Embarking on Experiences That Are Out of This World

As the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover made its historic landing in February, engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena had a lot to be excited about. The rover was designed to search for signs of ancient microbial life, advancing NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars, and to test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration. But mechanical engineering alumna Lauren DuCharme (BS ’15), a JPL flight systems engineer, said the team was also enthused about something decidedly less scientific – doughnuts.

Alumna Lauren DuCharme in mission control.

Alumna Lauren DuCharme in mission control. Credit: Courtesy of Lauren DuCharme

“During landing day, all my instant messaging feeds, social media, and texts were about those Krispy Kreme Mars doughnuts made to celebrate our landing,” DuCharme says. “As JPL engineers who get to design spacecraft and witness space exploration firsthand every day, you’d think that it would be hard to impress us with doughnuts, but I can’t think of a single person who wasn’t excited for those. I think with COVID, many of us lost our sense of connection to the public and it was hard to feel the public’s support since we couldn’t gather for in-person events. But having something as simple as a doughnut created to be shared by millions of people across the country to celebrate our achievement really motivated the team.”

The landing itself, on February 18 – following Perseverance’s nearly seven-month, 292.5-million-mile journey – was amazing, slightly stressful, and somewhat bittersweet, DuCharme says.

“After touchdown was confirmed, I felt this overwhelming sense of relief, but there were still so many lingering questions,” she says. “Did we land too hard? Was the suspension okay? What if we landed on a rock? Seeing those first images from our Hazcams with the wheels sitting firmly on stable ground really provided peace that we had landed safely and could throw all our contingency procedures away. But after landing, I felt a little lost. I’d spent so much of my time working toward landing a rover on Mars, what was I supposed to do now? It almost felt like I was in mourning.”

Realizing a Lifelong Dream

DuCharme has dreamed of working at JPL and building spacecraft since she was a young girl.

“I spent my entire educational career working toward JPL and nothing else,” she says. “Even though there were moments when I wanted to give up, take fewer units in a semester, or quit a few clubs, something inside me always knew that I’d find a way to get to this point. Something inside me always knew that this was where I was meant to be.”

That persistence continued during her sophomore year, when she spent six months learning to reuse her arm after her car was hit by a drunken driver, shattering her left elbow and wrist.

At the College of Engineering & Computer Science, DuCharme led the robotics team on their senior design project, which focused on developing a rover to assist astronauts on another planet. She has either interned or worked at JPL since 2014 and has been involved in research and engineering development for technologies to return Mars rock and soil samples back to Earth for analysis.

“When the project was announced by NASA in 2012, I was beginning my major courses at CSUF. I like to think that Perseverance, which the team dubbed ‘Percy,’ and I grew up together,” DuCharme says.

After graduating from Cal State Fullerton in 2015, she continued her education at USC, where she studied spacecraft dynamics and graduated with a master’s degree in astronautical engineering. In 2017, she was hired as a full-time flight systems engineer for the Mars 2020 mission.

An Emotional Landing

“The night before landing was a very bittersweet shift. For some of us, it was the last shift we would have on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover mission; for others like myself, it was our last shift of Cruise Operations, the travel of the spacecraft from Earth to Mars,” DuCharme says.

During that time, each of the ‘chairs’ was responsible for checking subsystem telemetry and reporting their status to the Flight Director.

“Each member of our team had a specialized procedure and checklist to review their subsystem while the Entry, Descent and Landing team and the Navigation team reviewed our trajectory and determined if any last-minute adjustments were necessary to ensure a safe landing,” she says. “After our initial health and status checks, our Flight Director told us that we should take the shift to ask the questions we had always wanted to ask each other about our subsystems, as this would be the last time we would all be in Mission Control together.”

This was a bit surreal, as they’d all spent the last five to seven years working to ensure Landing Day would be successful. In that moment, all those years were coming to an end, she says.

“Even though most folks would expect us to be completely stressed or nervous, I think all of us knew we had done everything possible to land successfully and felt at ease as we checked our on-board files, parameter states, health states, and more for the last time,” DuCharme says. “My role was to ensure that Percy knew how to respond and keep herself safe, whether by turning off devices or turning herself to face the sun, until the ground crew could figure out what’s wrong.”

DuCharme explains that by the time JPL engineers get the data back from the Entry, Descent and Landing sequence, the rover has already been on the surface for about seven minutes, due to the one-way-light-time – the time it takes for the light/signal to travel from Mars to Earth.

“So, once the rover begins its ascent, there is nothing the ground can do to help the system make it safely to the surface. That’s part of what makes it so terrifying!” she says. “Instead, we have to ensure beforehand that we have programmed the flight computers properly and provided them with all the files and maps needed to land safely. It took us over a month to consolidate, test, and prepare all of our landing-day files and parameters for the spacecraft, and about another week to actually uplink and verify they made it on board successfully. But all that work was worth it knowing we were doing everything we could to guarantee a safe landing.”

Because she knew the landing would be an extremely emotional experience, DuCharme opted to watch privately with her husband and two dogs instead of logging in to one of many viewing parties her coworkers had set up.

“We had the public feed on our television in the living room, but I pulled up telemetry and the voice feed on my workstation at home so I could monitor the data and Mission Control commentary directly,” she says. “I’d spent so many months communicating on and listening in to the voice net that I found it oddly soothing to hear the team in our ‘natural habitat’ during the landing. It took quite a bit of strength for me to not text or instant message our Fault Protection chair that morning, but I knew it was extremely important for her to focus on the state of the spacecraft.”

The End of an Era – and New Beginnings

In pre-COVID times, DuCharme and her Fault Protection chair were slated to be in Mission Control together for the landing. They had discussed Landing Day procedures and even joked about how they would celebrate touchdown. But with county, state, and nationwide restrictions due to COVID-19, JPL’s entire operations philosophy had to change.

“For most of Cruise Operations, Mission Control sat nearly empty with only a Flight Director and a few chairs staffed to send commands. The rest of the team monitored remotely with workstations at home,” she says.

As COVID-19 cases spiked in January in Los Angeles, it was no surprise when it was announced that landing would follow the same social-distancing protocols they’d had for the past six months.

“It was still a hard pill to swallow, as many of us hoped that COVID wouldn’t be an issue by the time we made it to Mars and we’d be able to celebrate, hug, or even high-five after landing. But the team’s safety was much more important, and we all found ways to feel close to each other during that critical moment,” she says. 

DuCharme said that each day is a new adventure since the landing. She has found NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter activity planning and its first flight to be the most exciting events thus far.

“I remember when I first started on this project, the Mars helicopter, which accompanied the Perseverance rover, wasn’t part of our baseline plan, and folks weren’t sure if it would make it on board. But now they’ve not only gotten to Mars, but successfully flown on Mars!” she says. “I think its success is going to completely change how we approach exploration and will open up doors to really exciting spacecraft and rover designs.”

Now that the mission is more than 60 sols (Mars days) in, DuCharme has realized that the Mars Perseverance project is just the beginning. She still has many incredible opportunities ahead of her, including her next project, Europa Clipper, Earth’s first mission to conduct detailed reconnaissance of one of Jupiter’s moons.

Learn more about Perseverance here and the Ingenuity helicopter here.

Alumna Lauren DuCharme in mission control
Countdown to Perseverance rover landing, DuCharme Lauren is a flight systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. February 18, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Lauren
Alumna Lauren DuCharme in mission control
Countdown to Perseverance rover landing, February 18, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Lauren DuCharme

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