Transcript: Space4U podcast, Emily Boster

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hi there. This is Rich Cooper with the Space Foundation. And this is the Space4U podcast conversations that tell the stories of the amazing people that make our adventure in space possible. I’m joined today with Emily Boster. Did I get that right? You did. I’ve been called many things get Boster appropriately, but I’m here with Emily.


Boster, who’s a senior systems engineer with Lockheed Martin. And while she’s currently in Lockheed’s Arlington, Virginia operations. She’s based out of the company’s Denver, Colorado facilities, this esteemed graduate of Texas A&M is a mechanical engineer by training, which is something she’s put to good use over the past year, years as she was an integral part of the Mars insight program, which Lockheed led and managed Emily as part of that new generation of space industry contributors that are bringing new ideas, energy approaches, and creativity to the greater space community.


Emily. Thank you for joining us. Thank you. Very happy to have you, what I’d like to learn a little bit about is how’d you get started? How did you get started at Lockheed Martin? This is a fabulous company to start a career, but you’re starting a career and going to Mars. How’d that start? Well, I grew up in Brownsville, Texas on the Southern border.


Did not have a lot of STEM opportunities. In that area didn’t know about engineering, even all through high school. That was never something that piqued my interest. But when I went to Texas a and M I got a job at an astrophysics lab, so I wasn’t studying engineering. I was a biomedical science major, but I wanted to do a little something more.


I had some friends back in high school that had. Talk to me about getting involved with research. So I had this inkling in my mind that that was something I needed to do. So I emailed my chemistry, physics and biology professors and said, are there any opportunities to do research? Well, the only one that replied to me was my physics professor and said, yeah, there’s a lot of opportunities in the physics department here.


Let me connect you with Dr. Marshall and the astrophysics lab. So I got a job working on instrumentation for ground-based telescopes. For Texas A&M. So that exposed me to engineering design, the engineering process and how that ties in with space engineering and space sciences. So what was that experience like?


I mean, was it a, I don’t want to use the, the trite phrase of mindblowing, but I, but as you said, you didn’t get a lot of STEM experience and STEM exposure, and then they’re putting you into astrophysics. Holy cow, that’s the deep end of the pool. It was it. I think mindblowing is not too large of a term to describe what happened through that experience.


I was exposed to things I’d never considered for a career. I had a good foundation in mathematics, so I had good math professors. My mother taught me math and the bio sciences. I wasn’t exposed to astronomy and physics. However, but with math, that was something that I was really. Skill that all through high school.


And my thought was, well, if you’re good at math, I guess you become a math teacher. So I hadn’t thought about applied mathematics and engineering as something I could do with my mathematical abilities. So when I started working in the lab and got exposed to just all of the possibilities, all the things that you can do with engineering and applied mathematics and physics and.


Software engineering. It just really opened up a whole new world that I didn’t even know was out. Now you talked about getting started there at Texas a and M, but you’ve also worked for another major aerospace company as well. Tell us that story. I have. So my, yes, the astronomy lab was my first taste of working in the field.


My second taste was actually working at space X. I was an intern for them. Right after my sophomore year of college. So that was a pretty incredible experience because it opened my eyes to the wide world of industry and the private sector. You know, when I, as I said, I started biomedical science. I quickly switched my major to aerospace engineering after seeing everything that was possible there.


But when I did that, I had a lot of people ask me, well, didn’t, didn’t, you know, that NASA shutting down, this was around the time that the space shuttle program was ending. I said, well, what are you going to do with aerospace engineering? Well, when I went to space X and saw everything that was going on in the private sector, it really inspired me and made me know that I made the right choice.


I wanted to do something in space. I wanted to work on rockets and spacecraft and you know, it, it was an amazing experience. You started the physics lab, Texas a and M you go to space X, you come to Lockheed Martin, and you’re a Mars Explorer. If you could go back and talk to that young girl in Brownsville, Texas, that you were, you know, not that long ago, what would you say you say to her today based on what your experience, what you’re experiencing right now, is this even, was this ever sort of a dream?


