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To MARS with MER - MER the Mission

Jackie Lyra
ATLO Test Conductor
Mars Exploration Rovers mission
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Interviewed at KSC, May 20003

P2K: Give me your name and tell me what your title is on the Mars Exploration Rovers project.

Jackie Lyra: My name is Jackie Lyra, and I'm a test conductor with the ATLO team.

P2K: What are the kinds of tests will we be seeing you guys do today, tomorrow, and for the next few weeks?

Jackie Lyra: Here in ATLO we are responsible for testing the actual spacecrafts, the flight units. We start testing from the "box" level, from the (circuit board) level, and we test all the way until the spacecraft is fully integrated in a launch configuration. So pretty much the tests we are doing here in ATLO we are testing the real thing that's going to Mars.

P2K: How close is the test to the actual thing?

Jackie Lyra: We try to "test as we fly," so it's very much like the real thing. We are testing real hardware, we are testing the spacecraft that's going to Mars, so it is like the real thing.

P2K: Does everything go perfectly, or are there sometimes things that don't happen the way you expect?

Jackie Lyra: Of course not, that's why we have jobs here, otherwise we would have no jobs to do! Pretty much our job over here is to test as close to flight (conditions) as possible and try to troubleshoot all the problems we find. It's better to find problems now than find problems when we are flying to Mars or at the surface.

P2K: I know on Pathfinder there was somebody who was the "gremlin" maker, who created problems for people to fix. Is there the same thing on this one? Where do the problems come from?

Jackie Lyra: Oh no, they're the real problems. What we face everyday here are real problems because we are dealing with the real spacecraft. So we actually don't have anybody creating problems to us, it's pretty much the problems that the spacecraft had that we troubleshoot, and fix. So hopefully by the time we fly and go to Mars we will find no problems.

P2K: At this stage in the program, two weeks before launch, are you still finding problems, or is everything perfectly good?

Jackie Lyra: Yeah, we just found a problem about a week ago, and we are just glad to say that with a lot of effort we were able to fix the problem, and we are pretty much ready to go at this point.

P2K: Tell me who the people are who are, not in terms of names, but who are the kinds of people who are involved, just in the responsibilities they all have as an "ATLO test team."

Jackie Lyra: I'm the test conductor, so I lead a team of people. In that team we have one person that is an "avionics" person, that's pretty much responsible for commanding the spacecraft, sending commands, telling the spacecraft what to do. We have a person that's responsible for the "telecom" system, that's responsible for all the communications between the spacecraft and the ground. And we always have one person that's called the "electrical systems" person that's responsible for the overall health of the spacecraft. And sometimes we have people from other subsystems, depending on what we're testing. For example, if we are testing a "propulsion" system we may have an expert on the propulsion system. If we are testing a system like the "temperature control" system, we may have an expert in temperature control that will join us just for a short period of time. But on a daily basis we pretty much have a test conductor, an avionics person, and an electrical systems person.

P2K: You've got two spacecraft out there that are supposed to be pretty much twins. I mean, they're identical in design and every other aspect. Are they behaving just the same, or are there things that are different about the two spacecraft?

Jackie Lyra: Well, they're behaving pretty much the same. There are very minor differences between one spacecraft and the other, but they pretty much behave the same.

P2K: Do they have a personality in comparison to other spacecraft or other missions that you've worked with? Are they more difficult to deal with, more cantankerous, more...?

Jackie Lyra: I think it's more like the personality of the test conductor goes to the spacecraft. And the way it's structured now we have two lead test conductors and one person that works pretty much between both spacecraft. And I'm that person that pretty much floats between one and the other. But we have a MER-1 lead test conductor (Art Thompson, as seen in BOUNCING TO MARS) and a MER-2 lead test conductor (Chris Salvo), and I guess the spacecraft pretty much takes the personality of that person.

P2K: What is that personality?

Jackie Lyra: You'll see when you interview them!

P2K: What is it that brought you into the space business? How did you get started in this kind of career?

Jackie Lyra: Well, it's pretty much, I think, a standard story, but when I was very young I was very interested in math and science. And pretty much seeing the man actually landing on the Moon and walking on the Moon was pretty much, I guess, what moved me toward the area of science. And at that point, when I was very young, my dream was to be an astronaut, and I tried very hard to get close to that. It got to a point in my life where I said, as long as I can participate in space, I'm happy. I really don't have to go and step on the Moon or go to Mars myself, but part of me, part of my work (i.e. the spacecraft) is going to space and making a contribution. So I think the highlight was really seeing the man's first steps on the Moon.

