SPACE TO EXPLORE: Curiosity shapes career journey from Michigan to Mars — and beyond

Joan Ervin is shown in her “bunny suit,” which is a clean suit she wears to keep an interplanetary rover clean before launch. Ervin worked on NASA’s Mars 2020 project for around four years and played a role in the Perseverance Rover’s design and creation. The Perseverance Rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18. (Photo courtesy of Joan Ervin via 8-18 Media)
Liam Ulland-Joy, 16
Esme Ulland-Joy, 12

EDITOR’S NOTE: This feature, written by 8-18 Media reporters Liam Ulland-Joy, 16, and Esme Ulland-Joy, 12, is the second in a series of two 8-18 Media articles about a Michigan native’s involvement in NASA’s Mars 2020 project. The first part was published in the April 10-11 weekend edition of The Mining Journal.

MARQUETTE — Joan Ervin, an aerospace engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on NASA’s Mars 2020 project, believes there are so many more questions out there about our solar system and universe to still explore and perhaps some of those questions can be solved by future missions and future generations.

Ervin explained that it is in our human nature to be curious and want to learn more.

“I think that our space missions help us understand more of the details of how the solar system formed, how the universe formed, how both are changing,” Ervin said.

“And of course, we ask questions: Did or could life survive in places other than Earth? Either in our solar system or in other ones? And could the things we understand about these other places change or improve our understanding of where we live, Earth itself, and can we improve our understanding of how things might change on Earth so that we can take better care of it? I think those are some of the key things we can learn.”

But what inspires her to continue to look for the answers to these questions? The answer isn’t something out in space, but rather back on Earth. She credits her coworkers for stoking her creative drive.

“If I did not work with a team of people, it would be much harder. Knowing that I don’t want to let others down, it’s very rewarding to do things with others, is one thing. And I would say family, friends and even just people I meet who are passionate about what they do, whatever that is, that encourages me and reminds me what I am passionate about, which is working on space things. I really do think we all encourage one another when we pursue our passions. I always go back to the ‘wonder.’

“You have all probably experienced this. I just wonder how that works? Or what is the answer to this? A lot of times I just need to go back to the fundamental motivations to push through,” Ervin explained.

Ervin has some advice for kids out there who are interested in a job in the space industry. She says that the field isn’t as narrow as one may think and that kids should just pursue what gets them excited. She explains kids can turn what they wonder about and what they are passionate about into a fulfilling career.

“I hadn’t planned out my entire path to JPL, but I just pursued the things that I was interested in. It’s hard work, without a doubt you have to work hard, but if you do that and you stay connected to what you love, I think the opportunities will always be there,” Ervin said.

“One thing I wanted to say is that I personally am an aerospace engineer, but there are a bunch of people who work in the aerospace field that are different types of engineers — mechanical engineers or computer science or electrical engineers, all different kinds — so that is why I just say pursue what you are interested in. If you are more interested in one of those fields, you could for sure still work in the space industry and you know, there are many jobs in all types of disciplines.”

Like everyone else on Earth, Ervin’s day-to-day life has been impacted by the pandemic.

“I haven’t been to my office in a year, so it has impacted us pretty significantly,” she said. “I’m currently at home right now. We adjusted, we found new ways of connecting with one another, over chat, we have video calls, I have video calls all day long. It is tiring and different and hard, but I think again we are staying focused on what our mission is.

“It definitely has changed our relationships and it has in some ways allowed us to be more understanding of one another, when you hear people’s kids in the background or lots of crazy stuff going on, I find myself being more compassionate and understanding of my coworkers, knowing they are dealing with a lot more than we are talking about at that moment in time.”

The most important life lesson Ervin has learned working in the space industry is that humans are capable of much more than we ever dreamed.

Ervin said that sometimes something seems impossible, but as an individual or with a team, you can push through it. Currently, Ervin is working as lead payload systems engineer, leading a team on a new mission called Psyche, with the goal of landing on an asteroid.

Like Ervin, we should all remember to stay curious, push through the impossible and continue to wonder about our universe.

8-18 Media youth reporters Anja McBride, 16, and Annabella Martinson, 16, contributed to this report.


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