Engineering career pairs her artistic and analytical interests
By Debra Werner|March 2019
Sierra Gonzales, 24, mission operations systems engineer for OSIRIS-REx
Sierra Gonzales had so many interests and extracurricular activities while growing up in Nevada that she struggled to choose a career path. Once she settled on aerospace engineering, she quickly recognized her passion lay in deep space exploration. Gonzales now creates sequences of commands, monitors telemetry and troubleshoots issues for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, a probe that will attempt to retrieve a sample of a near-Earth asteroid in mid-2020 and bring it to Earth for analysis. OSIRIS-REx entered orbit about 1.75 kilometers from the asteroid Bennu on Dec. 31. Gonzales compares her role as a systems engineer to that of an orchestra conductor: “The conductor brings all the instruments together to make the music.”
How did you become an aerospace engineer?
Growing up, I had many opportunities to try different things and explore the world, thanks to my grandparents, who exposed me to a variety of art, sports, the planetarium and homemade challenges like building dog houses, designing lamps and sewing my own costumes. In high school, my many interests made it difficult to choose just one thing to do for the rest of my life. I knew that I wanted to pair my interests in math, science, taking things apart and putting them back together, and the “final frontier” with my creative side. I learned that engineering could encompass all of those things.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. I worked in the DeLaMare Science and Engineering Library, working with 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters and other maker equipment to help patrons build wild creations, products and experiments. During an internship at Lockheed Martin Space within the Commercial Space line of business, I learned about the space industry and the importance of networking. However, I knew I wanted to work in deep space exploration to support science that helps us move forward as a species. To get there, I earned an accelerated master’s degree with a focus in autonomous controls. It was one of the toughest things I have done, but it helped me work on my weaknesses and exposed me to a different side of engineering: coding and controls. I fell in love with this challenge. Upon graduation, I went to work in Lockheed Martin’s Deep Space Exploration market segment as a systems engineer, a career that challenges me every day and allows me to do all the things I love. I build command products that support the mission’s science operations by pointing the spacecraft where the scientists want to study and commanding the payloads to gather science data. In addition, I monitor spacecraft telemetry to make sure the spacecraft operates nominally and troubleshoot any issues if they arise.
Imagine the world in 2050. What do you think will be happening in space?
There is so much left to learn of our universe, let alone our solar system. With the answers we gather from the OSIRIS-REx mission, even more questions arise. In 2050, I see several more deep space exploration missions to a variety of other asteroids and moons of other planets, in addition to newfound research of human stability in space environments for long-term missions. I also see commercialization of space travel so others can share in the fascination of the final frontier.