It, it sounded like you were looking to be a teacher or a doctor, but this is pretty tremendous. I think I would tell her in any other young person, young child that’s, you know, not sure what to do with their life, but kind of dreaming about what’s out there. Take chances, take risks when opportunities present themselves, go for them.


And don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. You know, if I hadn’t sent those three emails, my freshman year, I may not be sitting where I am today. If I hadn’t had. Some friends in high school that were nerds that were doing research. I might not be where I am today because you know, hearing about their experiences.


So I think just connecting, building that network and then taking chances and opportunities, and it’s not easy. It is a lot of work to get into a field like engineering or math. Any STEM field is extremely challenging, but the hard work is worth it. So. Like just knowing that it will pay off. And how did you get to become a Mars Explorer?


You joined Lockheed and there are a couple of different places around is this sort of like a, a, you know, a sports draft and you come in and they see that you’ve got these skills, the Mars team needs you. Or were you able to literally reach out to the Mars team and say, Hey, I’m reporting for duty. How did you become a Mars Explorer?


So I actually got hired in as an intern to work specifically on the Mars insight. Lander, prior to that, I didn’t even know that Lockheed or private industry worked on these planetary missions. And frankly, I hadn’t even heard a lot about the planetary science missions to begin with. I was given the internship opportunity said, well, that sounds cool.


Work on a Mars mission came out. To Lockheed and Denver. And again, mind blown by all this stuff that was going on learning about the 40 plus year history that Lockheed has working on missions for NASA, building the Viking, Landers the first Landers to go to Mars, learning about Juno and Oh Cyrus, Rex and Maven, and all the other missions that were going on.


That was something I was a. Senior in college at that time. And I didn’t even know about all of that stuff in aerospace engineering. So once I saw that said, this is the field I want to work in. These are the missions that I want to be a part of. And so starting my really starting my career at that point as an intern in planetary science was, you know, it was a pretty big confirmation for me of, yeah, this is what I want to do.


I was weighing some other options at the time. Do I. You know, go straight into grad school. Do I go into a different field? I was even thinking about you maybe petroleum engineering or some other opportunities to stay local in Texas, but you know, going out to Colorado, which is definitely pretty enticing in and of itself, the mountains and the nature, and then having the opportunity to work on missions that go to other planets and bring back amazing science was.


I was pretty sold at that point. So would you call yourself a planetary scientists now? Well, yeah, I’m an engineer and there’s a difference between engineering and scientists, but we work very closely with the planetary science. So at Lockheed, even from the very beginning of a project, we’re working hand in hand with the planetary scientists to help formulate their missions and see how we can best build a spacecraft that meets their needs.


We work with instrument scientists that create. These amazing complex images to take measurements and any body in the solar system that we can get to. And as engineers, it’s our job to basically make that possible. So we take the requirements from the scientists and then we create a spacecraft that can do that mission.


So I’m not a planetary scientist, but I work with them and I want them to succeed and I want to do. And whatever I can, as an engineer to make these missions happen. Talk about how you engineer a spacecraft to go to a pretty well certainly remote, challenging area. Uh, while Mars is certainly one of the closer objects to us, it has not been the most favorable climate of which to have landed spacecraft on the United States has lost spacecraft there.


Other countries have as well. What makes Mars so tough to get to anytime that we send something into space, it is a challenge. Mars is millions of miles away. There’s a time delay for communication. So it’s not like you can send them. It depends on the orbit, but anywhere from seven to 15 minutes. So for example, with insight, we had about a six month journey to get from earth to Mars.


And then once it got there, and once it started entering the atmosphere, we can’t command and control it. And if something goes wrong, we can’t be, you know, real-time now navigating it through the atmosphere. All of that has to be pre-programmed and autonomous such that really the spacecraft has to be able to take care of itself.


Those are just some of the challenges there’s radiation and deep space. So you have to design components to withstand. You know, incredible radiation and environments, thermal environments, and Lockheed, and really anywhere in the space industry, we have to design these spacecraft to withstand the environments of deep space.


