Every good mentorship starts with a pun, right? At least, this was the case between me and one of my mentors at NASA Johnson Space Center, Dr. Laurie Carrillo, Spacecraft Thermal Design Engineer. Our mentor/mentee relationship began at a thai restaurant called Thai Tanic, in Washington, D.C., while lobbying congress on behalf of human spaceflight! You never know where you will meet the folks that have a huge impact on your career.
Keep reading to learn more about this awesome woman working at NASA!
What is your job title? How would you translate your job title into everyday language?
I am a federal employee who works as a Spacecraft Thermal Design Engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center. I calculate temperatures for given spacecraft designs using a software code called Thermal Desktop. I use a mechanical engineering discipline called heat transfer. I take a look at the heat generated internally (such as from electronics or heaters) as well as space environment heating (solar radiation and even Earth radiation). From this we can ensure that our experiments, materials, and astronauts stay at reasonable temperatures.
Engineering Fact: There are three primary modes of transfer: conduction, when two objects touch (a pan on a stove conducts heat through it to an egg), convection, or fluid moving heat (blowing on your hot tea to cool it down), or radiation (rays from the Sun that give you a sunburn).
What sorts of projects do you work on in a given day? Of all of the projects you’ve worked on, which is your favorite?
Most of my work focuses on the International Space Station (ISS) in some way. I work with the Japanese Space Agency called JAXA. They are one of our partners for the ISS. We will be replacing the current Nickel Hydrogen batteries on the station with Li-Ion batteries that will be flown up on a JAXA vehicle called the HTV. So we have a lot of coordination and analysis to ensure that this goes smoothly and effectively.
I also work with payloads that are looking to put an experiment on the ISS to ensure that they can survive the space environment (hot extremes and cold extremes). Any organization can send up a payload so I get to work with people from the military, industries, academia, and even international organizations.
I have just been given additional new responsibilities: I will be working with the commercial crew companies (like SpaceX and Orbital) who launch from U.S. soil and take cargo to the ISS. Many people do not realize that though we are not launching astronauts post-shuttle from US soil yet, we continue to launch rockets and spacecraft to the ISS carrying cargo and supplies for our astronauts/cosmonauts who are living there right now. This is an exciting part of my job because I am becoming familiar with a new area. There is so much to learn in the space industry!
Are there any common misconceptions about your job?
People often think that as a NASA employee we have secret information about little green aliens, a moon landing conspiracy, and Roswell. Though I do not know any secret information about these topics, my job is still very exciting. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment. I always encourage women to consider pursuing science, engineering, and technology related fields because we still are underrepresented. For example, in my Thermal Design Branch of about 15 people, I am the only female. We have come a long way in the bigger picture, but I still try to be a role model, in particular to Latinas who have a very limited number of engineering role models. There are only 2 Latina civil servants with PhDs in engineering at Johnson Space Center right now (one is myself, and the other is Center Director, Dr. Ellen Ochoa).
What is the most exciting moment in your career so far?
I found it very exciting when I was able to go see the Space Shuttle up close. I do a lot of work via simulations and behind the computer, so seeing the actual hardware always makes an impression on me. Whenever I see one of my projects go from my computer screen to being installed on the ISS, this is always a very exciting moment for me.
Dr. Carrillo and the Space Shuttle Discovery. As you can see, she’s been featured in more illustrious media than this little blog!
When did you decide to pursue this career? Was there a specific moment, event, or person who inspired you?
At about age 4, I spent time star gazing in the backyard with my grandmother, Enriqueta Garcia Lujan. Though she never received any type of education, she was a very intelligent woman in other ways. Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, she taught me to love the nature around me. The plants, the animals, and the stars! Then at age 8, I saw Sally Ride launch Oscar the Grouch out of his trashcan on Sesame Street. This is when I decided I was going to work for NASA. It wasn’t an easy road by any means, but I just made the most of any opportunity that was in front of me, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, just to get experience. I received a research undergraduate college scholarship from NASA Headquarters that fully covered my college if I worked for NASA in the summer. Upon graduation, I began at NASA JSC full time. Along the way, I had tremendous support from my parents, brother and sister, extended family, professors, and friends.
What do you think has been the most important event in space exploration in the last 50 years?
I am going to give an unusual answer here, based on a book that I just received. My typical answer would be Apollo (first astronaut on the moon), or Sputnik (first artificial satellite that launched the Space Race). But I am going to take a step even further back to acknowledge a group that typically is overlooked and whose contributions to the space program enabled us to be where we are today. These are the space dogs! Before we were launching humans into space, stray dogs were launched up in rockets. Laika was the name of the first space dog launched in 1957. Not all of these space dogs lived, and it was only by the data gathered in these earliest of launches that human spaceflight came to be. The book I am reading is called Soviet Space Dogs and was just published September 30, 2014.
Laika, first dog to fly into space.
What do you think will be the biggest accomplishment in space exploration in the next 50 years?
I think we are seeing one of the most significant accomplishments happen right now. The International Space Station is one of the greatest examples of what can be accomplished when nations work peacefully together towards a common goal. This space station serves as a model for every other facet of humanity, displaying what peaceful cooperation can achieve. This kind of cooperation will lay the foundation for greater accomplishments to come.
The International Space Station, a cooperative effort between 16 nations.
Specifically, I look forward to see the James Webb Space Telescope peer deeper into the universe than we have ever seen before. Additional robotic missions explore deeper into the realms of our Solar System and beyond. I anticipate commercial companies making space travel open to the general public for vacationing on a habitat in space, or for a joy ride around the Earth. I am also excited to see us work through the challenges we face in sending humans to Mars as we make that mission a reality!