An Interview with Stacy Weinstein-Weiss

Meet Dawn's Vesta Development Manager for the Dawn Mission, Stacy Weinstein-Weiss.
The following interview is a written interview conducted by the Outreach team at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
Stacy Weinstein-Weiss

Where do you work? And, what do you find most interesting about working there?

SWW: I work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  The most interesting thing about working here is that we are always learning and exploring! 

What is your role in the Dawn mission?

SWW: I’m the Vesta Development Manager. 

Which engineering team are you a member of and what is your role on that team? What is your team’s role in the Dawn mission?

SWW: I’m a part of the Dawn Team as a whole, and I report directly to Bob Mase (the Project Manager). My role in the mission is to develop and manage the mission design and operations plan to achieve the Dawn science objectives and Level I requirements at Vesta; manage the development, planning and coordination of all flight team activities in support of the Vesta mission plan; and, upon arrival at Vesta in 2011, direct the flight team to execute the Vesta mission plan.

What intrigues you the most about your work with asteroid Vesta in particular?

SWW: Vesta is fascinating for many reasons.  We haven’t been to a main belt asteroid before, and any time we’ve shown up at a body for the first time, we are always surprised. There is a large impact crater at Vesta’s South pole—;investigating it may give us a chance to see below the surface. Vesta is thought to be the parent body for the HED meteorites, so proving or disproving that link will be interesting. In general, flying a low-thrust mission around a yet-to-be well-characterized body with multiple orbit changes presents many challenges that are stretching the team’s imagination. We’re developing capabilities that we never thought we’d need.

What do your interplanetary mission design preparations for encounter with Vesta in 2011 involve currently?

SWW: We are currently performing analyses of nominal and perturbed cases at Vesta to determine the performance envelope we are working in. For instance, given different assumptions on the uncertainty of Vesta gravity field terms and spin axis knowledge as a function of time, the navigation team performs monte carlo analyses that tell us things like: how accurate our deliveries to the science orbits are; what level of pointing control is achievable; and how many correction maneuvers we need. We’re defining our late update process and the maneuver turn-around time. We’re developing transition criteria so we know when we’re ready to leave one orbit for the next. We just completed a Vesta scenario test in which we ran a challenging science orbit through the testbed to wring out any problems in the sequence development or the sequence itself (we did get a few surprises, but nothing we can’t fix).  The attitude control team has been looking at our turn rates while thrusting to see if they are supportable. We’re also performing thread tests—;exercises in which we “thread” data through different teams and pieces of software to make sure the processes and interface are in place. 

What is your everyday work life like?

SWW: Quite enjoyable! Most of the team is co-located, so if I need to ask someone a question, I can just walk down the hall and pop my head into their office. Most meetings are held across the hall from my office, so I spent almost my whole day near my office. My day is a combination of meetings, hallway discussions on ad hoc Vesta topics, reviewing analyses, and strategic planning. 

What are some of the challenges that accompany your job with the Dawn mission?

SWW: We have a small team for the size of the job we’re tackling, so we are constantly balancing workload between flying the spacecraft and planning for Vesta.  It’s easy to get caught up in flying the spacecraft, so it’s my job is to make Vesta a priority.  Fortunately, the team cares a great deal about the Vesta mission, and so there has been a lot of good participation.  However, there’s no end to the amount of analyses and trades I’d like to do, so I have to be judicious in setting priorities and working with the team leads to coordinate work.

Can you share one of the unique aspects of the Dawn mission that fascinate you most?

SWW: Low-thrust trajectory optimization is essential for this mission. Most missions perform course corrections using a high-thrust system, with the maneuvers taking minutes or hours. Optimization algorithms and tools have been developed over the last decades to help meet the constraints of the individual high-thrust missions. In low-thrust optimization, the burns last for days and weeks at a time, interrupted by the need to point the spacecraft to Earth for data downlink and uplink. Low-thrust is essential for the Dawn mission since the post-launch propellant demands would have been too demanding to enable visits to both Vesta and Ceres. Because only a few missions have used low-thrust for interplanetary trajectory design (DS-1 and SMART-1), only a handful of people in the world know how to perform low-thrust analyses—;the tools and methodologies are still being developed as we expand to push the limits of what we can do. We’re fortunate to have a small cadre of experts at JPL who are performing low-thrust analyses for Dawn in conjunction with developing, testing, and adding new capabilities to their tools.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

SWW: A space mission designer. I was 3 years old when Apollo landed humans on the Moon, and my father sat me on my “blanky” in front of the TV and said, “Watch this. You’ll remember this some day.”  I was hooked. I used to write stories about being a rocket designer in fifth grade. I’ve had other ambitions—;architect, yacht designer, author, archaeologist, catcher for the Chicago Cubs—;but I always floated back to space exploration. 

At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in aerospace engineering? Tell about the path that led you to this field.

SWW: Despite my varied interests, I decided I’d try aerospace engineering first (my logic was that I could write a book at age 80, but being hired as an aerospace engineer that late in life would be a challenge). I majored in aero/ astro at MIT, and near graduation (1987), a lot of my fellow students were being lured to Wall Street to become investment bankers. I interviewed on Wall Street, too, and while in New York, I visited the Hayden Planetarium and saw a show on the solar system with my best friend. I came out gushing about how interesting the show was, and my friend said, “You really like this stuff, don’t you?”  I realized that being a millionaire by the time I was 40 wasn’t what I really wanted to devote my life to and found salvation at JPL.

Who inspired you?

SWW: NASA and every explorer of every generation—;basically, anyone who ever had the courage to ask “why?” and then find out why. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote to NASA to get material for my science fair (the topic was the Viking Mission). NASA wrote back and sent me a package that included images from the surface, as well as excerpts from the mission plan.  I’m fairly certain that I was the only kid in Peoria, IL to have pictures from NASA from the Viking landed mission. Many years later, after I started at JPL,  I visited the woman at NASA who sent me the pictures and told her we got a perfect score on our science fair. She was happy to learn that (as well as the fact that I went on to work at JPL).

What subjects were you interested in as a young student?

SWW: Science, math, languages, music, art, archaeology (we actually got to go work on a dig site in 8th grade!).

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

SWW: I liked Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” because of the concept of a person living in two worlds—;human and animal. 

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers or scientists?

SWW: Make contacts with people in the field, either through university professors, science summer camps (Northwestern had a great 6-week program for high schoolers that I went to—;we learned Fortran and I took a class on relativity), Open Houses (JPL has one every year in May), and speaking engagements. We, as engineers, love talking about what we do, and the more you can interact with people in the fields you want to pursue, the more likely your chances of getting the best opportunities.

What are your leisure time activities?

SWW: Hanging out with friends, sailing, diving, golf, reading, and writing. My husband and I also have a new puppy that is taking up a lot of our time.

Do you have a yet-to-be-achieved life goal?

SWW: I’d like to learn the languages and visit the countries of all my ancestors. I’ve been to France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Czech Republic (Mom’s side); still waiting for Russia, Poland, and Lithuania (Dad’s side). I’d also like to publish a novel.

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