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You’re a what?
Rocket scientist

| March 2020

Denise Gilliland

What do you do?

I inspect and review requirements for ground stations [facilities for communicating with satellites] that control space vehicles, mainly for tracking data relay satellites. The company I work for is contracted by NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. I work in an office, but I do have to travel regularly to inspect or review activity at the ground stations being built.

I also oversee many small tasks related to building and designing the ground stations. I manage a number of teams that work on projects such as testing and simulation, software automation, and studying known problems in the systems.

“It’s not rocket science” describes something that’s not hard to understand. So…how difficult is rocket science?

It’s pretty complex! I’m currently testing new ground station software to make sure it works with existing satellite science missions. The ground stations communicate with 40 different satellite science missions, and they all have to interact with our new software and existing stations. We do multiple levels of testing, and I’m working on a level-6 test, which follows five other levels of testing.

When installing new software or hardware, we need to ensure that the ground stations meet the unique requirements of each of the 40 missions. In testing software, we have specific data rates [transmission speeds, or the number of bits of information transferred per second] and thermal parameters [temperature-specific measurements of heat conduction in the components], and if anything is out of place, the communications won’t happen. On the hardware side, cables have to be moved, fabricated, and tested with data flow.

All of this is part of a 2-year process, and it’s up to us to make sure everything is correct in order for the missions to succeed.

What else does your day-to-day work involve?

I spend a lot of time in front of my computer working on correspondence and preparing briefings as the subject-matter expert on topics such as future missions, new ground stations, and upcoming tests.

Part of my work also involves managing people and resources. My office is at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and I check in on personnel there.

I also have a lot of meetings and video conferences with people working in other parts of the country, specifically in the areas where our new ground stations are located.

Tell me about your background.

I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering, and I specifically studied rockets versus aircraft while doing my coursework. I’ve also spent 20 of my 35 years doing engineering project management.

We are encouraged to stay knowledgeable in our field, and it can be useful to get additional certifications and training to progress in your career. My company requires an engineering degree to manage engineering projects; you can’t be a project manager here without an engineering degree. Some engineers do get PMP [Project Management Professional] certification.

What are some skills, both technical and nontechnical, that rocket scientists need?

Math, engineering, and computer science are all extremely important. Someone does not have to specifically study aerospace engineering to get into this field. We hire lots of people who have studied other types of engineering or have degrees in a different subject, such as physics or computer science.

In terms of other skills, you have to be very practical, logical, and level headed. These are essential skills for an engineer, especially in this environment [at NASA] where we are working on extremely expensive and complicated projects. 

Why are people drawn to this occupation?

I think what attracts people to rocket science is that the work is futuristic. We get to work on something new, modern, and exploratory that is high tech and adventurous. I am good at math and technology, which is important for anyone entering the occupation.

What do you like best about your job?

I like the challenge, especially the engineering challenge: Reading the complex project documentation and understanding it. I can learn a lot about satellites and other technology from reading documents. I enjoy figuring things out.

Now I manage a lot of people, and I enjoy working with different people and seeing their progress on projects.

Also, at this point in my career, I have the ability to pick and choose which projects I work on. This allows me to be involved in ones that I find interesting or exciting. 

What’s the most difficult part of your job?

Budgetary issues. It can be frustrating to not be able to do a project that is exciting and promising, for lack of money. There are a lot of things that we could accomplish if we weren’t faced with budgetary constraints.

Do you have any advice for aspiring rocket scientists?

Work hard, study the details of your projects, and understand them from start to finish. Your customers and managers will appreciate it and possibly promote the projects you work on. This could lead to you becoming a subject matter expert in a particular field. Remember, they pay us to be smart!

Ryan Farrell is an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. He can be reached at farrell.ryan@bls.gov.

Suggested citation:

Ryan Farrell, "Rocket scientist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2020.

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              Denise Gilliland