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Jessica Marquez Talks Planning and Managing Daily Tasks for Astronauts

Season 1Sep 21, 2017

A conversation with Jessica Marquez, human systems engineer and research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Jessica Marquez

A conversation with Jessica Marquez, human systems engineer and research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.


Jessica Marquez

Host (Matthew Buffington): Welcome to NASA in Silicon Valley, episode 60. Last week, we changed up the intro a little bit, and I had somebody else come in so we could record the introduction. I liked it so much, we’re going to do that again. Joining me here in the studio, we have Kimberly Minafra.

Kimberly Minafra:Hey Matt!

Host:Kimberly is a science communicator, and she works a lot with the engineers and the technical side here at Ames. You may recognize her voice. A lot of the stories that she writes that go up on she’s come in to record an audio version for the podcast. This week we have an episode with Jessica Marquez, somebody that Kimberly’s worked quite a bit with.

Kimberly Minafra: That’s right, Jessica is a human systems engineer and research scientist right here at Ames in the Human Systems Integration Division. She develops a lot of tools that enable astronauts on space station, as well as training astronauts and flight controllers in the field, to better plan out their workload. She’s very integral to a lot of the work we do for the missions now, and future missions. Pretty cool stuff.

Host: Yeah, we had a lot of fun chatting with her. But before we jump into it, just for a quick reminder, we’d love to get your feedback. We’ve been using the hashtag #NASASiliconValley, you can go ahead and jump on Twitter, type that in so you can send us whatever feedback you may have. But we also now have a phone number. So for those who like to do it old school, the number is (650) 604-1400. We already got a couple of messages coming in, so if you want to be a part of the podcast, seriously just call in, we’re listening to all those messages, and we’re trying to figure out for future episodes, we’ll start integrating those messages in, as with our future guests.

Don’t forget we love your feedback! On a similar vein, if you can like, share, subscribe, comment, do whatever it is on your favorite podcast app or social media that is really the best way for others to find this content. As I say, we are a NASA podcast, but I also want to remind you we are not the only NASA podcast. We have Houston We Have A Podcast, there’s also This Week at NASA that comes out every single Friday, and also NASA has a master podcast called NASA Casts. What they ended up doing is taking every single podcast that NASA does, and combining them into one giant RRS feed. So that’s how you can find us, that’s how you can talk to us, but for this week…

Kimberly Minafra:Let’s hear from Jessica Marquez.


Host: How did you end up at NASA? How did you end up in Silicon Valley?

Jessica Marquez: I actually grew up in Lima, Peru.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: And I moved to the U.S. after I finished high school to start undergrad. And I had always been interested in space. I didn’t know what to do in space.

Host: [Laughter] You just knew I was going to do something.

Jessica Marquez: I knew I was going to do something because I really liked it, and I just didn’t know what to do. And I have this really clear memory of writing — my mom always says, “Write a letter, Jessica.”

Host: [Laughter] Nice.

Jessica Marquez: So I wrote a letter. I remember going to the back of the library books and finding a letter — someone I could write to about what I could do in space and space science.

Host: Really?

Jessica Marquez: And I have this really clear memory of having the letter returned back to me undelivered.

Host: Oh, no.

Jessica Marquez: And I was so disappointed. And when I started undergrad, I decided I was going to try to do engineering. And actually, when I was an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to get an internship here at NASA Ames.

Host: Really? So you came out to the Bay Area for school?

Jessica Marquez: No, I was actually on the East Coast. I was at Princeton.

Host: Oh, okay.

Jessica Marquez: And through the NASA state grants, I got an internship at the NASA Astrobiology Academy —

Host: Oh, cool.

Jessica Marquez: –when it had just started, back in the 90s. And I got to stay here a whole summer, I got to learn about what it’s like to actually work in NASA, what kind of things people did, and our Astrobiology Academy group was very diverse. We had people doing space science, so —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — they’re investigating and learning about the universe. We had people that were in engineering and were doing stuff with virtual reality. We had people in biology itself, like geochemistry.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And I ended up doing work with earth science and looking at models and how we can improve the models. And after that whole exposure with the academy, which was really great because we got to see not just Ames — we got to see other centers —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — and understand the scope of what it means to actually work in space, in the space world, that I decided to go to grad school.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: So I went to grad school, and I decided to shift my attention a little bit to the aeronautics, astronautics.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: So I studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad, and then in grad school I went to MIT, and I was very fortunate to go to the Man Vehicle Lab.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: And in that lab, everything we did has to do with how humans interact with space. And so that’s how I truly delved and sort of grew in my passion of understanding how people interact with space, how people interact with complex aerospace systems.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: So having been an engineer, I totally shied away from doing anything that was related to biology, but one of the first things I learned was how does the human body function in space?

