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What a NASA aerospace engineer does in a day’s work

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Welcome to The Work Day, a series that traces a single day in the professional lives of diverse women, from gallerists to CEOs. In this episode, we hear from Caley Burke, a NASA aerospace engineer who logged a day’s work in August.

Location: Titusville, Florida.

Job title: Aerospace Engineer for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP)

Previous jobs: Flight Design Analyst for NASA LSP (since 2006); Integration Engineer for the NASA Commercial Crew Program (2019); flight control analyst for the NASA LSP (2004-2014); structural dynamics analyst for the NASA LSP (2003-2006); control and data processing test engineer (trainee) for the International Space Station (2002).

In high school and college in the Midwest, I worked at Dairy Queen, at an amusement park, as a lifeguard, at Blockbuster, as a waitress, and as a receptionist.

Which led me to my current position: When I was 6, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was inspired by the 1986 film “Space Camp” and a visit to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. As I neared college, I discovered that I still wanted to be a part of exploring the universe, even from the ground. I focused on aerospace engineering and did an internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. There, I observed in different fields and considered several career options. I requested a transfer to the LSP to work on several rockets launching robotic spacecraft to destinations throughout the solar system.

How I spend most of my working day: There are 11 of us in the flight design group. We each participate in mission integration teams for multiple missions at once. These are large teams involving launcher contractors and spacecraft customers. We provide input and review analytics from launcher contractors. We create our own analyzes to help our spacecraft customers design their missions and to ensure that all requirements are met by launch vehicle contractors. We are also working on tools to improve our work or make it more efficient. On launch day, we sit console for the Flight Dynamics or NASA Winds roles.

5:35 a.m.: I wake up earlier than usual, but I often shift my workday to watch rocket launches. Today is unusual in that two launches end the working day.

I take a shower and put on a dress and ballet flats. I load up the car with meals and snacks for the day, gym clothes (in case happy hour doesn’t happen), and my laptop and badge. I eat an apple and listen to the local news radio while driving to the space center.

6:29 a.m.: Watch the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 421 rocket launch from geosynchronous Earth orbit of the US Space Force’s Space Infrared System (SBIRS GEO 6).

I smash bugs on the NASA causeway on the Banana River as the rocket reflects off the water. The rising sun illuminates the exhaust trail with many colors.

6:45 a.m.: Connect to my computer in my box. I’m dealing with a computer problem before going through an email, where I see that I’m no longer double-booked at 2 p.m., because a support meeting for the flight test in low earth orbit of an inflatable decelerator (LOFTID ) was canceled.

Scheduled for November 1, LOFTID will fly as an auxiliary payload on the NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) mission.

7:45 a.m.: Listen to my colleagues begin to enter. They probably watched the launch from their front yard, although one of them mentions that he accidentally slept (which I did more than once).

I heat up a vegetable quiche in the microwave and drizzle it with hot sauce for breakfast. I begin to prepare my cards for an upcoming meeting.

10 a.m.: Attend my first meeting of the day. This is the first technical review board (ERB) dry run scheduled in two weeks. At ERB, we’ll be showcasing a new launcher feature and its impacts to the Chief Engineer and the rest of his board. The chief engineer has already had discussions with us on this subject.

My graphics are at the end of the test, so I’m editing them throughout the meeting to help them fit in better with others. We come away from the meeting with a list of changes to make and expect some of us to meet again on a few sections next week.

12:15 p.m.: Lunch. Got my leftover chicken florentine lasagna with my co-workers in the break room.

12:55 p.m.: Catch an email asking me to reschedule the Mars Sample Return Flight Design Working Group from this afternoon to Monday; a key member of the team had a family emergency today. I choose a time and send the notice.

The mission is six years from launch, but I’m doing advanced mission trajectory modeling for them. It can be a lot of fun (and sometimes frustrating too) trying to figure out the best launch option for a given mission, especially for a mission design that has never been done before.

1 p.m.: Attend a division meeting in the mission briefing room; about two-thirds of attendees are in the room and about one-third are attending remotely. I sit down in front and squint my eyes slightly. I received glasses right after we started working remotely in March 2020, so I have trouble remembering to bring them to the occasional in-person meeting.

My division manager introduces the people in the room who started in the past two and a half years. I find this helpful, as I don’t recognize many new people who started working with us during the pandemic. Our program director and her assistant tell us about the actions of the annual strategic retreat. The transition to hybrid working and its future evolution is a key topic.

2:30 p.m.: Chat with various co-workers about what they’re up to these days as I leave the meeting and again as I do the lunch dishes.

My supervisor ushers my co-workers and I into his office one by one for a quick staff response. There, I talk to him about a career question that came to me recently.

3:30 p.m.: Meet one of LSP’s Public Affairs Officers (PAO), Laura Aguiar. We’re talking about the JPSS-2 launch blog, which will be LSP’s 100th launch since our inception in 1998. We’re thinking about a post outlining the different orbits for the two missions launched on the same rocket, especially with LOFTID performing its science as it enters the atmosphere.

4 p.m.: Snack at my desk: hummus with pretzels; cheese and cashews; Cola; and sweets. For the rest of the workday, I answer emails and plan my tasks for the next week.

I was hoping to work on analyzing the launch to Mars and/or verifying a LOFTID requirement. I appreciate Thursdays for all the interaction, but it’s not a good day to sit around and do things that require undivided attention.

5:40 p.m.: Order a salmon poke bowl at happy hour with co-workers. We’re talking barbecue, action movies and work stuff. I listen to the launch stream as I return to the pavement.

7:08 p.m.: Watch the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from the Danuri, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO). The white exhaust is striking against the bright blue sky.

This is the first time that I have seen two rockets launched on the same day; it hasn’t happened for decades.

On the way home, I start a new audiobook from the library.

8 p.m.: Put on some pajamas, put away the laundry, open the mail and packages, make a shopping list for Saturday, and plan to take my 9-year-old little sister (via Big Brothers Big Sisters of America) to a local theater to see “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.

8:30 p.m.: Write the last of my holiday postcards and stream “The Umbrella Academy” with one of my roommate’s dogs curled up on the couch next to me. I enjoy a cup of chocolate ice cream.

It’s strange to rent a room after having had my own house for over a decade. However, after pandemic isolation and being a digital nomad for a year, I love the company.

11 p.m.: Get ready for bed. I had intended to read a chapter of a library book on mental health, but I couldn’t resist the series finale and watched more TV than expected. I read a bit of a romance novel on my Kindle before I fell asleep.