On Sept. 21, 2014, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite successfully entered orbit around Mars, completing an interplanetary journey of 10 months and 442 million miles. MAVEN will study the history of the Martian atmosphere, so scientists can better understand how the planet lost its atmosphere and became the arid place it is today.A project so important that it was launched despite a government shutdown at the time, MAVEN is partially under the watchful eye of George Mason University alumna Sandra Cauffman , who is the deputy project manager.
For the past 10 months, Cauffman has been studying the mission schedules, assessing risks, keeping the project manager up to date, and supporting communications of all kinds, as the satellite made its way toward Mars. It is a job she loves and has aspired to since she was a child.
Cauffman was born in Costa Rica where she dreamed of working for NASA. She is one of only four Costa Ricans working for the agency. “[Costa Rica] is a place with a proud space history,” she says. “The first Hispanic astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, was born in Costa Rica.”
Cauffman spent more than three years studying industrial engineering at the Universidad de Costa Rica, before transferring to George Mason. When most of her credits didn’t transfer, she decided to embark on a slightly different path. She switched to a double major in electrical and computer engineering and physics. It took her three and a half years to earn double BS degrees.
“It was really hard my first few semesters,” Cauffman says. “I didn’t speak much English.” She says that she threw herself into the learning process, studying for hours to understand the advanced material coming at her in a foreign language. But Mason, with its large international student population, made her feel at ease.
“I knew I wasn’t the only one going through those problems. I liked the environment, and I felt right at home,” she says. “I found kindred souls, all of us trying to learn and have the same experience as other students, and the university welcomed that.”
Later on, as a mother with a full-time job, Cauffman took six years to earn an MS in electrical engineering from Mason. Even after all that time, she still dreamed about working for NASA. As luck would have it, she landed a contracting job through a career fair in Tysons Corner that was advertised at Mason. That job eventually led her to work for the space agency. This past February, she celebrated her 23rd year with NASA, where she has worked on the Hubble Space Telescope First Servicing Mission, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, the Geostationary Operational Research Satellite and now MAVEN.
Earlier this year, Cauffman returned to Costa Rica, touring the country and talking with students about getting involved in science, technology, engineering and math fields, and showing them the payoff of hard work. After all, hadn’t she once been like many of them, a small child looking at the spacious night sky and dreaming of working for NASA?
She offers advice for students in Costa Rica, at Mason and around the world: “It’s not the nature of your birth that matters, but how much effort you put into what you want to achieve.”