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: Because that’s very fundamental to how people might operate and work and live in space. And so I started doing that. I got really interested in how people use complex automation.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: I started doing some work in virtual reality, and this is all almost twenty years ago.

Host: Well, I remember on the podcast, we had Terry Fong. This is earlier, back in, like, January, and he had talked a lot about those early days of doing VR and, you know, now automation stuff.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host: Were you working with him on this stuff?

Jessica Marquez: No, not Terry specifically, but —

Host: But with the groups, yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — my lab was a very well-funded lab that had NASA grants. So I was very engaged with the NASA community pretty much right as soon as I started grad school. So my first exposure was my internship here at Ames, and then in grad school, I started learning a lot more about the specific area. And so my project for my Master’s thesis was really looking at how we would train astronauts using virtual reality to teach them about the space station.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And so full circle, I’m working now back here, where I get to actually help develop the training systems, help develop the other systems that support the space station, so it’s really kind of cool to sort of see that little piece of research that I started almost twenty years ago —

Host: It’s really awesome, and —

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, that just thematically prepared me to the point that I’ve now been working here at NASA Ames almost ten years.

Host:Oh, wow. So, like, while you were finishing up school, did you keep coming back and doing internships, or did you always kind of have in the back of your head, “Eventually I’m going to end up back over there.”

Jessica Marquez: So when I was in grad school, I was fortunate enough that I had enough funding to —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — stick around school. And so I did have other NASA fellowships and other NASA grants that supported my work, but the first time I got to come back here was almost very much at the end of my grad life.

Host: Really?

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, because we had an opportunity to start collaborating with someone in Code TI, which is where Terry is now.

Host: Okay, and Code TI for folks, they work on all the automation and robotics.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, and so I started coming. I came here once. And I had still maintained all those relationships that I had built when I’d been an undergrad. And so I was fortunate enough, when I was starting to look for a job, it actually kind of happened —

Host: Like, “Hey, guys.”

Jessica Marquez: And if you’ve ever tried to find a job, applying —

Host: Yes.

Jessica Marquez: — on a website is just the first step. It’s really trying to reach out to the right people that you know, to have them connect you, and start conversations. And I very quickly learned that, and I was very grateful that I had maintained those relationships.

Host: I affectionately refer to things as, like, informational interviews, where sometimes it’s like, just, being curious and talking to people about their jobs. And if you have a connection, it’s, like, use it. Start those conversations.

Jessica Marquez: And even if it’s not going to lead anywhere, it makes you more aware about what people are looking for, who to talk to —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — potentially the opportunities for other jobs that you might not have been aware of. So when I started interviewing for jobs, I started doing interviews for just human factors engineering.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: Because that’s what I’m sort of classically trained —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — in the domain of human factors engineering, specifically space, but I was applying to sort of a wide range of stuff. And I very quickly realized that when I was doing the interviews, I was just not passionate about anything that was not about space. [Laughter]

Host: Oh, that’s so funny. [Laughter]

Jessica Marquez: And so what ended up happening was I was just like, “Yeah, no, I’m, like, shooting myself in the foot here.” Every time —

Host: Yeah. “I can do this, but . . .”

Jessica Marquez: Yeah. And so I was like, okay. I’m going to change my strategy. You know, for a time period, I’m just going to devote all my attention to getting something in the space domain.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: And so I was applying to only things that were space-related, and then on a lark, I was going to come out here to visit, and my mentor, Douglas O’Hanley — I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be out there. Is there anybody I should talk to?”

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: He put me into contact with someone who put me into contact with someone else, and I ended up interviewing, like, spontaneously, that afternoon when I was here, with the person that basically hired me.

Host: Oh, that’s awesome.

