Beth Jens NASA
Culture | Sep 15, 2018

Forefront18

Australian NASA engineer Elizabeth Jens speaks about the future of space travel

When Elizabeth Jens was just a regular child in Victoria, she kept finding herself looking up at the stars dreaming of space. By the age of 12, she had already made up her mind to work in the space industry. Following a double degree in engineering and physics at the University of Melbourne, she was funded by a Fulbright scholarship and NASA JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to earn her PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University in California. She is now based full-time in Los Angeles working for NASA JPL with, among other things, the 2020 Mars landing and is involved in several initiatives to increase Australia's investment in the space industry. 

Jens appeared recently at the QICGRE-sponsored FOREFRONT summit in Sydney to discuss her career path, the rise in private space travel inititives, and how she hopes to inspire more young people, particularly girls, to pursue a career in engineering.

Becky Sunshine: As a 12-year-old you heard an Apollo astronaut speak, which proved a catalyst. What enabled you to make your dream a reality?

Elizabeth Jens: As most things it’s a little bit of everything. I think I’ve been really lucky in that I had this dream but even as I learned more of what it took to follow that path, it [my dream] never really changed. It turned out that I really loved engineering and physics long before I realised that that’s what I needed to get there. The fact that the Australian Apollo astronaut, Andy Thomas, had studied mechanical engineering helped motivate me to think ‘okay I’ll give that a shot.’

BS: What skill set do you need to be successful in the space sector?

EJ: The further I get into the space industry the more I realise that people have such different skill sets. I definitely went down a more traditional path of specialising in engineering, astronautics and aeronautics engineering and in particular, rocket propulsion. But there are as many people with skills in motion planning, autonomous control, robotics, planetary sciences and geology.

BS: How has the industry changed since you’ve been working?

EJ: It has altered quite a bit since my time in the States – and certainly in part due to companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. A lot of colleagues I studied with are on the private space exploration path, but I’ve been passionate about what JPL does. Obviously I’m watching with interest, as all of us are, it’s exciting. I talked about it at FOREFRONT, there are these patrons of technology who’ve come through, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, offering a lot of technology investment, which is not just software with quick returns, but looking at hardware.

BS: Are they worth taking seriously?

EJ: I think with all start-ups it depends on the personalities involved and the core of what they trying to do. I think it’s really easy to say it’s really far out there and not take it seriously - that happened with Musk. He said he was going to have a rocket company and he constantly proves that it might be difficult, but you can set-up your own space company and make it work. It’s easy to write-off at the outset, but more challenging is to take the time to look under the hood and get behind these companies. I think SpaceX has been really great for the promotion of the industry. What they did with the launch of Falcon Heavy had everyone excited. At JPL we stopped and watched the screens and cheered as hard as anybody when it went well. More importantly it helps to shake things up across the industry, which makes everyone sharpen their pencils. Blue Origin has wonderful rocket technology, but has not been as focused on promoting what they’re doing - they’re working quietly in the background developing really wonderful engines.

"The reason I love the government side of things is because I loved the ideals that NASA was established on. I’ll get this wrong, but it’s something like, ‘to explore life there, to improve life here, to find life beyond’."

BS: Do high profile ventures like these help the industry as a whole? Are they part of what is making space cool again? Does public consciousness help?

EJ: Absolutely. I think space exploration is entirely about public consciousness. If you look at what the US did to get to the moon, it only had the resources to do that because, at the time, so much of society was focused on trying to achieve that goal. Whether it’s about allocating funds, or whether it’s communicating to folks what we’re actually getting from organisations like NASA and whether you’re able to capture that spirit of exploration that has driven our species. In Musk’s case, we’re talking about trying to get humans to Mars, so you’re going to encounter roadblocks unless you can capture peoples’ imagination. The reason I love the government side of things is because I loved the ideals that NASA was established on. I’ll get this wrong, but it’s something like, ‘to explore life there, to improve life here, to find life beyond’. Not only are we trying to extend what we’re doing as a species now, but we’re also looking at new forms of life and changing our whole way of thinking. At its core, we’re trying to do something good for our species.