We have to design the communication systems to, you know, deal with these extreme ranges that we’re sending them to. Structural loads when you’re launching on a rocket, you know, those are extreme loads that you have to withstand multiple gravity, multiple GS. And there’s just so many factors that go into designing a spacecraft.


So we design it, but then we also have to test it. So throughout the life cycle of developing a spacecraft, you do the analysis, you design the components, you build up the, the spacecraft, and then we put them on. Literally shaker tables and we’ll, we’ll shake them and see if anything breaks. We’ll put them in low chambers and apply it, static forces to them and see if the structure can withstand the loads.


We put them in thermal vacuum chambers and pump it down to the vacuum of outer space. And we’ll go through hot and cold cycles and, you know, see sometimes. No, that might cause a failure. So you have to test every scenario. I mean, you actually can’t test every single scenario, but we tested as best as we can.


And we test, we try to go across the board with the different environmental challenges that these missions will. It sounds like it takes a lot of patients. Is that true? It does. Um, it is definitely a challenge. It is a lot of hard work and I mean, some of these tests, you’re going 24 hours a day for. No a week or a few weeks.


And so you’ve got your team. People are tired. People might be running on little sleep, but you’ve got to make the mission successful. So you do whatever you can at those points to make sure that you’re testing, that you’re keeping the hardware safe and that ultimately it’s going to meet its mission objectives.


This is a lot of complex problem solving. Uh, oftentimes things you can’t plan for, for C. What subjects did you study, or what experiences did you have to prepare you to do this type of work? Not everybody can do this, but you can. What got you there? So I mentioned having that background in mathematics, and I think that was really key early on as a student to have that foundation of understanding numbers and problem-solving, but then.


Some of the other things. So I studied aerospace engineering at Texas a and M and in class, you don’t learn everything that you want. We’re going to need to know to be able to build a spacecraft. You learned fundamentals of engineering, and those are important. They apply across the board for engineering practices.


It lays the foundation for learning how to think, learning how to solve challenging problems, learning how to. Even on a interpersonal level, learning how to work with other students to solve projects, learning how to approach a professor and ask for help when something’s so hard that you don’t understand it.


So I think that going through an engineering curriculum, it lays the groundwork for being able to be successful in this field. And some of the other experiences that I had an undergrad in undergrad. Such as getting involved with research and getting to do some hands-on work in that astrophysics lab really, you know, helped me tie the, the numbers and the, you know, elliptical side with the practical side, you can design something that you can’t build.


And that’s something that I’ve heard. Actually, when I worked at space X that’s one thing that I learned, some of the technicians told me we have some of these young. Engineers coming out of school, they design these complicated parts and it’s so hard for us to build them. So I learned that, you know, communicating with the people that are building the spacecraft, communicating with the technicians and having those, you know, in interpersonal skills.


That’s not something that you always think about with it. There’s no engineering class in that is there. I did take us a technical speech class, so did learn some communication skills, but. You know, there’s, there’s a lot that goes in, but communications is still critical to all of this. And being able to take your idea and help, help, uh, work with others to help you take that idea and make it reality.


Spacecraft is so complicated. It’s not like one person or even a couple people can understand everything that’s going on with it. So you might have hundreds of people at one time working on a mission, like insight. So having the system that works together and the communication between those systems, I think is something that has been really eye-opening to me, working in this field open communication is key to make these work.


You mentioned that your mom taught you a lot of your math skills. Were there any other sort of teachers and mentors that you worked with that helped prepare you for this career you have now? Yeah, my mom was an excellent role model. She homeschooled me actually, and definitely instilled some of those early mathematical skills for me.


I mentioned Dr. Jennifer Marshall, who ran the astronomy lab that I worked in. She was a very big mentor and role role model to me as a female in an engineering or science field, this lady who it was an astrophysicist, but also running the engineering side of things. You know, building instruments, building spectrographs, and having her as a role model was pretty pivotal.


