Beth Weinstein: NASA Mission Engineering and Management

Beth Weinstein '97 is currently an Observatory Manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Weinstein received her B.S. in computer science with a concentration in mathematics at the University of Maryland, then joined NASA as an engineer post-graduation. She has worked on many missions at NASA, including the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS), Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM), JPSS (Joint Polar Satellite System), and now the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission. Weinstein also received a Master's degree in International Science and Technology Policy from the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. She talked with Xinyi Zhou '10 about her career and advice for students interested in working at NASA.

What did you do post-graduation?

I went to UMD and I have a degree in computer science and a concentration in math. I did take an astronomy class, but I didn't really connect the remote sensing and the computer science as much as I could have in college. In college I was pretty into human-computer interaction and took a lot of classes on that, and worked in a lab at UMD that created software for children. They were very big on who the user was and bringing that user in. How do children search for books? Did the color of the book make it happy or sad? So it was creating interfaces for the specific user. Ben Shneiderman and Ben Bederson were the heads of the lab at the time. The other job I had was with a government contractor in Rosslyn, called Pacific Sierra (now part of General Dynamics). So I had to use ESRI geographic information system (GIS) tools -- we used remote sensing data to overlay digital elevation maps and to figure out how long it would take for an object like a car or tank to get from one place to another using these remote sensed images and this ESRI product. I did continue that remote sensing and computer science interest there.

After high school, where did you go to college and what did you focus on?

I thought it was a great experience; it not only prepared me for college but also for the jobs I had after that. So I really appreciated the education [the Magnet] gave me.

Tell us a little about your Magnet experience -- what do you remember?

I went to [the Takoma Park Middle School Magnet program] also. That's where I discovered computer science. I started programming at TPMS and I continued that all throughout high school. I liked the problem solving aspect of it but also that you could take risks and make mistakes because you could undo and try over again. The other thing I really liked and found at Blair was, I took a remote sensing course, and from there it was really fascinating to think about all the things you could do from space. Before that I thought about NASA as looking out at other planets, but not really looking at the power of space to look down at the Earth and help Earth. We did all sorts of things, such as urban planning, exploring the breadth of the things you could do with remote sensing. I took amazing courses -- I took a genetics course that I loved besides the regular sciences and I also took a lot of math as well.

I went straight to NASA from UMD. My initial job was in Earth science data information systems. I was in charge of systems where you processed data after it came from the satellites, and helped distribute it to users all over the world. So not only was it interesting to see what kind of data was produced, but I also got to meet the users of the data and find out how they were using it. Actually it was something that I have appreciated ever since, because a lot of times people don't understand the importance of it -- often a lot of people are like, the mission's done, you're done! No, actually, it's important how that [data] affects people. A great example is SERVIR, a play of the Spanish "to serve". It's a joint project with USAID. They have these hubs in developing countries, and they go and help them be able to downlink NASA's Earth science data in other places, give them interfaces, algorithms, whatever's needed. The well-being of a lot of countries is based on natural resources, so NASA's data is a way for them to track it, predict it, see changes over time and do something about it. So that was a project I got introduced to early on, and that really drove me to really help me understand how we do Earth science and make it successful. A lot of people don't think of how NASA does Earth science, and it's not just science, it's also direct to consumer as well.

I actually revisited the SERVIR people last week, at the Marshall Space Flight Center. They were telling me they've been really successful; they've opened four hubs and are opening a fifth. Because of the data they've been able to give access to, one of the countries, Nigeria, was able to start giving insurance to farmers, because they could predict what is going to happen. To see that going through after working on it for so long, it's really rewarding.

How has your work at NASA evolved over time?

I got into NASA because of my computer science degree, but after a little bit in that field even though I loved it, I decided I really wanted to learn how NASA builds satellites. So kind of more on the hardware side of things. I think honestly just general knowledge from high school definitely helped, and some risk taking from the computer science side of me. I started off in a project that was called TRDS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite), and I was part of their systems engineering team. At that point I was just learning, what are all the different subsystems for a satellite? What are the NASA processes that we do to manage flight projects? Because I was coming from a ground system, I was coming from the data processing. How do flight projects go, what are the processes that govern it, what's the lifecycle of a mission, those are all things I learned.

Around that time I got a Master's in Space Policy from George Washington University and I found that to be super interesting and I still use that information to this day. I didn't really have that kind of information about what NASA does, what military space does, what commercial space does, what policies govern it, what are people worried about. But at the same time that I lucked into systems engineering, when I talked to a lot of the systems engineers I worked with, they said that a lot of the policies were based on operational research instead of the systems engineering that we do at NASA. So it didn't make sense at that point to get that degree. I think I got that degree because I still had international interests, so when I was talking to some people they said that having some sort of international degree would be helpful. My degree was out of the Elliott School, which is the international school. While I was there I took a technology and development class, which talked about how Earth science data was helping developing countries. And I took a development in Africa class and my teacher worked for Amnesty International and he talked about how he used NASA's data in his job. So it expanded my understanding of how the data was important.

[After my Master's], I worked on more projects, One of the projects I worked on was Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM). It looked at precipitation and it was looking at global freshwater availability worldwide. It was a joint project with JAXA, which is the Japanese space agency. We actually had two instruments from JAXA on our mission, and we launched out of Japan. So we spent a couple months in Japan right at the end before launch. I was one of a bunch of people on the integration and test team. My job was writing electrical integration procedures as well as functional test procedures, to integrate components on the spacecraft. One of my components was the first flight component to go on the integrated spacecraft. It was exciting, especially as someone with a computer science background, to be responsible for an electrical engineering type job and procedure.

After that I decided I wanted to do more of the management side. So the first thing I did was I became an instrument manager of an Earth science instrument that was being built by a contractor out in California, called VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite). It was an instrument for a NOAA mission, so NASA builds the spacecraft for NOAA but it was a NOAA operational mission. The mission was called JPSS 2 (Joint Polar Satellite System).

Finally, my current job is with PACE -- Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem. I'm in charge of the spacecraft and the interface and the launch vehicle. We're going to launch in 2022 and this mission is to look at phytoplankton, which make up 1% of biological material on Earth but absorb 40% of the carbon. What happens as plankton move, how does that affect the atmosphere? The plankton are also part of the food chain and there are thousands of different kinds. Some plankton are fish food, some are turtle food -- as those move, what does that do to the population? We have a hyperspectral detector and it's going to be able to give a lot more information than the previous missions. Plankton give off their own signature on the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. [From previous missions] we can tell sediment versus plankton. But the different phytoplankton have different EM signatures as well [and that can be distinguished with the hyperspectral detector].

What's your advice for students today that are interested in a career at NASA?

I'd definitely say there's a place for lots of different fields at NASA. There's so much on the job training at NASA; just because you don't have an aerospace engineering degree, don't let that stop you. When I look at my colleagues, they have so many different degrees. There's a couple different ways to get in. There's open calls from USA JOBS, but we also have really excellent support service contractors. At NASA Goddard we have 10,000 people, 3000 are civil servants and the rest are contractors. We work hand in hand, it's not a hierarchy. I sometimes forget who is a contractor and who's not, it's really that seamless. A lot of contractors have been there just as long as us civil servants. I'd just say there's so many different jobs at NASA and we need all different kinds of skillsets.

There are a lot of great mentors and people are always willing to talk, so if people are interested in jobs, they should not be afraid to cold call or email them. Where I work we're really interested in developing the next generation. Tons of us do outreach to different schools, and again, people should not be worried to reach out because we really want to get people excited about STEM and space.