews. So we’ll have preliminary design reviews and then critical design reviews. And in each step we say, here’s the requirements we’ve come up with. Here’s our plan and need these. And we present that to a board of NASA, NASA people, industry members, young adults, those assemble a review board to try to fair it out.


There’s any areas that we’ve overlooked or the program and project is overlooked in terms of appropriate planning for the Mars mission. And then we’ll focus on that as we go towards the next review. So we’ll you preliminary design review, critical design review, uh, operations readiness review at each stage of the project.


Um, we just had detail. We get more and more. You know the detail of the mission. So it’s just a very long process. Yeah. Um, I, I think so from the time we get selected to the time we launched insight was. I want to say we were selected for the first, for the first phase of our development at the beginning of 2013 or the end of 2012.


And we launched in May of 2018. We were presumably slated to launch and March of 2016, the seismometer. Had some concerns with the, uh, the vacuum chamber and was it precise seismometer, and it operates in a vacuum chamber and there were some concerns with that. So they delayed the launch because if you’re gonna go to Mars, you gotta make sure you get it right.


There’s no way to, there’s no way to fix the seismometer after you’ve launched it. So always make sense to just take that little extra time case. Nominally, you were looking at a three to four year build to launch process. And we did sort of, I mean, the spacecraft team essentially took us a year off the project to JPL and the seismometer.


Operations at the French aerospace agency and connect work together to make sure that they had a solid fix and that we weren’t going to have any issues with that seismometer vacuum or that vacuum chamber on Mars. Yeah. When you think about it, I guess three years from the start of all the three to four years from the start of the bill to launch is a, is a pretty, it feels like a pretty speedy turnaround, sending something to Mars.


Absolutely considering how long it takes to get there in the first place. And, you know, like you were saying, you want to make sure things work, right. Because if something doesn’t go right, you can’t just send an engineer to, you know, take a peek at it and get things going again. So, right. And a lot of that.


You know, with things that, that come out and that we, we do extensive testing during our, uh, assembly tests, launch operations, be at low phase of the program, which is basically when we’re building the spacecraft up right up until the moment it launches. We do a lot of testing on the hardware itself and on the flight software, on the vehicle to make sure that it all works and we put it through various.


Environmental tests as well, you know, and what they call thermal back where they’ll chill it down and they’ll put it in a low, low pressure environment, if that will experience in space and then also on the surfaces. So you’ve obviously been working on insight for, you know, several years now and. It sounds like you’ve done some various things within the mission.


Um, what would you say is kind of your primary role with insight? When I started on insight, I started with mission operations and that might sound strange given that I started in 2014 before the spacecraft had launched, but mission operations includes all of the planning and the lot of the onboard.


Sequences and activities that we’re going to do once we launch. And that starts well early in the process. When we started our mission off, there was, uh, we had, uh, we have what we call statecraft team chief who oversees, uh, staffing and a lot of the staffing along the reviews and a lot of the budget. And then.


Got a systems lead, which can, depending on the size and scope of your program can be more than one person. But, uh, on the insight and the taste of insight, it was me. And so for, basically from the time I started on insight until the time we launched, I did a lot of. The pre-planning in terms of both building and submitting then sequences for that were planned to be used in flight.


So I would build those. I would submit those to the outlet scene in the allergy mall run full pass that’ll include flight products as much as possible. So I would build the flight products for insight. I also take a lot of what we have. From other missions in terms of lessons learned in commonalities among flight software and make sure those are all documented for our mission and our mission operations and our processes and procedures.


And then once we launched or actually right before we launched, we had people that were transitioned from the Atlona team to come over and do mission operations. Then it’s definitely a little bit of a different process. So when we had people come over from low, I trained them on mission operations processes and how we build and test and review slide products.


So when we got up into launch, then I was assistant lead, not just a team of one as I’d been up until that point. There was a, you know, a team of six, I think, six systems engineers that came over. And that then I trained and, you know, um, help organize in terms of flight activities and who’s building what flight activity and what needs to go is each flight activity once we’re, once we’re at once we’re in cruise.


And then there’s obviously the preparation. I mean, a lot of crews was preparation for landing, for preparation, for EDL and. For surface operations. So there’s always that forward looking them developing products that you’re going to use in flight or in operations. And where were you during the landing?


Sadly enough? Uh, well maybe not sadly enough. I was at home because I had taken the night shift of building the final products before the landing. So I had worked a 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM, shift the night before to make sure that to, to build and review the final products for the maneuver and the parameter updates.


So I was at home and I was dialed in and I was watching it on television also with everybody else. Now you are one of the few people who have literally had a hand in landing a spacecraft on another planet. So that’s actually more elite than being an Olympic gold medalist. How does that feel? Well, that’s kind of wild.


Isn’t that a crazy thought? Never thought about it that way. And it’s kind of funny because it’s like to some extent, you know, you, you get up and you go to work and you don’t always, you don’t always remember that you’re landing a spacecraft on Mars. Sometimes you’re reviewing paperwork and you’re putting together documents and processes and procedures.


And then just every now and then you stop and you see these pictures online and the spacecraft that you hope land. And it’s just the shock of, you know, I, I did this, I’m making a difference, you know, that it, that is pretty cool. And I would probably brag about that. If I were you that you’re more elite than an Olympic gold medalist.


Every now and then, you know, but you know, it’s kinda, it’s kind of a fun little conversation starter. You’re out with people and they say, Oh, you know, what do you do? And you say, I do mission operations for Mars insight Lander. So the net for NASA, Mars insight, Lander is everybody kind of stops. And a lot of people do a double.


