How did you get that job: designing a parachute for NASA’s Mars rover

After getting a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Boston University, she went on to receive a master’s and PhD from the University of Southern California, where she is now also a research associate professor. Her PhD thesis was on the ion thrusters that powered NASA’s Dawn mission, a probe launched in 2007, which orbited the asteroid Vesta before moving on to map Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Naturally, she's got an appetite for tough problems

Her main gig is as a project manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Cold Atom Laboratory, where she helps coordinate other brilliant people to figure out how better to get access to space.

But what was most surprising, in talking to her, was how important luck was in her career — Sengupta took risks, often taking on projects that were outside of her areas of expertise. It was by stretching herself in that way that she learned the most, she says.

And if you want to work on space? There’s probably a job for you. At least, that’s what the woman who helped land a monster-truck-sized science lab on Mars says.

mars curiosity chute

Artist's rendering of the Curiosity parachute (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Liz Lopatto: Was space always an interest for you? Or was this something that developed later in life?

Anita Sengupta: Oh, always an interest. I was a massive science fiction fan since I was a little kid. I watched Doctor Who, the old-school reruns on channel 21 in New York. I watched Star Trek Original Series reruns with my dad. So I always knew I wanted to be involved in space exploration in some way. I just didn’t hone in on what that career choice would be until I was 15 or so. I was always going between astrophysics or astronomy or engineering. Then I chose the engineering route because I like the technology aspect.

Tell me a little bit more about that! Because 15 seems quite young to start figuring out what it is you want to do with your life. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how you decided that engineering was the route you wanted to go.

My dad — interestingly enough — was a mechanical engineer, but he never talked about his job. I actually didn’t know what he did because he stopped doing mechanical engineering a long time ago and he started his own business. I don’t know how much that weighed into it, but I would say that my dad still is a smart person and meticulous and just had this interesting way of thinking about and solving problems. I always really respected that. That obviously came from his engineering training.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I was fixing things."

I just liked that way of being, that way of thinking, and I loved technology. Ever since I was a little kid, I was fixing things. I just liked the idea of taking part in actually fixing something instead of just buying something and getting it to work. I just like the hands-on aspect of doing things like that. I wanted to do it with space, I’m like aerospace engineering seems perfect.

So around 15, you figured that engineering was the way to go. How did that influence you when you were choosing colleges and starting to think about the way that you angle yourself into a career that you can pursue as an adult?

Well, I would say that I had other constraints. For example, I didn’t have a lot of money. I was going to go to the place that gave me the most money. I didn’t really want to leave the Northeast because that’s where my family lives and we don’t have a lot, and if you can only go on a bus ticket to get you to somewhere, that somewhat limits your choices.

"I was going to go to the place that gave me the most money."

I visited Boston University. I was enthralled by the idea of living in the city of Boston, at this beautiful-looking school. That was just an exciting journey into this urban lifestyle which I had never had exposure to. I chose based off of that holistic view of how I’m going to have a great time here [rather] than just individual "How am I going to get myself to a particular spot?" I’d say I continue to live my life that way. How to maximize the enjoyment factor of whatever it is that I’m doing — that determines then the way I do it. And Boston University didn’t want money. It was just a no-brainer.

Okay, you went through college at BU studying engineering, is that right?

Aerospace engineering.

After that, what did you do? Did you get a job after college? Did you go to graduate school? What was your path?

I was always planning on going to graduate school. Ironically, my undergrad school did a great job for recruiting, bringing different companies in. I was like, "Oh, I’ll sign up for an interview at Boeing Space and Communications." I went and did the interview and then I get a call back saying, "Oh, they want to fly you to California to go on an interview." I’m like, "I’m not going to turn down a free trip to California to go on an interview."

"I'm not going to turn down a free trip to California."

I had already, I think, accepted to go to USC at that point. I went on the Boeing interview, and they offered me a job. They’re like, "Oh, and we’ll pay for your school, too."