In my early years at Texas a and M actually I worked in that lab for the entire time. I was at a and M so she was really key throughout my entire undergrad experience. And I had a few other professors, um, Dr. Bhattacharya and Dr. Kendra at Texas A&M. Both took me under their wings. I did research with both of them and dynamics and controls and in structures.


I actually went on a research program that Dr. Kendra started at the Indian Institute of technology and copper. So the summer after my junior year, I went to India for about two and a half months and studied under a professor in India, um, was doing research on. Unmanned aerial vehicles on helicopter dynamics.


And then on the side, I got to explore India and go to the Tasha hall and the rom Sheila and just travel around Northern India. And that’s, that was an incredible experience. So having, you know, both of those professors in my life opened up a lot of opportunities within my field, but also to see the world.


Let’s get back to bars. What was your role with the Mars insight? Lander? I was hired in as a mechanical designer for insight. So what that basically means is that I would take the conceptual level designs of what the Lander was going to look like and perform and figure out how to get them built. So I worked alongside analysts for thermal and structural analysis systems, engineers.


And basically design the structure of the lander, worked alongside with the technicians and the manufacturing team that was actually going to build it, to make sure that we could get that done using the correct processes and procedures that we have to meet the specifications that NASA gives us. I worked on the heat shield for insight.


The part that basically protects the Lander as it enters the Martian atmosphere and the thermal protection systems, which prevent it from overheating. I also worked on the robotic arm and the cameras. So both of those we’re actually designed and built a JPL, which is the project center for the insight program.


So I got to work alongside our NASA counterparts at JPL. To make sure that the robotic arm and the cameras would interface correctly to the Lander, which we were building at Lockheed and develop test plans and procedures for the arm and the cameras so that whenever they delivered them to the lander, we could integrate everything.


Everything would bolt on properly and fit. Everything would be analyzed correctly. We’d make sure that thermally everything would work and then we’d actually hook everything up electrically and test it. So this entire program in many ways is like a test that you’re taking and you do all the homework.


You do all the work, you turn your project in and your project land launches from earth. And six months later, you’re going to find out whether you pass or fail with that landing on Mars. What were those six months of waiting like. And where were you and what did it feel like when Mars insight finally landed?


So I was actually at the lunch for insight and it launched out of Vandenberg. California was a hazy night, lots of fog launched it about three in the morning, standing out there. And man, you could hear it. You could feel it, but you couldn’t see much at all. But it’s three o’clock in the morning standing up there and not seeing what you went there to see.


Yeah, the fog was a little disappointing, but definitely it was a powerful experience to be able to hear it and to know the insight was on its way to Mars. So six months of waiting went by pretty fast. Honestly, at that point, being a mechanical engineer, I’d gone on to work on Mars 2020 and. Other projects.


So, you know, busy and distracted, but also, okay. When are we going to get there waiting for the November landing and very excited about it? I was actually, I came to Washington DC to the United States Senate to give a talk right before the landing. I’m standing in the Senate building. I share a little bit about Lockheed’s role on the Lander.


On the insight mission, how we built it for NASA, tested it and are actually flying it and operating it on its way to Mars. And we’re about to land on Mars and we’re super excited. And then I step away and we’re all going to watch the landing together and I’m thinking, Oh, darn. If something goes wrong, I’m the only engineer in the room.


Who’s everyone going to blame me, but no pressure, no pressure, no pressure at all. Luckily that. Did not happen. We were standing around waiting and start hearing the parachutes of deployed. Wait another minute. The heat shield has jettison knowing that that was my heat shield that worked on Mars and that, you know, was just released from insight flying to the Marsh and floor.


That was a pretty powerful experience. It was. Powerful. It was emotional. And just knowing that, you know, my hardware was flying through the atmosphere of Mars just minutes earlier. Of course, we’re hearing all of this with that time delay. I mentioned. So there was about a seven or eight minute delay, so we’re hearing okay.


The heat shield deployed, but. You know, at that point, Insight’s already on the ground either in pieces or as it should be in one piece. So, you know, we’re hearing all this and if some, if we heard something wrong, there’s not much you can do about it. Luckily we finally heard insight his touchdown on Mars, and it was a big celebration in the Senate.


