FROM MICHIGAN TO MARS
Exploring an ‘out-of-this-world’ journey to working with NASA
EDITOR’S NOTE: This feature, written by 8-18 Media Reporter Anja McBride, 16, is the first in a series of two 8-18 Media articles about a northern Michigan native’s involvement in NASA’s Mars 2020 project. The second part will be published in the April 17-18 weekend edition of The Mining Journal.
MARQUETTE — 2020-21 may have already felt out of this world for you, but NASA really did go out of this world when it landed the Perseverance Rover on Mars on Feb. 18.
Joan Ervin, a Howell native, played a role in the Perseverance Rover’s design and creation.
Ervin received her undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and master’s degree in space systems engineering from the University of Michigan. Ervin resides in California and is currently employed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is a federally funded research and development center managed for NASA by Caltech.
Ervin worked on NASA’s Mars 2020 project for around four years, during which she held two different roles.
First, she was a payload systems engineer for the PIXL instrument on the rover, which helped define the interfaces with the rest of the rover.
Next, she transitioned to the role of lead payload systems engineer about a year and a half before launch. In that role, she led a team of payload engineers to test and install several instruments to ensure they were ready for launch.
Ervin was inspired at a young age by things that fly through the air and rocket launches. That early love of flight helped her navigate her career path.
“It was in middle school actually that I even learned what an aerospace engineer was,” Ervin said. “I had no idea what that was, but my older sister was going to college at the time and she had toured the engineering department and that’s when I learned about it.
“Frankly, I did not always think I would get a job at JPL. I just thought I would work for some aerospace company, but after I graduated — and in my master’s program they were interviewing at Michigan — so I got really excited about the opportunity to potentially work on actual spacecraft that went out to answer science questions and things like that, so I’m very lucky.”
Ervin worked on several other large projects before Mars 2020.
“When I started at JPL, I started in what we call mission formulation. That is where we come up with new concepts or ideas for new missions that we can fly and answer science questions,” Ervin explained. “So, I did that for about four to five years and then worked on the Mars Insight Project, which is the lander that is now on Mars.
“It landed there a few years ago and the purpose of that mission — it basically had a seismometer that we put on the ground and (we) are detecting Mars quakes. We use that data to better understand the interior structure of Mars, which helps us learn about the history about how it was formed and things like that. That was my first major project and then I moved over to working on the Perseverance Mission.”
What is a normal workday in the life of an aerospace engineer like?
Ervin is the team lead, meaning she spends a lot of time working with other people and helping them be successful in what they do.
“Usually, first thing in the morning, what I do is connect with the team,” she said. “So since we are remote we do that over a chat tool that we have. But if we were in-person, it would be in-person, just kind of walking around seeing how everyone is doing in the morning. And then I review my email from any late-night email that came in, (to see) if there is anything urgent I need to respond to. And then, mostly a lot of my time throughout the day is in meetings, where we are checking in on the progress of work, or we are discussing design and technical issues that we need to work through and come up with how to fix something. what the next step would be.
“And then, if I’m lucky, I get some quiet time to myself to actually do work, working an issue, laying out guidance for the team or planning for the future. That’s my actual day-to-day life right now. It actually depends on the phase of the mission.”
Every job in the universe has both difficult and rewarding parts to it. Surprisingly, the pros and cons of Ervin’s job are rather earthly.
“I would say people are both sometimes the most difficult and the most rewarding. So as you all have experienced, it can be challenging working with each other and it is also really, really rewarding,” she said. “In addition to that, this business is fairly stressful. There are high stakes, if something breaks and we are close to launch that can have a really big impact.
“Part of that is enjoyable, knowing that what you are working on has a lot of impact, but it can be stressful. I would say overall the biggest reward is working on something that is bigger than myself and basically doing hard things with other people.
“When Perseverance landed and all the instruments were working — which is the part that I worked on — I just couldn’t be more proud of the team and the people that I worked with, to know that we did that and accomplished that, so I think that is the most rewarding part.”
This story may be over, but the adventures of NASA and its staff are far from it. Read more about Ervin’s career adventures in part two, coming next weekend.
8-18 Media youth reporters Annabella Martinson, 16; Liam Ulland-Joy, 15; and Esme Ulland Joy, 12, contributed to this report.