I ended up deciding to work for Boeing Space and Communications as a full-time employee, and then I also went to grad school to get my master's degree part-time; I finished in two years. Then one of my professors at USC worked at JPL, and he asked me to go on an interview for JPL. I went to JPL, and they were like, "We want to hire you because you have all this great industry experience!" So I went to work for JPL. That was in 2001, and then I was already enrolled and doing the PhD program —  same thing, part-time, still at USC, and I’m still taking classes. When I switched over to JPL, I was able to actually focus my research project, my thesis project on what it was I was doing in JPL for work. I was working on the PhD at the same time I was working.

mars curiosity chute 2

Curiosity descending with its parachute, as spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Rover (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona)

So many forces have to align for that to happen. Not just like the job and the university, but also your actual life. That’s remarkable.

I will say the chronic theme of my life — whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing — is serendipity. Something happens, and it’s like, "That seems like a really good opportunity so I should probably just do it." Every single example of everything that’s ever happened to me, that has been the case. I was never planning on applying to BU, but they sent me a letter. They were like, "Are you interested?" Same thing with USC. I don’t try and fight fate.

"I had zero background on this thing, but I'm like, 'Oh, sounds really cool. I'll go do it.'"

Ironically, what happened to me when I was working at Boeing was they said, "Oh, we have this open position to work on ion thrusters and Boeing satellite systems." I had zero background on this thing. I’m like, "Oh, sounds really cool. I’ll go do it." That’s why I ended up doing my PhD in that topic because I started working on it for six months at Boeing, on ion engines. They saw I was working on that at Boeing, and then they had an open position for that at JPL. It’s kind of funny.

What I’m hearing is that you seem to have a real radar for noticing when something is an opportunity that will open more opportunities for you later. Is that a fair way of thinking about it?

Yeah, I don’t view it in that sense. I view it as, "Wow, that’s going to be exciting. That’s going to be fun. I’m going to grow as a person." It’s like a journey for me. The next [opportunity] related to that was electric propulsion work. I worked on the development of things like brand new engines and the Dawn Mission. That was my PhD thesis, to improve the engine and then incorporate that for Dawn. They just came and asked me, "We’re starting a degree Mars mission, and we need someone to lead the parachute development. I’m like, "Wow, I don’t know anything about parachutes. But I know aerodynamics. I know structures. I can probably do that." I’m thinking to myself like, "That’s really cool. I’m going to be involved in parachute tests. We’re going to drop out of helicopters, and we’ll be in the desert. That just sounds like so much fun."

"I'm going to be involved in parachute tests... That just sounds like so much fun."

I would say, once you have an opportunity, there’s actually some negative thing in the sense that you become an expert in something and you just leave it, which is kind of what I did for that. Though it just seemed like the right thing to do because it seemed really cool. When was I ever going to get an opportunity to have that kind of role in a massive thing going to Mars? I just wasn’t going to, so it’s like, I have to do it. What happened is I developed this expertise in positive physics electric propulsion. Then I developed a new expertise in electric satellite systems for Mars and for Venus and for Earth entry. That’s prior to my current job.

It just makes you a better engineer basically. You just know a whole bunch of stuff about a whole bunch of stuff.

ceres photos dawn mission

Photos of Ceres from NASA's Dawn mission (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

Have you had moments where jumping fields or moving into something you don’t know, with a slightly different background has been helpful to you?

Definitely, yeah! I started off as purely the technologist — and then I started to work as a systems engineer in designing missions from the ground up. I realized how myopic the viewpoint was of the technologist because all they could see was the thing that they were doing. They couldn’t see the bigger picture. Being able to jump around and do more high-level things or cross-disciplinary things has allowed me to be a better technologist because now I actually understand how you can better do something. It always helps you.

"Being able to jump around and do more cross-disciplinary things has allowed me to be a better technologist."

Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in winding up in a place relatively similar to where you are?

