A nail-biting spacecraft rescue, and her thoughts on aliens....for the latest Juno Jones Spotlight, we were honored to speak with Dr. Rosemary Huang, a rocket scientist who works at the Aerospace Corporation. Dr. Huang is an Aerospace Engineer specializing in space. She found her passion at a young age, through hours of Star Trek and an admiration of the great unknown.
What is your name, where do you work, and what do you do?
My name is Dr. Rosemary Huang, and I work at The Aerospace Corporation. I am an Aerospace Engineer specializing in space: in other words, a rocket scientist.
What does your job as a rocket scientist entail?
My job is to find optimal rocket and spacecraft trajectories. What this means is that I find paths for rocket or spacecraft to travel so that they get to their destination in the least amount of time and/or using the least amount of fuel. This is a job that is essential to all phases of a space mission’s development from initial conception to actual flight.
Furthermore, I’m a rare expert in finding optimal trajectories for spacecraft that use electrical propulsion (EP). In contrast to chemical engines, which uses chemical reactions to generate propulsive energy, EP engines use ions that are propelled by electrical forces. Current EP engines generate such low thrust that designing the corresponding trajectories uses specialized techniques. I’m a subject matter expert in this area.
We see rocket science colloquially used often to describe something hard, can you describe in your own words what rocket science is (to you)?
Rocket science is one of the most challenging of human endeavors, and it is as hard as is commonly known. For any space mission to work, an enormous team of experts is required, each individual specializing in one discipline of rocket science.
Space missions are unforgiving, and you usually only get one shot to get the tremendous number of details right. But it is worth all of the effort to explore space and utilize it for the good of all humanity.
You mentioned in a post in the Hazard Girls Facebook group that you actually saved a spacecraft that was launched into the wrong orbit and won an award for it! Can you tell us about that?
In January of 2018, an Ariane 5 rocket launched two spacecraft to the wrong orbit, SES-14 and Al Yah 3. The Aerospace Corporation was approached to see if we could save Al Yah 3. I was asked to try saving the spacecraft with an Aerospace software tool that I have the most expertise in. In less than 2 days, I came up with an initial solution that was the first indication that the spacecraft could be saved.
I then helped refine this initial solution to see if we could save as much life (fuel remaining) for the spacecraft as possible.
After all stakeholders agreed on a solution, I generated trajectories (paths) that the spacecraft flew to reach its final orbit, where it is now. In the end, enough fuel was saved for Al Yah 3 to have a useful mission life. It is now bringing broadband internet access to Brazil and Africa. If you want to learn all the technical details of the rescue, our team wrote a paper regarding the event.
Have you found it difficult or experienced any challenges in your field at all? How did you solve them?
My discipline is very challenging with many different concepts that take time to learn, and some may take years to fully understand. The way to learn all of them is persistence and patience. Also, as with any challenging field, there is still much to learn at work beyond what is taught in school. I approach my workday with the understanding that I still have much to learn from my management and peers.
Do you feel as if there is a gender disparity in the Aerospace Engineering field?
There is a large gender disparity in Aerospace Engineering. For example, I’m the only female in my department of 14 people. It is better than it used to be in the early days when women first started entering the field, but I think we still have a long way to go. I speculate that part of the problem is that more women need to be inspired to pursue Aerospace, and I hope this interview can help with this.
How did you first fall in love with aerospace engineering? What prompted you to make that your choice of study for your Ph.D.?
I first fell in love with space at the age of 13 because I fell head over heels in love with Star Trek. It was then I knew that I wanted to work in space, and that’s when I decided I wanted to become an astronaut. It motivated me to excel in math and science and lead me to pursue engineering. I even earned a pilot’s license!
I knew that many of the astronauts have Ph.D.’s in technical fields, so that is what initially motivated me to pursue the doctorate. But along the way, I fell deeply in love with the Aerospace Engineering. I eventually realized that even without becoming an astronaut, I could consider my dream of working in space fulfilled. My eyes are not good enough to apply to the astronaut program right now, but I haven’t excluded going to space sometime in the future. In the meantime, I’m perfectly happy saving a spacecraft.
If you could give any advice to women who want to enter your field, what would you tell them?
First, work hard to become an expert. Then, have confidence that you are capable of anything a man can do and more. Your gender does not limit you. I hope I have shown this.
Since you work with things that happen in space, could you tell us: are aliens real?
The threshold for anything to be proven by science is really high. There is no measurable, repeatable, concrete scientific proof for any alien life at this moment. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any; it just hasn’t been proven scientifically. However, the idea of possible alien life motivates many scientific pursuits, like the exploration of Mars or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Thank you, Dr. Huang, for taking the time to share your experiences with us. It’s fair to say that we are in awe of you and your work!
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Jessie Gunoskey is a student studying biology at Washington College, where you can either find her in the lab or writing her next piece.