Image: CNET

Diana Trujillo woke up in a panic.

She’d been keeping odd hours for weeks — going to bed at 2 p.m., waking up a few hours later, heading into work.

But that was everyone’s story in late summer of 2012 — at least at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Years of work were about to crest with the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover — the human race’s recent successful venture to the surface of this mysterious neighboring planet.

And Trujillo missed it. She probably slept through her alarm. Well, she thought she did, hence the panic.

Mercifully, the landing was still a week away and her husband told her this.

But when the real moment came, the one where she was totally awake and physically present at JPL, she still wasn’t totally sure if she was dreaming or not.

“It was one of those moments — ‘You do realize that you just landed on Mars?'” she said. Trujillo answered herself. “I think so?” It still felt like one of the test scenarios.

The thing about landing on Mars is that it’s a long term mission with mind blowing amounts of work leading up to that one moment — and perhaps as much work still to come.

For Trujillo, who is originally from Cali, Colombia, her interest in space started when she was a kid, grappling with the idea of how much there is out there to know — things that we don’t even know that we don’t know.

Heavy stuff. But, for a kid, it’s as simple as knowing that you want to touch the sky but can’t, she said. It’s there, but you’re only seeing a very small fraction of what it alludes to.

Trujillo started her degree in aerospace mechanics and biomechanics at the University of Florida, and finished it at the University of Maryland. She had applied and been accepted to an internship called NASA Academy at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. After her internship, she worked there as an operational manager for the program.

From there, she went to the Orbital Sciences Corporation, which builds launch vehicles and satellites, and worked for nine months on a contract bid for a vehicle that would dock with the space station. They got the contract and she learned a lot about working with NASA.

When Trujillo’s husband took a job in Los Angeles, she applied to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At JPL, Trujillo has worked on project after project, including the Constellation program, which had the mission of taking a man back to the moon and beyond by 2020.

Her role, which was to work on the missions and ground systems operational group, dealt in part with figuring out constraints and requirements for things like astronaut emergency evacuations. Where should they hide themselves? Where should the bunker be? How long should they have between getting out of their seat, opening the hatch and running to the bunker?

These are serious questions. But they’re also questions whose answers can be researched via a trip to the Kennedy Space Center, where Trujillo spent time running drills from the commander’s chair. She said it was, in a word: awesome.

In 2008, Curiosity was ramping back up. Trujillo joined the team and worked on myriad teams and projects from telecoms, to simulation, to surface sampling.

It’s easy to see the rover as one machine. But really, every piece of the rover — every instrument, mechanism, everything that performs an action — has its own system engineer.

While on the telecom team, Trujillo was responsible for ensuring a very specific and very important beep from the rover.

She spent the most nervewracking four minutes of her life waiting for that beep.

It sounds like a small thing — a noise even a malfunctioning printer is typically capable of — but when that beep is supposed to arrive from space and signal that all is well after Curiosity’s detachment, it’s no small thing.

“It was pretty exciting to be sitting there and hear the first beep of the spacecraft and realize that it worked,” she said.

While on the surface sampling team, Trujillo was the lead system engineer and in charge of the dust removal tool. Her responsibility was to make sure that it was bolted correctly on the spacecraft, that it worked correctly with the software, and that it still performs as expected.

“Every time we’re dusting off something — that’s my baby,” she said.

And if it doesn’t work, she has to figure out why.

Anticipating worst case scenarios has been one of most crucial and challenging parts of her job. It’s “making sure that you’re not so invested into what you’re doing right now that you’re missing everything else,” she said.

Take driving, for example. Driving around Mars is complicated not only by distance, but by the fact that you can’t exercise the same intuition you do when driving down a street on Earth. If someone stands too close to the edge of a sidewalk, your brain is preparing to swerve. You slow down, watch them closely, and mentally calculate whether they’re going to suddenly jump into the street.

But with different winds, textures, and the lack of physical presence, driving on Mars is tenuous. The engineers can’t afford to move too quickly, or get too excited about checking out a rock. That rock could be near a cliff.

Or, if one team wants to drive, and another wants to use the robotic arm, Trujillo, as the tactical uplink lead, has to help make sure conflicting commands like that don’t make it to Curiosity when they uplink at 2 a.m.

So, Curiosity’s mission was never just a matter of getting to Mars, but staying there and successfully collecting the kind of information that will eventually explain the planet’s history.

And, if the pattern continues, Trujillo will be involved in many more aspects of the mission to come, because she enjoys tackling problems, and at JPL that ensures she’ll stay busy.

“I think that maybe it’s just a quality of ‘this looks hard, let’s do it,'” she said.


In her own words…

How do you unplug?

“I have a dog. I got a rescue dog (Sammy) one day before landing. It’s the best thing ever. The day before landing? I was like ‘What was I thinking because now I have to go home and take the dog out?’ and I never in my life have had one, but it was great. So, I go out, I train my dog, we go out for walks. The other one is I’m married. I love my husband, and so every weekend I am not on call, I completely disconnect from my work. That’s one thing I love about my job is that I come to work and I go home, and I don’t have to take it home unless there’s a major anomaly.”

Do you have a favorite part of space?

“This might sound not too cool. Earth. There’s so many pictures I’ve seen of Mars. It’s so dead. There’s no water. We’re trying to figure out what happened that it’s no longer like Earth. We’re trying to come up with the history of why it’s not like us.”

What’s your favorite book?

“I mainly read engineering books. I like to read books that are like ‘Oh, I can read this and then do this problem.’ I can tell you the last book I read. I’m actually pregnant right now. It’s a kids book that I really like. My husband made me read it. We’re thinking about our kids and what books to start giving to our kids when they’re born. It’s called The Phantom Tollbooth. I think it’s such a cute book. The fact that the kid is so bored and he goes through these different parallel worlds and everyone has different reasons why they’re there. There’s a dog with a clock who’s like ‘You have to be somewhere at some point, you have to understand what’s important and what’s next’ — and the numbers and letters. Why numbers are important and why words are important. It has such a deep meaning of why you should care and be interested in life.”