In order to be successful in life you have to follow your passion. Number one, you have to be motivated. You have to really want to do it or else you’ll never be successful. If somehow you find yourself focused on something that you don’t really love, you need to move on and find something that you do really love. I think that’s usually what hurts people the most, when they’re stuck in a place where they shouldn’t be. Find something that you really love and try learn about as much about it as you possibly can. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually become a much better student, a much better learner. I can learn things at a better rate, probably an order of magnitude better than I could when I was in undergraduate. It is really important to educate yourself as much as you possibly can.

"In general, if you do love something, you'll probably be more successful at it."

In general, if you do love something, you’ll probably be successful at it because people will have confidence in you. When I’m going to hire a new person on, what is more important than anything is how motivated they are and how interested they are — how much they actually want to do it. Because it won’t work if they’re just an expert, they just walk away. That’s more from an higher perspective but yeah, because now my current job where I’m actually leading the entire mission, you really know who you can count on and who you can’t count on.

What’s an average day like for you? Do you even have an average day?

No, because we’re usually putting out fires. If something is going great, then I have nothing to do. Usually, things go wrong and I have to deal with the things that go wrong. In my prior job where it was purely technical, it would be working, getting all the sub-systems up and going. But now, my current job is leading a group of people. On an average day, we have a lot of meetings where we figure out how things are going, and if people are having problems, finding out what kind of resources they need. My job as the manager is to get them resources, get them access, get their voices heard if they need something. Also to make decisions because sometimes we have to decide whether we take this path, we take that path, whether we delay this activity or start that activity. And also to communicate to the outside world what it is we’re doing.

"If something is going great, then I have nothing to do."

We had a pretty significant failure of one of our pieces of hardware about a couple of weeks ago, and so now we’re in the process of working to figure out what went wrong, and how do we fix it so that it doesn’t happen again — because we’re still in the development stage. And how to communicate that to the outside world — basically our customers and NASA headquarters. That’s probably a more difficult thing that I’ve never done before. This is my first time doing that. It’s a lot of meetings, a lot of PowerPoint presentations.

The recurring theme I’m hearing here is communication. A lot of what you’re doing is both internally and externally trying to figure out how to make people talk to each other and how to talk to them.

Communication is kind of the key. One of the things that you don’t realize when you’re in school is the need to communicate so much. Because there you’re just working on your homework assignment. You’re taking an exam. You’re kind of in a parallel universe! But we start working in the actual field of aerospace, all you ever do is work in teams. So if you can’t work where there’s people in a team, you can’t work well. You’re going to be stuck in a back room and never able to advance. You have to be an open-minded person. You have to be a person who is open to consensus decision-making and respecting other people’s viewpoints. You can get trained really well in school in terms of getting this job — but it’s everything else, all the emotional skills on top of that, which will separate someone who’ll be ignored from the person who will be successful. Otherwise you’ll be just like an analyst punching numbers on the computer every single day. Which might be what some people want.

But in general, working with a team of people actually is what makes it fun and exciting. I teach at USC, and every semester I make them do a team project. Then I make them present. Just so they can [learn], because they don’t do it otherwise. You have to have someone show you, "This is how you make a presentation. This is how you divide up between people what the work is." That helps them grow as people, too. Just simple things like that. They grow from individual people to people who work together on something, and who produce something really nice. I’m always pleased when I see that happen because I think it helps them grow and then they’ll do a better job when they go apply for jobs, I hope.

"You don't have to be an aerospace engineer to work in aerospace."

I enjoy the teaching aspect because I’m able to communicate a lot of these on-the-job experiences directly to the students. They know what to expect when they start to apply and what the difference between government and industry is and things like that.

You have to get some kind of degree... this is important! — to work in aerospace, you don’t have to have an aerospace engineering degree. Most people actually don’t. They’re usually mechanical engineers or electrical engineers or computer scientists or chemists or physicists or aerospace engineers. You don’t have to be an aerospace engineer to work in aerospace. You just have to have the technical expertise, which is one of the disciplines that is covered by the field of aerospace.

And obviously a passion.

It’s not like you can’t work in this field. There’s a job for you even though it’s a really tiny field. If this is what you want to do, and as long as you’re motivated and trained, you’ll get it.

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