Beth Weinstein is an Observatory Manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Read her interview below to learn about her experience working on the Earth Science satellite mission PACE and how her career has evolved over her 19 years at NASA.
STEM to the Sky
Aug 20, 2020
My name is Beth Weinstein, and I work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Currently, I’m working on an Earth Science satellite mission called PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem).
In terms of my current project, we’re going to be looking at phytoplankton, which is important for two reasons. One, it’s the base of the food chain within our oceans. Two, it also absorbs 40% of the carbon in the atmosphere. There are thousands of different types of phytoplankton, and we’ve never been able to see that diversity from space, only from boats in the ocean.
My mission will be able to see that diversity from space and be able to study the oceans and the atmosphere at the same time. I’m in charge of the spacecraft portion of the satellite, which includes the structure, thermal, navigation, communications, power, and everything that is needed to support the instruments that will actually take the data above the ground of the Earth.
I’ve been at NASA for 19 years, and I would say that I’ve had a few different careers since I’ve been there. I started off doing something more computer programming oriented, helping to build user interfaces that would grant people access to archives of NASA’s Earth Science data.
From there, I evolved to do more work on the actual hardware side of building the satellites, which included some systems engineering as well as the integration and test of building the satellites.
I took a left turn for a minute and did a policy for an assignment at the NASA headquarters. Since then, I’ve really been more on the management side of things; I was an instrument manager for a little while, and now I’m the spacecraft manager.
As a child, I would say that I had maybe a small interest in space; I found the moon kind of fascinating. Maybe I wanted to be like a dancer or a park ranger, so a little far off from where I got to. Then for a while, I thought I’d be computer programming on a beach or something like that.
In high school, I took a remote sensing class which I found really interesting. That class really propelled me towards what I do today. A couple of years after that when I was in college, I wound up getting an internship that was also related to remote sensing and using data; it was actually for a government contractor, but it was about using satellite data to look at how things moved over the Earth. From there, I think between that and my computer science background, I came to have an interview, and I was offered a job. How could I say no to NASA?
For undergraduate, I went to the University of Maryland where I majored in computer science and had a strong minor in math. I certainly applied the knowledge I gained from taking classes related to my major, especially when I first got to NASA; I was doing computer programming.
I also found myself using the philosophy of computer science, which isn’t always the best for hardware. But, the fact that you can kind of undo and start over again is something that I’ve learned to use in my job. I also have a graduate degree in Space Policy, and I use that a lot as well.
I like to say that I learned more about NASA from George Washington University than I did at NASA itself. Up to that point, my experiences had not yet opened my eyes to everything that NASA did and the types of issues that we were dealing with as an agency.
I think what’s kind of interesting and great about my job is that basically every day, I’m given puzzles or problems that I have to solve whether that is technical cost, scheduling, or even personnel. Solving puzzles involves thinking of new ways to approach things and assessing risk. Sometimes, an option might be a little bit riskier, but maybe it’s the right decision for the overall project. I like solving problems and puzzles, so I find that really interesting.
What I didn’t realize, especially at Goddard Space Flight Center, is that people stay there tend to stay there for a really long time. In fact, people’s parents work there; maybe they got an internship, and so they work there themselves, but I think it’s really the passion for the job and how well we’re treated by NASA that kind of keeps people interested.
We are always learning something new, so I’m never bored in my job. Even if you are a mechanical engineer working on one mission, you might work on an earth science mission another day, and you might work on a planetary mission the next day.
NASA lets you branch out, as you saw with me coming in as computer science and then going more towards the hardware side, even policy. You’re always evolving your knowledge, and I think that’s something I didn’t quite understand before working there.
I think something that I have learned over time is that you are your best advocate. There are people there for you like your mentors, but it’s really up to yourself. I didn’t do those things because someone suggested I should; I did them because I wanted to do them, so I kind of pushed to do them. You are your own best advocate in terms of if you want to change your career or you want to learn something new. No one’s going to do that for you, and that’s true even in advancement in terms of promotions and things like that.
If you want to do something, it doesn’t hurt to ask the question, right? The worst they can say is no. I try to tell people to just reach out to someone. I’ve reached out to people that were pretty high above me within the agency, and they were definitely willing to talk and have me come in and spend some time with people. I think they really want to see the growth within the people that work at NASA themselves and want people to be happy, which is great.
I personally have not been there in five months, but my work has not slowed down at all. In fact, it has kind of been busier. Within the last couple of weeks, we’ve gotten permission for about 100 people to go back to the center. Not all of them will go back at the same time for my project specifically, but we still have a lot of work to do.
We’ve been buying parts of our spacecraft from other companies and countries, and we would have to communicate with them. We’re about to head into our integration and test period, so we’re trying to plan what we are going to put on first, what kind of support equipment we need, cabling, or things like that. Obviously the shutdown did delay the actual building of our spacecraft, but we are on teams all day long speaking to each other online, so we really haven’t slowed down.
I would say my job has a lot of meetings. I have a team with a lead mechanical engineer, thermal engineer, propulsion engineer, navigation control engineer, and so on. I have about 16 leads, and they all have teams themselves. Sometimes I’m leading a meeting, and sometimes I’m just sitting in it because I still want to learn myself.
Our meetings consist of designing the spacecraft we’re making, reviewing a design that someone has come up with, or maybe we’re talking to another country who is building a portion of our spacecraft. It’s a lot of fielding questions, but we are always planning for the next step.
Over my career, I’ve actually built satellites, putting on pieces and checking things out. But unfortunately at this point, I’m a little bit further removed. However, I still find it interesting and fun to help design something and to move it along.
In general, NASA requires a technical degree, but as long as you just have some kind of technical degree, then the rest of the technical skills are learned during the job training at NASA itself.
Some soft skills would be listening, communication, and organization. Honestly, building a spacecraft requires a lot of information, right? It could take just a very small thing for something to go wrong for the mission not to be successful. So, you really need to listen to the people that you’re working with, know what you’re in charge of, and have an organized system so that you can look something up if you don’t remember what someone said.
Within just the spacecraft itself, there are 16 groups, and each of them has a number of people. There are about 200 people on the spacecraft team in general, and that’s just a portion of the project that I’m working on.
All of these groups of people, for example, the electrical group and the structures group, work hand in hand with each other all of the time. We have our experts that we go to, but we couldn’t build a spacecraft without a team. It’s definitely a lot of teamwork, so being able to work with other people is a good skill to have besides the obvious general technical skills.
I think NASA has a great website, which everyone can check out. NASA also has a wide range of roles and jobs, so students can feel free to reach out to people that work there. I’m happy to talk to anybody and point them in the right direction, and I’m sure other people are willing to do that as well. There are also internship programs, not just at NASA itself, but also at other companies working on their own satellites in the [DMV] region that we partner with.
Something that NASA is working on, but is not quite ready yet, is called ‘Green Propulsion’, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great for the environment. The propulsion that we use now to maneuver the satellites in space is very toxic, but with ‘Green Propulsion’, you can breathe in and out with no problem.
Right now a limiting factor of getting anything to space is how much it weighs. The more it weighs, the more it’s going to cost. So if we need less propulsion, then it’s going to weigh less and cost less, making it more efficient. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite ready for my mission, but I can see most satellites using that moving forward.