“At Rutgers, I gained the discipline I needed to accomplish things.” – Jackelynne Silva-Martinez
Jackelynne Silva-Martinez graduated from Rutgers in 2008 with two bachelor degrees: a BA degree in Spanish and a BS degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. She is currently an aerospace engineer in the Flight Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. In November, she completed a two-week analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah, where she served as the crew’s executive officer. She hopes to become an astronaut one day.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Cusco, Peru and lived there until I was 15 and moved to Paterson, New Jersey with my family.
What was it like to move to this country?
It was a big change. I was able to go into 11th grade, as I could read and write English. Speaking was harder for me, but I soon learned how to communicate.
Were you always interested in space?
Ever since I was a little girl in Peru, I’ve been interested in space. I loved seeing pictures of space in magazines. It became a dream of mine when I came to the U.S. to see if working in space was something I could try and do!
Was this interest behind your choice of the School of Engineering?
Since I knew I wanted to do something related to space, Rutgers was a clear choice. I didn’t get into SoE the first time I applied, so I started at Kean University and later transferred to Rutgers.
I have a SoE family. My husband, Victor Martinez, is also an SoE grad. He works at the United Technologies Aerospace Systems Corporation as a project lead engineer. My brother, Herbert Silva, also graduated from the Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Department. He’s currently doing his PhD at Stanford.
You will also have two master’s degrees.
I am finishing my master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. I also have a degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.
Did you go right to graduate school after Rutgers?
No. Starting right after graduation, I worked at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company for three years, as a systems integration test engineer. I’d had an internship with Lockheed Martin while I was a student.
How did you get involved with NASA’s Mars program?
I think I was in the right place at the right time. In 2012, I became a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where I worked for about a year before starting graduate school. In Pasadena, I worked with the robotic manipulators and deployable booms used to acquire surface samples for the Curiosity Rover Mars Science Laboratory. We tested the mechanisms that would get the samples into Rover for analysis and that would then be sent back to earth for scientists to study.
When did you return to NASA?
I started at the Johnson Space Center earlier this year.
What have you done since then?
I served as a mission specialist on NASA’s latest Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA, mission. Our four-person crew simulated a mission to conduct a geological survey of the Geographos asteroid, where we were isolated for two weeks for behavioral research and test tools in an operational environment.
An outbound transit that would take about 370 days was simulated over the first six days. The asteroid proximity operations that would take about 20 days were simulated over the following four days, and the return trip home was simulated over the last four days.
Mission success depended on our ability to live and work with our crewmates during this long journey to achieve all mission objectives.
In November, I completed a second analog mission as the executive officer on a Mars Desert Research Station, or MDRS, analog mission. Both of these missions simulated the conditions you could experience on a mission to Mars. We test tools, are isolated, and wear spacesuits.
What was it like to participate in these analog missions?
It was really hard. Each one had different challenges. In HERA, for instance, communication to the outside world was limited to one half hour contact with your family a week. That’s hard. We had no Internet access – nothing like that. Everything was really well planned, so that it felt like a real mission.
On the MDRS mission, the main challenge was not having all the materials and tools that we needed for our construction project. You can’t go out to the store – you have to figure things out! You have to be well prepared before you send people to other planets.
Did you see The Martian or read the book?
A librarian recommended the book to me before it became popular. And I saw the movie, which showed conditions that were better than those we had on our missions.
What do you most like about your job?
I like being able to contribute to future space exploration goals. Every day, there’s something different to wake up to. There are different problems to solve. I like knowing I have a little piece of the puzzle to solve that will make it happen.
Are there any special qualities that you think you would need to go to Mars?
The main one would be self-motivation. Once you get there, you’d have to be extremely motivated to keep going on. Imagine the movie The Martian – of being alone like that yet still being able to keep going and figure things out.
You also need a holistic view of different systems and systems engineering. You would need to know a little about a lot of different things – like chemistry, electrical engineering – to be able to see how if you change one thing in a system, it will affect everything else. A knowledge of systems integration would also be helpful. Also, you would need the right physical and knowledge tools. You’d need some common sense.
Did you have a favorite professor at Rutgers?
Professor Haym Benaroya was a favorite. I had an internship in his lab, studying the reliability of lunar structures. Having the opportunity to work with him opened doors for me.
How has your Rutgers education helped you?
I gained the discipline I needed to accomplish things. Besides courses, there were activities and organizations to get involved with that helped me develop leadership skills. The combination of a great faculty and courses and other outside activities helped me develop professional skills.
What do you know now that you wish you’d know as a student at SoE?
It is so important to be open to different things.
What’s a favorite student memory?
I have so many memories, but what comes to mind is working on different projects where we all helped each other out.
What are you reading these days?
My reading lately has been with my two-year-old, Francisco. We’re reading different children’s stories and having fun recognizing the alphabet in everything we see. One of our favorites is a book my team from Pasadena made for us called The Curious Adventure of Jacky and Victor.
You and your family founded Centro de Ciencia, Liderazgo y Cultura. What does this organization do?
CCLC started from home and today has the objective of bringing topics of science, leadership, and culture to the general public, focusing on the younger generation. We have given speeches, workshops and presentations at schools, universities, and churches in the East Coast and overseas and have supported the first Space Generation Workshop in South America that was held in Argentina.
What is the secret of your success?
I couldn’t have done any of these things without the constant support of my family.
If you were to go on a vacation tomorrow, where would you go?
I would definitely go to the moon.
Photography: Cassie Klos