So it was very exciting to be able to share that with people of Congress and the. Washington DC and around the industry, you’re not even 30 years old and you’ve already got a successful Mars mission under your belt. How does that feel? I mean, it, when you think about, uh, what strikes me as you talk about the three professors you called, one of them called you back years later, you’re here.


You’ve helped put a heat shield on a spacecraft that has landed on Mars. You’re not even 30 years old. I got to tell you, I’m thinking those two other professors. Probably kicking themselves because of the talent that, that escaped them. But I’m grateful a physics professor called you. How are you going to top this?


What are you going to do next? What are you doing next now since Mars insights on the ground? Well, I’d say it’s, it is hard to top having a spacecraft on Mars. Although hopefully by the time I’m 30, I will have three Martian spacecraft under my belt. I did work a little bit on Maven actually, which is already there.


So I can say I have to. As an intern, I cleaned glue off of some thermal blankets for Maven. So although it was a small role, it was still, but there’s no glue on those thermal blankets because of you. I cleaned them. All right. So I worked on Maven insight and then I mentioned Mars 2020. So that is a mission I’m really excited about.


That’s NASA’s next Rover. Very similar to curiosity. That’s launching next year. And at Lockheed Martin, we’re building the Aero shell. We’ve built every arrow shell that has ever gone to Mars for NASA. And this is the largest type of arrow shell that we build or that we’ve built from Mars. So we built curiosity’s air show and we’re building Mars 2020 zero shell.


Another aspect of this mission that is really exciting is the Mars helicopter. That there’s a small drone that is getting mounted to the underside of the Rover. And Lockheed Martin is building the release mechanism that attaches the helicopter to the Rover. So I got to work on that little project last year, working on the design of these mechanisms to hold this very fragile helicopter underneath the Rover has to, again, launch the atmosphere, travel for six months to Mars land in a very exciting manner.


On the Martian surface. What do you mean by exciting manner? You there’s been some pretty exciting landings on Mars. What’s, uh, what’s this type of exciting manner. So the way the curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers land is using the sky crane methods. So that’s a very innovative technique that NASA uses and have propulsively maneuvering and avoiding obstacles.


Very complicated technology, but. We proved that it worked with curiosity and it’s, you know, an exciting way to land a, a Rover safely on Mars and the helicopter doesn’t deploy until after the Rover’s already on the ground. So at that point, so how big is this, this drone, this small helicopter. It’s just like a dinner plate or is this a lawnmower?


How big is this? So it weighs just a couple of pounds. The wingspan is about like three to four feet long. So the helicopter body is probably about the size of a Kleenex box, but then it has these large carbon fiber foam wings that are very lightweight. And of course, to be able to fly in an atmosphere, that’s one, 100th of what we have on earth.


You need something that’s very lightweight. That has a lot of lift to be able to actually create, to produce flight. So this will be the first time that we demonstrate flight on a planet other than earth. So this mission’s a technology demonstration mission for NASA. Um, it’s not. Critical to the science for Mars 2020.


But if NASA can prove that we can fly on another planet again, robotically autonomously. We’re not joysticking this because of the time delay back to earth, but this could open up some really interesting possibilities for navigating around Mars for being able to scope out areas for the Rover to travel and find interesting scientific locations.


This could also be a way that future. Astronaut explores could, if we lock it up, it has this Mars base camp concept, which we been investigating for the past few years, putting an orbital station around Mars with astronauts prior to actually sending humans to the surface. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to develop those types of systems, but we believe we could get humans into Mars orbit and about a decade using existing technologies.


So having. Drones or vehicles that you can fly on the surface of Mars would open up some really neat opportunities for astronauts to actually be able to joystick them or perhaps use virtual reality to fly these vehicles around through the Mars atmosphere and scope out some really interesting locations for a future astronaut landing.


We’re still early in the Mars insight program. Uh, and. It’s been on Mars now a couple months. What are your biggest takeaways from the Mars insight experience? So we’re still early in the science and I’m definitely excited to hear about what happens when we start syncing those first, um, Mars quakes, basically an earthquake on Mars is a Mars quake.