BS: Your own focus has been a combination of research and making?

EJ: I split my time between two tasks. One is looking at developing a small propulsion system with a goal of helping to enable a standalone interplanetary SmallSat missions. The idea is to augment the work we do with large, expensive space-crafts, by sending out a very small spacecraft, 25kgs in total, without endangering the main mission, but piggyback on it and do its own science mission. We hope that we might be able to dramatically reduce the cost of exploring space and develop new technologies and prove that they work. It would accelerate the rate at which we’re learning. The rest of the time I’m developing a small system that would go on the arm of the next NASA Mars rover that’s due to launch in 2020. We’re right in the thick of the build at the moment, but it’s so rewarding because it’s so tangible right now.

BS: Have you been a bit of a lone-star as a woman in the space industry?

EJ: As an industry, yes, we have struggled with equal numbers of men and women. At graduate school, we had a lot of trouble encouraging women to apply to aerospace engineering, and then stay. Opportunity-wise I don’t feel I have been discriminated against being female, but I think sometimes you work with some folks who’ve been more comfortable working with men in the past. I do think that the dynamic changes for the better when you have equal representation – it’s something that as an industry that we recognise and are trying to work out how to change.

BS: How do you get girls at school to be excited about space?

EJ: I think if you talk to kids at schools, both boys and girls get very excited. I go to primary schools and everyone is jumping up and down with questions, which is great – kids are excited. But then you get into the maths and science and you start to lose people. I do think that the presence of role models does help – making sure parents, teachers and friends are never reinforcing the message that you can’t do something because you’re female. In the case of women going into non-traditional fields, yes, you might be faced with some resistance, but you can overcome that. And where possible, mentoring - exposure to other women in the field can be really important.

BS: You seem to be accepting a high profile role. Do you feel like its part of your duty to encourage young people to be interested in space and engineering?

EJ: Yes, absolutely. I have friends who’ve dedicated a lot more time to this and have built huge outreach programs on social media, but I realised that I’m not comfortable having a social media platform. Instead I’m into writing articles or speaking on panels or doing interviews. The thought that one conversation might be life changing for someone is amazing, so I’m happy to help.

BS: We, as a culture, want to know what will space exploration do for us as a planet? How will it shape our future? Is this something the space industry asks itself?

EJ: Yes, in general, certainly at the highest level a lot of the folks involved are doing it because they’re passionate about what it means for humanity. A lot of what I love about looking at human space exploration is that we have to develop technologies, improve technologies and re-use resources we take to space because we can’t constantly resupply from Earth. And so I love this notion of closed systems – you have a finite amount of resources and you get by, you can’t always try and extract more. And then there are people - and I think this is Jeff Bezos’s mind-set for his Blue Origin space programme - who want to preserve Earth, and in order to preserve it they say, ‘I acknowledge that we will never get to this ideal closed system, so instead I want to turn it around and do heavy industry and mining off the planet and preserve Earth as this idyllic place to live.’ And so the folks in that camp are looking at mining asteroids, which seems really futuristic at the moment, but who knows what will happen. So yes, I do think people are thinking about where we’re headed as a species and what we want to do with our planet. The other thing is a lot of the data we have on climate change is coming from NASA and other space organisations. Many planetary scientists who analyse that data and are informing us are based at NASA, so I think there is a level of awareness that what we’re doing right now is dramatically changing our planet, as we know it. We need to think about the repercussions of it. When you’re in the day-to-day you can sometimes forget but I think a lot of us have these higher ideals that we’re striving towards.

BS: We have to ask: do you believe we’re alone in the universe?

EJ: We don’t know – we have one data point and that’s Earth. It’s likely that there is something, but it’s most likely to be more like a biological life rather than an intelligent being like we always imagine. There’s a huge branch of Astro-biology at NASA and they’re doing really interesting work around this. I would like to imagine that we’re not an anomaly, but I’m not sure. 

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