They’re going to go, wait, what, really? The Mars insight mission is still somewhat in the early stages. Um, but from your point of view, what’s been the biggest surprise with this mission so far. Oh, um, I think probably probably the biggest surprise of the mission so far. MI might be the amount of wind and dust that we’re seeing in the area.


And we have actually the, uh, the seismometer is picking up, I think on the duct doubles that are going by, which is kind of exciting. That’s pretty neat. Cause we don’t always, I mean, we don’t fully know other than from photos. And, you know, the few years really that we’ve had Landers and rovers on Mars of what, what all it’s like.


So that would be pretty neat to see. There was a point after we landed. Yeah. There’s one point after we landed, where once we got the, the wind and thermal shield off of the deck of the Lander and we went to put it out, we put it out over the site. That it uncovers sort of a pressure sensor for that, for the vehicle.


And since then they’ve been posting a Mars weather and insights location, which is always kind of fun to track to see what’s the weather, you know, it’s just like, what’s the forecast.


I’m sure there’ll be an app for that soon enough,


no submission to the future missions that we’re going to have going to Mars. Um, what do you think will go differently or be done differently for these future missions without knowing what that future mission wants to do or needs. To look for on Mars. That’s really hard. I think in sense, having to build on the Phoenix land there, I think there’s, there’s a lot of applications that we could use this same model for around Mars and depending on what you want to do with it, uh, you know, the dynamics change in terms of, do you need to take something off the deck and put it on the surface?


Like we did on insight. Or do you just need something on the surface on the Jack? You know, it’s been an arm that can shovel like we did on Phoenix, but there’s, there’s a lot of applications for work. He’s a fairly simple, but proven Lander. And I’d love to see that that gets leveraged. But I mean, I, you know, there’s also a


interplanetary. Exploration and all these missions they’re driven by the science. Um, and they’re driven by the, you know, science schools from, you know, areas and areas of interest or study areas of interest that comes, come from NASA. So whether or not know we can align or if we can adapt anything from insight, not just to other Mars missions, but to other interplanetary missions that would be.


Wonderfully exciting. Very cool. Didn’t really answer your question, I guess, but yeah, but you know, like you said, it’s hard to say though, because they are they’re future missions and we’re going to maybe have different goals with going to them. So yeah, I think it was a fair answer.


So you’ve had a lot of really unique experiences that, you know, like I said, not many people have been able to have in this profession. How do you think. I think that these experiences as a planetary Explorer have changed you professionally or personally, I think inside has changed me both in both a personal and professional sense, you know, in a confidence level that when I, when we launched, read and write, before we launched, and then I became an actual team lead and my needed to organize.


People and schedules, not just activities and products and painting that I was able to do it and able to do it well as documented by the success with the mission so far, it was, it was kind of nice because I don’t know that I thought of myself as a, a leader or, you know, somebody who would be a good manager.


I don’t know that I, I, you know, I don’t know that I would make it. Manager per se, but I enjoyed working with the team and I enjoyed, you know, it was really important to training and some of the junior engineers that was, I liked, you know, I really liked being there, you know, being able to help, you know, help junior engineers grow their career and.


Learn and, you know, be available and watching them succeed, watching them learn. I guess the other thing that I said, you know, inside of hope that is I definitely been more engaged, uh, publicly in terms of outreach. There’s plenty of opportunities. I think with this mission and the excitement around landing on Mars that enabled that.


And it was a lot of fun. Get out there and see the public interest in insight. That’s really cool. So, and I mean, like we said before, so few people have been able to do something like that, that, you know, I could definitely see where especially young engineers or even students would really look up to you and the things that you’re doing, because it’s hopefully going to become a little bit more routine.


You know, we’re saying in the next decade or two, that, you know, we’re looking to have future human presence on Mars and how exciting that is that we’re getting to that point now. And the mission you’re working on is kind of a footstep in getting us in that right direction there. So that actually leads me to my final question here.


If you were on that. First flight to go to Mars. If you had that chance to be the first person to put your foot down on the red planet, what do you think your first words would be say that I would be, I, I, I don’t know. Maybe if I had another, it was, I had the six month cruise tomorrow. So think about that question.


I could come up with something really lasting and prophetic, but off the top of my head, it’d probably be something like, Ooh, squishy. Um,


I don’t know. I, hopefully, I, you know, I wonder how long it took the alarms, trying to come up with the, the one small step you had a three day cruise, a little more time than me. I always think that’s a good question for us. So think about because you know, like you, I, I would probably say something very similar to that and just the excitement of it, the whole thing would be a lot of fun.


And, you know, we’ve got the lag of time for things getting back to earth. So maybe you could even change it after you said it. People wouldn’t know.


Well, thank you so much, Erin, it’s been such a delight to speak with you today. And, you know, I think our listeners have heard some really cool stuff and hopefully been inspired themselves to take that next step. That math helps get us there, that we use it every day, even if we don’t always realize it.


So we’ve really appreciated your time and having you here with us today. Well, thanks for inviting me in, you know, and for the work that you guys. Yeah, I would love to see more and more space exploration, both robotic and human. I think it’s a Testament to who we are as people to keep exploring.


Absolutely. I always like. The quote adventure is out there. There’s always something else for us to explore flyer. Yeah, that’s very good. Well, that does conclude this episode of the space foundations space for you podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more Space4U episodes by checking out our social media outlets on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.


And of course our website at on all of these outlets and more it’s our goal to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate for the space community. Because at the Space Foundation, we always have space for you. Thank you for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Erin Roethlisberger, Mars Insight Engineer