So we’re definitely excited for the science. For me, the most exciting thing was seeing those first images come back. From Mars, seeing the Marsh and landscape and knowing that the cameras that were taking those images or cameras that I worked on, knowing that was pretty special. And just seeing, seeing the Lander on the surface of Mars.


And knowing that this is a mission that myself and my colleagues and my NASA counterparts all worked and put so many hours into seeing the actual hardware on the surface of Mars was that was very special. So you’ve been a part of the Mars insight experience you’ve had experience with Maven. These are two phenomenal capstones in anyone’s career.


What have you taken away from those experiences? What’s been your. Biggest personal and professional takeaway from being a part of those programs. I think the teamwork working with incredible group of people, engineers, and scientists within Lockheed Martin, within NASA JPL, seeing these numerous individuals come together to produce something as complicated and spectacular as a spacecraft.


That’s sitting on the surface of Mars or for Maven orbiting, Mars and returning incredible science. That, again, it doesn’t just happen. It’s not easy. It takes a huge dedicated team and being able to be a part of that team, I think is the biggest takeaway for me. I have to ask you’re young, you’re smart.


You’re healthy. You’re driven any desire to be a part of that crew that would go to Mars. You know, I didn’t, I wasn’t a child that grew up dreaming about being an astronaut flying in the stars. However, when I was in college at Texas A&M. My professor, Dr. Bhattacharya nominated me for the astronaut scholarship award.


Well, I ended up receiving the scholarship and captain Jim Lovell of Apollo 13, came to ANM and handed me a $10,000 check and stood in front of a crowd at a and M and spoke about his experiences on Apollo. And I was standing there on stage with him and, you know, shaking his hand, thinking this could be me.


Well, the moon didn’t seem so far away. Mars doesn’t seem that far away after being in the presence of people that have done the impossible. So I can’t say that I am thinking seriously about applying to be an astronaut right now. I kind of like building the spacecraft that are going to get them there. I kind of like, but if you’re an astronaut and they take you along, you can fix whatever broken, how good is that good point?


I think that all, all possibilities are open and I think there’s a, just so much out there at Lockheed. We’re building the Orion capsule, which is the next human rated deep space capsule to take humans to the moon and onto Mars. And you know, there’s a lot of excitement right now with. Humans potentially returning to the moon in the next couple of years.


And of course, keeping that vision of Mars in the next decade or so. I want to see that happen. I want to see humans on the surface of Mars in my lifetime, but sooner in my lifetime, I want to see it happen in the next 10 to 20 years. So I don’t have any doubt that you could. Not only be an astronaut, but you could be on that crew.


Not that there’s any pressure on being a part of that crew, but if Emily Buster is on that crew and she is given the opportunity to take that first step on Mars, what are your first words? I think I would have to say something along the lines of, this is one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind.


Play the planet rather than a moving. Huh? Good for you. The future is female. Last question. What does exploration mean to you? I think exploration really embodies the human spirit. I think that from the Dawn of time, humans have been wanting to know what’s over there and what’s beyond the horizon and. If you just look back at human history, we’re always expanding and seeking new knowledge and new discoveries.


And so we still have, I have a lot to learn about earth and our own planet and going into the heavens is revealing more about our own planet. I think that as we go deeper, we’re into space and with our science missions and with eventually sending humans. Back to the moon and beyond a Mars, we’re going to learn things about the universe, about ourselves as humanity, about our own planet, that we didn’t even, we couldn’t have even fathomed.


So I think we just have to keep exploring because it’s in our nature was that Emily? Thank you. Thank you for sharing your time and experiences with us. It’s been great. Uh, it’s been great for you to open up and, uh, I could tell this was a very personal mission for you, and I’m really grateful that to you and certainly Lockheed for allowing you to join us and talk a bit about that.


And that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation Space4U podcast. Keep your eyes and ears open for more 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. Thanks for listening.

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Space4U Podcast: Emily Boster, Mars Mission Engineer