What it takes to get a job building robotic Mars explorers for NASA

The Perseverance rover could help unlock the planet's ancient microbial secrets

After a thankfully uneventful seven-month journey, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is set to safely reach the Red Planet and insert itself into orbit on Thursday ahead of deploying the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter prototype that it’s been toting down to the planet’s surface in search for evidence of ancient microbial life.

However, this expedition has been in the works for far longer than Perseverance has been traveling through interplanetary space. First announced in 2012, the mission marks the culmination of nearly a decade’s work by hundreds of machinists, designers, rocket scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. But not just anyone can get hired there, working for the world’s premiere spacecraft production facility and building equipment that will grace the surfaces of neighboring planets.

For Mohamed Abid, a Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer on the Mars 2020 mission, the path to working at the JPL began in Tunisia, where he grew up. “After high school, I did my master and undergrad in Europe,” he explained to Engadget. “Then I came here to the US for my PhD.” Getting good grades obviously helped elevate his chances of landing a position at the JPL, Abid asserted, but “having internships, participating in internships, was really paramount. It gave me what I needed to get where I am.”

“There's the type of folks that ... just do their hours and leave. Others, they more tried to absorb everything they can to expand on the topic that they were working on; whether that’s building parts, designing parts, writing code, whatever it is. So, try to go beyond and above,” he advised. “It has a different connotation where ‘yeah, he or she finished an internship and they provide a report’ versus ‘yeah, they did this report and then on top of that, they provided some additional help for the company.’”

Abid also advocates for potential JPL applicants to develop and nurture their hobbies, whether that’s puttering around the garage while homebrewing robots, learning about ethical hacking, or even just painting and other traditional arts. That added hands-on experience could well be the extra nudge needed to convince recruiters to hire you versus an otherwise equally qualified competitor.

These additional qualifications can also help newly hired JPL employees rise through the agency’s ranks. “It takes a village to build a to raise a rover,” he continued. “It's a whole team and then you know the interests of the individual based on their affinity, what they're comfortable with and what they want to be.”

“Everyone has an interesting story to tell about how they ended up here and what worked well for them,” Abid added. “All kinds of skills are needed to build this equipment so NASAs encourage its employees to continue these extracurriculars.”

Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission
National Geographic Channel

While these experiences can help set you apart from the rest of the applicant pool, you will still need to pass your interview, which as Abid notes, is “very attribute dependent.” Some interviewers will ask difficult questions akin to Google’s infamous “how many golf balls fit on a school bus” while others will focus more on the applicant’s critical thinking skills or interpersonal capabilities, “how to work within a team, how to behave within the team,“ Abid explained. “There's no set criteria. It's very person-dependent, need-dependent.”

As Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer, Abid’s responsibilities at the JPL are quite varied as well, depending on the phase the project is currently in. For the design phase, his focus is on “do you have the right designs, is this the right design for us to use? What are the trades that we need to have in place and what decisions have to be made to go with one design versus another?”

Once the project enters the build phase, Abid must worry about “are we building the right thing, what are the materials that we're using, what are the analyses that we are using?” Basically, making sure that the team is asking the right questions and ensuring they, as he put it “come up with the right system that can meet the requirements and constraints that we have for this super-duper complicated machinery.”

The testing and verification phase is especially exciting for Abid. “Every time you write a test, you'd like to have as many problems early on in the project,” he explained. “Because you want to solve all those problems right before you hit the red button to launch.” These problems could range from double checking that the adhesives used to glue components together bond tightly enough to ensuring that critical systems won’t rattle themselves to pieces under the strains of the launch.

For Christina Hernandez, a Payload Systems Engineer at the JPL, the position is all about asking ‘why’. “We're kind of like a jack of all trades,” she explained to Engadget. “Our job is to be in it. We're not mechanical engineers, we're not electrical engineers or software engineers — even though a lot of us have those backgrounds — but our job is to kind of look at the big picture and see this thing come together.”

“A payload systems engineer is basically the person whose job it is to understand the science instruments or the tools that we're taking on Perseverance,” Hernandez added. “So the reason why I particularly love payload systems engineering is because in addition to understanding the technology behind the instrument, the design, the coding, you also have to understand the motivation for doing it and that means you get insight into the science [behind those systems].”

Hernandez’s route to the JPL was a bit more direct than Abid’s. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California with a Masters in spacecraft design and space environments modeling, initially interested in creating systems to collect space junk from low Earth orbit.

“That problem fascinated me so I learned basic programming skills [like FORTRAN] and testing skills, but more importantly, it was the critical thinking skills,” she explained. “A systems engineer has to be able to question all the disciplines that it takes to come up with whatever particular design [is being implemented].”

Not every position within the JPL requires quite such a breadth and depth of knowledge. While some employees will move between roles and teams multiple times during their careers, others find their niche and stick with it. “I mean, it's up to you,” Hernandez said. “I've met folks who really love fasteners. That's all they want to do, they're really passionate about fasteners and that's pretty cool because we need subject matter experts like that.”

For Hernandez, the most fascinating part of the Mars 2020 production cycle has been the verification and validation phase. “If you have new technology that you're trying out for the first time, you have to build confidence in it,” she explained. “And then you get into this phase where you have your prototype of the instrument, we call them engineering models, then you get to take it to the test set. To me it's one of the most fascinating places at the JPL.”

That’s due in part to the fact that the JPL test site is home to Optimism, a nearly identical twin of the Perseverance rover as well as one for the Ingenuity helicopter. By running tests on those, “you really start to kind of get into the weeds of ‘was this the right implementation of the hardware and more importantly, how does it interact with the software?’”

Ingenuity helicopter installation, JPL Spacecraft Assembly Facility.  (NASA/JPL-CALTECHÂ )

“And so right around after critical design review where you know the designs are fairly stable, you start to then test it at a system level,” she continued. “And that's where you know all the systems engineers get excited because you kind of start to get a feel for whether the end to end system is going in the direction that you envisioned based on your scientific and mission objectives.”

As the Mars 2020 arrival date approached, pressures on the team steadily mounted. “One of the things that I feel is very unique about the operation right now is that we're gearing up for going into Mars time,” Hernandez said. “And so during this period, the team effectively works the Martian night shift. We'll adjust our clocks roughly 37-ish minutes every day so that we can get all the instructions up to the vehicle while it’s sleeping, and then the vehicle will execute those activities and we’ll get the data once we come in the next day.”

“Eventually, you're sending the vehicle instructions for maybe three or four Sols [Martian days, or 24 hours 39 minutes 35.244 seconds],” she continued. This can become a nerve-wracking exercise given that the team has enjoyed the luxury of getting nearly instant feedback from their tests here on Earth. “I am used to testing the laptops right there. The hardware is right there, I see the result, I see the data and I adjust immediately. And now it's like this extra challenge of 'OK, you designed this so that it was robust enough for it to take care of itself.'”

“One of the things that I've appreciated is the automation and the intelligence of the vehicle, to be able to make decisions to keep itself safe while taking advantage of scientific opportunities,” she concluded.

The Mars 2020 mission is expected to arrive at its destination on Thursday, February 18th at around 3:55pm ET. Tune into NASA’s YouTube channel to watch the orbital insertion live and be sure to check out Built for Mars: The Perseverance Rover, premiering on the Nat Geo channel at 8pm ET Thursday for a deeper dive into what it took to design and construct these incredible robotic planetary explorers — including a rare glimpse at operations inside Building 179 and the “Area 151” clean room where Perseverance and Ingenuity were put together.