Jennifer Marie Rocca
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
What's the coolest thing about the Deep Impact mission?
The coolest thing about Deep Impact is that we will be sending our spacecraft to impact a real comet. This is a very difficult task, and will hopefully tell us a lot about the origin of Earth. Deep Impact will help us understand more about the history of the solar system, and I think that is pretty cool. The science goals are inspiring, and the engineering challenges are amazing. Deep Impact is a great example of the "science of art, and the art of science."
Where do you work and why do you like it there?
I work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL is a place where you can experience first hand the opening of new frontiers. I enjoy working here because my creativity, both in invention and problem solving, is encouraged; because my tenacity in challenging myself is appreciated; and because some of the best minds in the history of the space age are here to show, by example, how space exploration is done. This is an especially exciting time to be at JPL, as we have recently experienced some of the most spectacular successes in our history with MER and Stardust. Cassini has just arrived at Saturn, and Genesis brought back its samples. Being inspired daily at work is a pretty great perk.
How did you end up working in space exploration?
Like every kid, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young. It is a feeling I have yet to grow out of. My love of mathematics and science led me to engineering; my love of space and exploration led me to the field of Aerospace. I decided during eighth grade to become an aerospace engineer (I read about the profession on a family trip to the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL). I started work on my first NASA rocket as a freshman in college, and I knew I made the right choice.
Who in your life inspired you?
I have always been very inspired by the great explorers. Learning about the risks they took, the courage they had, the great discoveries they made-I couldn't get enough. I had a wonderful social studies teacher (Mr. Hicklin) in middle school who encouraged me to learn all I could, and taught me that if I wanted it bad enough, I could be an explorer in my own way too. My brother Sean is also one of my big inspirations-we've always "wow-ed" each other with our exploits, and knowing he's proud of me keeps me standing tall. My husband Matt is my biggest inspiration-he knows just what to say to make me proud of what I do, and brags about our mission all the time (he might be our biggest fan).
What do you do in your spare time?
In my spare time, I like to travel, and am enjoying seeing different places around the globe. I rollerblade often, play volleyball, hike in the nature area near my house, and work in my garden. I love to SCUBA dive, read, and listen to music. I also enjoy looking through my telescopes at the wonders of the night sky.
Do you have a yet-to-be achieved life goal?
I still want to become an astronaut! I plan to apply for the first time during the next round of selections.
How scientifically/technically oriented were you as a young person?
I was very interested in science and math as a young person. Most of my games were little science experiments, and I was always fascinated by nature. I pretended my Barbie dolls were from other planets, and had them "explore the galaxy" in their "spaceship," which looked remarkably like a big yellow Tonka Truck. Some of my favorite times from elementary school were the science fairs-my first big project was called "Bernoulli's Principle: Then & Now," it was a big winner for me in 4th grade.
What is your position on the Deep Impact mission and what do you do?
I have two roles on Deep Impact, one that will help prepare our spacecrafts for launch, and one that will allow me to participate in the operations of our mission.
My first job is as the Mission Scenario Test Team Lead. In this role, I develop and run tests on our spacecraft hardware and software that show we are ready for our mission. I am responsible for the Launch tests in particular, and spend a lot of time working to make sure that when our spacecraft is released from the rocket, it will wake up and start getting ready to go to the comet. My job consists of learning as much as I can about how the spacecraft is supposed to work during the important activity of Launch, and then finding a way to test that it does work that way. This first job of mine is "practice" for the spacecraft (and me).
My second job is as the Launch Activity Lead. In this role, I am responsible for coordinating the operations surrounding Launch. This includes preparing the Launch Countdown Procedure that will be used by everyone on Launch Day, and working with experts from across the project (Launch Vehicle Engineers, Spacecraft Development Engineers, Mission Operations Engineers, etc.) to make sure we are ready as a team for our big day (December 30, 2004). My first job on Deep Impact helps prepare me for this second one, just like practice prepares a runner for the starting gun. Launch is the first critical event (the starting gun) that will send Deep Impact on its way to Tempel 1 (the finish line).
What was your favorite book when you were a child and why?
A few of my early favorites (the well-thumbed ones on my shelf): The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels, The Once and Future King, Frankenstein, The Velveteen Rabbit, Charlotte's Web, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe... there are so many, I can't pick only one.
What did you want to become when you grew up?
I went through a lot of phases. I wanted to be a football commentator, then a "flying ace" (like Snoopy), then a female Daredevil (or the Bionic woman), and then an astronaut (engineer-I want to do the space walks). I guess I'm still in that last phase, and loving it.
If you weren't working in space exploration now, what might you be doing?
I might be a SCUBA instructor some place tropical, spending my free time reading (of course), jotting down my philosophies (yes, I did minor in Philosophy), and star gazing (there's no way I wouldn't at least be dreaming of space exploration). I'd travel like a bohemian with my husband to every place I could, and tinker with anything geeky whenever I got bored. Then again, I'd probably decide to go back to school to take all those classes I just couldn't fit into my schedule the first time around, get my doctorate, and teach engineering someplace with mountains and beach.
What do you most want to learn from the Deep Impact mission?
I want to learn how it feels to be one of those explorers-our DI fireworks should be amazing. I want to learn how to be a better systems engineer, and experience the entire operations phase of a deep space mission. And yes, I want to see what's inside that comet!
What advice do you have for students who wish to work in space exploration?
Most importantly, don't let anyone tell you that you "can't," because only you can decide that. Get involved as early as you can with space-surf the web, get an internship when you're young, volunteer on one of many student space projects across the country. There are so many great opportunities to get involved with NASA and space exploration as a student-take advantage, and encourage your parents and teachers to help.
To work in the business of space, it is important to remain open to new ideas because that's what exploration is all about. Engineers must remember to ask questions with fervor, and without embarrassment. A young successful engineer must be willing to take on new assignments and try new things, be open-minded, flexible, and meticulous-our business is in the details.