Jessica Marquez: And it was that time where NASA was doing ten healthy centers.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: And so that timeframe is — basically the NASA headquarters said, “Let’s have all the civil servants work and support each other across the agency, regardless of where you are.”

Host: Okay, so it’s not like you’re competing and fighting with each other for funding.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host: This is, like, everybody working together. One NASA, one big thing.

Jessica Marquez: And so there was an opportunity to really — they were looking to make sure that all the competencies were distributed —

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: — well across NASA as a whole.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: And so that was just a golden opportunity, and I explained it to people like, I put all my chips in one bucket, except this one chip that I put out here in California, because I knew very few people. I had, like, my mentor out here, but that was about it. And —

Host: You never know. You never know.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, and that was the one that, you know, bore fruit.

Host: [Laughter] That’s awesome. What section were you working in? What were you working on when you first came on board?

Jessica Marquez: So the first project that I got to work on was really interesting. It was about how would we go about making new training systems for astronauts for the new Constellation program? So Constellation program was focused on not just creating a new rocket and a new spacecraft to go on the rocket, but also that it was going to the moon and it was going to go to Mars.

Host: And for folks listening, the Constellation eventually, through the joys of government bureaucracy and changing priorities, turned into basically what is now SLS, more or less.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host: But yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And so —

Host: Which is the Space Launch System, so sorry.

Jessica Marquez: When I first started, it was this integrated program —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — where we were going to do all these things under one program, and the training part of it was interesting because how do I prepare people to do all these things —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — that I’m not quite sure when they’re going to do that, and I’m not quite sure how the system’s going to be actually created and done, but yet still provide those simulators in time before you actually launch.

Host: Oh, wow.

Jessica Marquez: So everybody puts on the schedule when we’re going to send someone up and when we’re going to launch them on the rocket ship. And I’m like, yeah, but you don’t realize there’s a whole other deadline that comes way before that where it’s, like, you train them to go on the rocket ship.

Host: And if you haven’t done that, guess what? Things are going to get delayed.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah. And that was another surprising thing. I never knew that there were all these other roles in mission operation that played a critical path —

Host: It all builds and grows. Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah. So that gave me the opportunity to start traveling to NASA Johnson Space Center a lot. So I started working with them, traveling there frequently. I then started to get involved with the Human-Computer Interaction group —

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: — and they were doing two types of, and they still are doing two types of work. One of them has to do with mission data systems.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: And the other one is planning and scheduling systems. And I wanted to work on the planning and scheduling system, because that’s what I’d done for my Ph.D.

Host: Oh, fun. Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And they were making the actual planning and scheduling systems to go to Mars, to operate rovers on Mars —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — and I was like, “Well, yeah. I want to do that.” That’s what I did my Ph.D. for.

Host: I’m sure as a Ph.D. student, you didn’t really realize that you’d have an opportunity to actually work on the thing being built.

Jessica Marquez: So I joined that team, and we got a lot of projects with ISS. We started doing planning and scheduling tools for the International Space Station. And that’s where, again, I was traveling a lot more to JSC, and so everything that I’ve been doing in Ames has centered around how people operate and manage to work and live in space, not from the biological sense —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — or the physiological sense, but centered around how do you work? How do you bring all these complex pieces together?

Host: It’s like a complicated puzzle, I suppose. And if everything doesn’t fit ever so perfectly, you know —

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, and there are so many other moving parts. There’s, like, the training part. There is maintaining the hardware for Mission Control. There are all the different disciplines in Mission Control. That’s one of my favorite things to do when I go to JSC, NASA Johnson Space Center, is just sit in Mission Control. It’s amazing.


Jessica Marquez: You sit there, and they let you, if you have permission, to go inside that area. You can just sit there and observe them — just look at a computer. And you know, it’s like, “Oh, what’s the big deal about someone staring at a computer?” I’m like, they’re staring at a computer because they’re watching a giant spaceship go around the Earth every 90 minutes that have six people living in them.

Host: Wow.

Jessica Marquez: And when you start thinking about the immensity of that —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — and your little piece of contribution that you did for it — it just blows my mind, which is why I love even just sitting there and just watching.

Host: And so looking at some of the stuff that you’re doing now, like, your day-to-day work today, is it still centered around that stuff? Around, like, the space station and keeping astronauts up there?

