An Alaskan engineer helps NASA get humans back to the moon — and possibly to Mars

NASA, Crew Systems Engineer, Jessica Voss (NASA)

The first rocket on NASA’s mission to return humans to the Moon — and hopefully one day, Mars — will take off next month, and one of the people working on it has begun in Alaska.

Jessica Voss is originally from Anchorage and graduated from Chugiak High School. She is now the Crew Systems Engineer for NASA’s Orion Program, under the Artemis campaign.

Voss says her job is very human-focused, as she and her team work to provide astronauts traveling from Earth to the Moon and back again with everything they need for a successful mission.

Listen:


The following text has been slightly edited for clarity.

Jessica Voss: So I like to liken it to, you know, if you’re going on a camping trip, like camping in the car. You have a lot to pack in this car and a lot of different configurations that you are likely to cycle through. You have launch configuration, orbit configuration, re-entry and post landing configurations. Much like the way you pack your car to get to your camping site, and then once you get there, you unpack it and get your (camp) ready, “Hey, we’ll be staying here for a week,” and then do daytime picnic tours from there. So the kind of equipment you bring is, you have things that you nominally need, but then you also have emergency medical kits, you have potential ways to put out a fire or compasses to recover yourself from having them. Lost in the woods. Things like that, right?

Casey Grove: Well, how did you get started here? And I think maybe I should go back for that, I heard you’re from Alaska originally. So tell me, where are you from, and also as part of that, how did you get into science and engineering?

Jessica Voss: Of course, yes, I actually gave birth at Providence Hospital in Anchorage. We lived in Anchorage, and we lived in a trailer park area near Muldoon. And about, I think it was about the third grade, maybe at the age of nine or so, we moved to Chujiak. We lived in the North Woods neighborhood. And I remember the sign that read, “Welcome to the North Woods, with its streets fully paved and plumbing.” As if it was a very remote neighborhood, but they are, you know, developed enough to attract people to come and live there.

However, our streets still had a dirt road at the end with what we called Frog Pond, which was just a big lake. Everything, of course, has been developed since then. But when we lived there it allowed us to have a very dark sky. And my father was always into astronomy. He had several telescopes in the house and had stacks of Scientific American magazines the whole time. So instead of what many young people do today, picking up their phone or iPad and going to YouTube and learning about these things, I had Scientific American that I liked. So I asked my dad, he was pulling out his binoculars, which by the way, one of those telescopes was so big that it occupied half our garage. We had a two car garage, but you can only put one car in it, because the other half belongs to this giant telescope.

Casey Grove: that’s cool. So you’ve been talking a little bit already about the mission you’re working on and your role in, which is to get people back on the moon. I wonder what kind of different things now we’re trying to do, you know, after so many decades? What has changed? Or what challenges do you still face?

Jessica Voss: Yes, that’s a great question. So when the Apollo program, or the Apollo campaign of the 1960s, was set up, there was a very specific goal. As you know, the motive was very political. And man, there were some hard lessons we learned there. You know about the Apollo 1 fire, I’m sure. And what we’ve learned in this program is very basic and transfers directly to what we’re doing now with Artemis engineering or the Artemis campaign. However, the end goal is a little different. We’re really, this time when we go to the Moon, it’s about how we develop a system, a more sustainable architecture, so we can really live and work in lunar space and on the Moon, very similar to how we’ve done something with the International Space Station over the past 20 years What, right? It’s been continuously manned now, suspended in low Earth orbit, doing all kinds of wonderful science. But going back to the camping analogy, that’s like putting your tent in your own backyard, isn’t it? If something goes wrong, or if it rains heavily, or your lantern goes out, or you just don’t have the right things in it, you’re just in. Being off the ground, this is like the difference between pitching your tent in your own backyard versus pitching your tent, you know, several hundred miles by a river, versus pitching your tent on top of Everest. So in our minds, that tent on top of Everest is very similar to our expedition to Mars.

Casey Grove: You were talking recently to some kids at the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, in the Mountain View neighborhood here in Anchorage, about your work. What kind of questions did they ask you? What do children ask you about what you do? What do you end up talking to them about? What is this like?

Jessica Voss: Yes, that’s a great question. You know, of course, there’s always, “How do you use the toilet in space?” very important. People need to know. And then, “What happens to that?” And the answer is different, you know. It depends on the spacecraft you’re talking about, the mission you’re talking about, the duration of the mission, and the number of people involved. In general, they like to bond. Their world especially young children consists of going to school and having breakfast, lunch and dinner, you know, cleaning up and showering and bathing, and then using the bathroom. So their questions are a bit like, “Well, what do the meals look like? Do they get dessert? Is there ice cream? How do you eat a cheeseburger? Is there a cheeseburger?” You know, all those basic everyday things that we do, which And, of course, there’s an answer to all of this stuff, how do we do it in space. Well, that’s the kind of questions we get.

Casey Grove: Well, Jessica, I just have one question for you. You just appeared. Is there a cheeseburger in space?

Jessica Voss: So the answer is there. My understanding is that there is a double rehydrated hamburger patty. And instead of using bread or cake, because these can create a lot of food, they kind of crumble and then you now have all this mess floating around of crumbs that the aerator system filters have to collect. This becomes disgusting. So instead, they often use tortillas. Then I do not know the answer to cheese. But I know they have seasonings that are basically kind of the same way we use the ones on Earth. We’d squeeze them kind of from the package and make sure we got as much of that into the actual pancake or tortilla as we could, and any drops would float out of it, and the astronauts would often collect that. with their mouths.

Casey Grove: It is amazing. I just thought you’d say, “No, there’s no cheeseburger in space, sorry.”

Jessica Voss: no yes.

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