P2K: What did you do at school to get ready for that career? What intermediary steps did you take to get to the place where you are now?

Jackie Lyra: Actually, I was born in Brazil, and growing up in Brazil and wanting to be an astronaut was kind of really a far-flung (sic) dream. And I always liked math and science, so I really tried to dedicate (myself to) it and learn as much as I could about science and math. And I remember telling people that when I grow up I'm going to be an astronaut and everybody laughing at me. I worked very hard toward actually being able to come to the United States, and study over here, and be able to participate in the space program. And pretty much what it is is you have to have a goal, you have to have a dream. And no matter what it is, sometimes it looks impossible to other people, but if you want it and if you want it hard enough it sometimes happens.

P2K: The goal of being an astronaut, the goal of sending things to Mars, how does that match with the incredible long hours that you guys are working, the fact that you have to really work so hard with such an attention to detail on a minute by minute basis? How do the dream and the reality fit together?

Jackie Lyra: It's very interesting because, you know, this is like a job that we love and sometimes we just take it for granted exactly what we're doing. You know, we are building a spacecraft to go to Mars and the hours are long, and sometimes we get very tired. But at the end if you just stop for a few minutes and think about what you are doing and the contribution to science, you know, you just have to stop for about five minutes and just think about what you're doing and you forget about the long hours. At the end all you remember is that, "Oh my God, you know, I'm actually working on something that's going to land on Mars." And you forget about it. And that's why you work on a project like Mars Pathfinder, like I did, and at the end of Mars Pathfinder you're exhausted and you say, I'm never going to do this again, and then two years later you're doing it again and you love it as much as you did for the first time.

P2K: We've seen lots of the test footage from both JPL and what's been happening out in the High Bay area here (Ed. PHSF, the Payload Hazardous materials Servicing Facility), making all the bits and pieces work together, how on earth can you possibly guarantee that all those bits and pieces are actually working together?

Jackie Lyra: Well, it's interesting. There is a lot of paperwork to make sure that things work together, but I think the real key is the people. We have a team of people that's very dedicated, that really love the work they do. And I think that's key. You know, no matter how much paperwork you have, how many procedures, how many ways of doing things, if you don't have the dedication, if you don't have the people that really love what they do on an everyday basis, you don't have a project that works like that.

P2K: How did you get the human team to work together, because, you know, people have different personalities as well, and one of the things that's amazing about this project is how many people there are in comparison to Pathfinder? What's the secret of making the team play together the way the spacecraft is supposed to?

Jackie Lyra: I'm not sure if I know. It's almost like, as I said before, how do you make a team like that work together. I think we all have the same goals, we all love the work we do, and that's pretty much what pulls the team together and I think that really makes it work.

P2K: You personally, what is it that really gives you the biggest kick and keeps you coming into work each day, just on a very personal basis?

Jackie Lyra: I think, you know, recently, about two years ago, I had a baby. She's two now, a baby girl, her name is Mackenzie, and lately, the way I see my job is that one day I want to sit down with her and tell her, "You see, we had this spacecraft on Mars and Mommy worked on that," and kind of motivate her to see that you can do whatever you dream of. And not only that, I also want to take that idea and pass it to other kids, too. When I worked Mars Pathfinder it was very rewarding to me after we landed all the letters that I got from little kids just asking me about my job and how did I do that, especially little girls that thought that it was an impossible dream to ever work in a project like Mars Pathfinder. And it was very rewarding for me to pass on that knowledge, and pass on that dream to them and tell them that you can do whatever you dream of. And I hope that one day they will come, they will work for NASA, for JPL, and maybe they will tell people that the reason why they are working on a project like that is because one day they saw somebody named Jackie Lyra working on a project like that, that motivated them to work hard to get to a point like that.

P2K: The Mars Exploration Rovers mission is pretty unusual in the sense that it has a lot of women in leadership positions. But there are still more guys than there are girls. Any specific words to girls who are saying, well, I see a lot of guys doing this, maybe it's not for me?

Jackie Lyra: Hey, if you have a dream, if you are a girl and if you have a dream, all you have to do is work on it. It doesn't matter what other people think, it doesn't matter if you are a female or a male. If you have a dream and you work hard on it, believe me, it will happen, but it's all up to you.