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, so now, with all our experience doing planning and scheduling for International Space Station, we started looking a lot more at what does the astronaut need? So for the last ten, twelve years, we’ve very much focused on the planner.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: The planner is the person that integrates all the inputs from everyone. In ISS, you have the crew, [who is] the person that executes that plan.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And when you do it on Mars, you have the rover execute things exactly as the command send —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — was sent, or as best the commands can be interpreted by the robot.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And space station is very different. You have a person. You have to give them instructions. You have to give them enough instructions that they know what to do without overwhelming them. It’s like, imagine, you know, you get your IKEA instructions, and you’re like, “Okay, well I expect you to be done in an hour.” And you’re like —

Host: Like, but what is this Allen wrench?

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host: What do I do?

Jessica Marquez: And it’s like, “This is the first time I have seen this. How am I supposed to — how do I get all the parts? Where are all the parts?”

Host: Yeah. What order [am] I supposed to do this?

Jessica Marquez: Yeah. Or if I get interrupted, it’s like, where did I leave off in the instructions? So even just little simple things like that, I learned a lot about then how you work in space and actually do the things that astronauts are doing in space.

Host: And the astronauts are highly accomplished, like, extremely smart individuals, but at the same time, you have all these different science experiments and different things, and you’re asking a lot of these people, and you can’t be a specialist in everything.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host: And so it’s like, you know, we have the people who are building these science experiments, but at the end of the day, you have a human being on the space station that has to execute it and do it. That’s crazy. And so yeah, I’d imagine, like, the planning, the logistics around that is just completely nuts.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, so the [thing] that we had emphasized before was how do we make sure that all the resources are in place to do this task?

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: And more recently, we’ve been focused a little more on, “Okay, now that you have all the resources, how do we help the astronaut do their job?” For instance, a very complex example is preparing for a spacewalk.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: Do to a spacewalk, you need to do all sorts of things to prepare the space station —

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: — to make sure that it’s configured in a way that is most safe —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — for the astronaut, because they’re going to be going out there. In case you didn’t know, the solar arrays in the space station move, because they’re tracking the sun. When you have a spacewalk, I believe they’re fixed.

Host: Okay.

Jessica Marquez: So you have to do all this preparation. So once you’ve fixed the space station, the solar arrays on the space station, that means you’re affecting your power, which then means you’re affecting —

Host: Oh, yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — all the entire payloads, all the science that’s happening on the space station, and your ability to use a robotic arm, or your ability to manage life support systems, so —


Jessica Marquez: Everything. It’s like, okay, we have this one thing, it’s like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to do a spacewalk.” But I mean —

Host: [Laughter] It’s not that simple.

Jessica Marquez: There’s a whole bunch of things that are coming about to prepare for that. And then you’re like, okay, well, now the astronaut has to do that. [Laughter] And there’s a whole other set of things that they have to prepare to do that specific task. And so the work that we’ve been doing has been focused on how do we make it easier to — even though we have extremely highly trained, highly capable astronauts on the space station — how do we make their lives easier? Kind of like if you’ve ever encountered a really poorly designed app, and you’re like, “Well, I don’t know how to use this” —

Host: You’re looking at this and, like, nothing makes sense.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah. It’s supposed to be a simple way to interact or interface with, and you’re like, “Why couldn’t you have just done it this way, and it’s just been easier for me to understand and do my job?”

Host: That’s right, and keeping in mind that there’s a lot of tech companies spending a lot of money on people who are experts in design and human psychology and having that consistency of where buttons go and why and how to make what you want to do the path of least resistance.

Jessica Marquez: Mm-hmm. And so in space, the people that are designing all these tools for the astronauts, we have a very limited pool of people. And so our job is to make the most efficient, effective set of systems that the astronauts can use effectively and easily.

Host: Oh, wow.

Jessica Marquez: And so we’ve been developing different types of things, like can we make their timeline tool easier to use? Can we give them a little flexibility and allow them to schedule some of their activities? They’re up there. They should know better what they should do when. But maybe you can’t do this particular thing because you didn’t have enough power or you’re not supposed to do them in that order. So we want to make sure that we give the astronauts flexibility to do what they think is best and what they might be most effective and efficient, but at the same time, we don’t want to throw away —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — all the good work that the people on the ground have done to create a plan that meets all these different constraints that are going around.

Host: One thing I wanted to talk about was, well, I need to do a plug for you on a relatively recent activity we did called Google Expeditions. But also the location where that was done was, over at Ames, we call it the Mars Roverscape. For folks who are listening who aren’t aware, there’s an app, if you jump in, that’s called Google Expeditions, and it’s kind of a way that teachers and students can kind of, in a 360 VR-type atmosphere, do tours and look at things. And so NASA did a whole set of these, had several different people representing different centers, and Jessica was our person for Ames. And it was set at the Roverscape, and if you pull up the app and you look around, you can see these different points of interest. So talk a little bit about that. Why in the Roverscape? What was some of the stuff related to that?

Jessica Marquez: So we did it in the Roverscape because we wanted to capture people’s imagination because it’s NASA, but also capture people’s imagination about what exploration might be like in the future. So if you think about how we send rovers and potentially then people to Mars, we’re going to have to be a little more autonomous and work more independently from Earth. So this is a reoccurring theme that you see in journey to Mars — and the hashtag #journeytomars. As we go farther and farther away, we inevitably hit this —

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: — impossible, not impossible, but this physics constraint. The farther we go away, the longer it takes for your message to go back and forth between —

Host: Yeah. The light can only travel so fast.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah. And so this bounce, how frequently and how often you can actually talk back to Earth, not just because of the speed of the data, the communication back and forth, but also because you’re going through a very tiny pipeline. You actually have to depend on a very limited amount of data that is going from interstellar space, because it’s literally interstellar space —

Host: [Laughter] Yes. It’s not hyperbole.

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host:It’s a thing. [Laughter]

Jessica Marquez: Back to Earth, and there’s only a certain number of satellites, and basically your pipeline’s very small to get all that data. So as we start imagining what missions to Mars might be like with people and rovers, you start to realize how much more independent people and rovers are going to have to be from Earth, because we’re just limited by physics. And so the idea is that one of our tools, Playbook, is a timeline tool that hopefully will help astronauts manage their own schedule more easily. And we’re hoping that this will be an integral part about how they work with rovers in future missions, in deep space missions and Mars missions.

Host: And so is the Playbook software also related to some of the other Mars analogue, I think is what we like to say — other practice sessions that I know Ames has worked on, either in Idaho or Hawaii?

Jessica Marquez: Yeah, so one of the coolest things about my job is that we have to become very clever in how we learn about traveling to Mars and deep space when we can’t actually do it.

Host: Yeah.

Jessica Marquez: So we find all sorts of different ways of simulating this environment, and the Earth analogues provide a really great way of studying different aspects of the missions and different constraints that we will encounter as we do these future missions. And so Playbook has been our tool that we’ve been using and developing slowly over time, and we call it our next generation of planning and scheduling tools for NASA. And we have managed to test this in many different types of analogues. We do it at NEMA, which is the underwater analogue. We’ve done it in BASALT, which is looking at science objectives in the context of Mars exploration. We have done it in HERA, which is this JSC analogue where people are in a confined environment, in isolation. We are now actually also in High Seas, which is this eight-month-long analogue —

Host: Oh, wow.

Jessica Marquez: — where they put crew in isolation for eight months.

Host: Oh, wow.

Jessica Marquez: And so we learn different things with different missions about how self-scheduling and Playbook might work in these environments.

Host: So as a throwback to folks listening to the podcast, we had an episode with Darlene Lim, who works on BASALT —

Jessica Marquez: Yeah.

Host: — on one of those. So for anybody who wants to get more information on that, I will throw that into the show notes so people can go back and listen to that episode. But awesome. Also, for anybody, if you’re looking for the Google Expeditions, we’ll throw in a link for that, if you want to check out Jessica, and you can move your phone around in 360 and see all the little points and learn more about Playbook and stuff. But for anybody who has questions for Jessica, we are on Twitter @NASAAmes. We use the hashtag #nasasiliconvalley. This has been way fun. This is fascinating.

Jessica Marquez: Awesome.

Host: All right, well, thanks for coming.

Jessica Marquez: Thank you.