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Who Are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers? The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer working on robotic machines bound for space. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos. And the student wondering if there is life beyond Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers. They are all linked by their quest to explore our solar system and universe. This monthly series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Jaime Dyk wears a white lab coat and safety goggles as she sits in front of one of the shells that covers the Mars rovers to protect them
Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004. Since then they have been doing a lot of hard work. They have bounced across shallow craters. They have navigated through rocky terrain. They have climbed Martian hills. And they have beamed more than 100,000 images of the Red Planet back to Earth. Still, as hard as the robotic rovers have worked, so have the scientists and engineers who designed, built and tested them. In fact, their work started long before the rovers ever got off the ground.

Image to right: Jaime takes a break in front of the Mars rovers' backshell. The shell was designed to protect the rovers during their seven-month trip to Mars. Credit: NASA

One of those engineers is Jaime Dyk. She works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She came there in 2001, just when work on the Mars rovers began. Later that year she was faced with an unusual choice when she tried out for the Laker Girls and made it to final cuts. The Laker Girls is one of the world's most famous cheerleading squads. It cheers for the Los Angeles Lakers, a pro basketball team. Jaime recently talked with Space Science Explorers about why she chose science over cheerleading. She also explained how she felt when the rovers landed on Mars. And she described how being an engineer is different than she thought it would be.

Space Science Explorers (SSE): How did you first get interested in space and Mars?

Jaime: I got interested in working on Mars projects at an early age. It was my seventh-grade science teacher that taught us a lot about space, Mars and NASA. I caught the Mars bug at that time and decided that I wanted to build "stuff" to go to Mars. Before that, I was convinced that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to work with dolphins at Sea World.

SSE: How did you decide between the Laker Girls and space science?

Jaime: Trying out for the Laker Girls was one of those things that I thought would be interesting. One of those stories that you could tell people, "I did that once." During tryouts, I realized the time commitment that would be expected. And I realized that it wouldn't really work for me and my goals at JPL. So, I dropped out. My focus has always been to be the best engineer I can be.

SSE: How did you help prepare the Mars rovers for their mission?

Jaime: I was working primarily on the Entry, Descent and Landing team. We put the hardware together and test how it works as a system. This is usually the first time the hardware is tested like it would function on Mars. I also got to run tests on the rocket, airbag and other systems. It was a great way to learn a lot about different mechanical systems.

SSE: How did you feel when the Mars rovers landed and started to beam pictures back to Earth?

Jaime: It was bittersweet. I know, not the answer you expect. It's amazing to see all of your hard work pay off. But it is sad, too. When you work on a project of this magnitude, the people you work with become your family. You spend long days, weekends and holidays with everyone. Now that it was over, everyone was moving on to other projects. That was sad. It's also sad to realize that you'll never see the rovers again.

An artist's drawing of the Mars Science Laboratory
SSE: What are you working on now?

Image to left: The Mars Science Laboratory has more tools than the rovers. It will study Mars in greater detail, too. Credit: NASA

Jaime: Now I'm working on the Mars Science Laboratory. This is a large rover scheduled to go to Mars in 2009. I am working with a team of engineers that is designing all of the hardware that makes the rover move. This includes the wheels, suspension system and a "rocker," which keeps the rover balanced. It is a dream job for me and I am very excited about it.

SSE: How does being an engineer compare with what you thought it would be?

Jaime: I couldn't have imagined how cool it would be. There is nothing like sitting in the control room when the first images come back from Mars and you see your hardware sitting in the Martian dirt. My images of being an engineer before coming to JPL were from the movies. I pictured a lot of men in short-sleeved white shirts with skinny black ties -- very formal and uptight. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

SSE: Looking back, what subjects in school were the most important for the work you do today?

Jaime: I think the classes I use most are my math and physics classes. I also think it's important in my field to be able to communicate. We spend a lot of time coming up with ideas. But it is being able to present those ideas to other people that makes your ideas eventually fly.

SSE: What would you say to kids who are interested in science but worry that it will be too hard?

Jaime: I would say that if you want something bad enough, then don't let anything get in your way. The work I do is hard, but I am only one person in a team of individuals. It is the group of people that work together to deliver a product. No one person could ever do what we do. Engineers, scientists and others work together. That's what aids in the success of everything we do.

See previous Space Science Explorers articles:
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Related Resources:
NASA's Mars Exploration Program
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Jason Expedition: Mysteries of Earth and Mars
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies