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Mission Control

By Colleen Kearney Rich on April 21, 2015

When the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) satellite successfully entered orbit around Mars in September 2014, it was a big day and a huge relief for NASA deputy project manager Sandra Cauffman, BS Physics and Electrical Engineering ’88, MS Electrical Engineering ’95.

Sandra Cauffman

Sandra Cauffman

The first planetary mission for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, MAVEN is studying the Martian atmosphere, so scientists can better understand how the planet became the arid place it is today.

“We had never done anything like this before at Goddard,” says Cauffman, who is celebrating her 24th year with NASA. That’s because the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California handles most of NASA’s planetary missions, she explains.

Adding to the pressure was the very tight three-week launch window. If they didn’t make that window, the next opportunity was 26 months later. Also, in addition to the eight scientific instruments used to study Mars’ climate history, the satellite also contained a UHF relay needed to communicate with the Mars Rovers.

The mission was so important to the agency and the schedule so tight, it continued despite a government shutdown. For the past couple of years, Cauffman has been studying schedules, assessing risks, supporting communications, and solving problems of all kinds with the goal of getting MAVEN to the red planet. It is a job she loves and has aspired to since she was a child.

Cauffman was born in Costa Rica and attended the Universidad de Costa Rica, where she studied industrial engineering before transferring to George Mason University. After most of her credits didn’t transfer, she took a slightly different path, switching her major and earning degrees in electrical engineering and physics.

“It was really hard my first few semesters,” Cauffman says. “I didn’t speak much English.”

She got up to speed language-wise with the help of Mason’s English Language Institute and threw herself into the learning process, studying for hours to understand the material in a new language. Mason’s large international student population helped her feel at ease.

“I found kindred souls, all of us trying to learn and have the same experience as other students, and the university welcomed that.”

There weren’t many women working in the field when Cauffman started, but she says the number is increasing.

“It has been a while since anyone asked me to get them coffee,” she jokes, but admits some colleagues continued to call her “the kid” for a long time, even after she was a married woman with two small children.

While at NASA, she has worked on the Hubble Space Telescope First Servicing Mission, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). She started out in the labs and worked her way up, which she believes makes a difference when it comes to project management. Being an engineer helps her to understand the technical risks and issues. On many of the projects, she is the only engineer.

“As an engineer, I am better able to evaluate the requirements [of a project],” she says. Ultimately, though, management is all about the people, she adds.

Once MAVEN entered the Mars atmosphere and began its tasks, it was time for Cauffman to move on. “My job is to work with the team to build the satellites and launch them. Once the satellite is operational, we hand it to the operations team,” she says.

At the end of last year, Cauffman was readying herself for a new mission. She is returning to GOES, a program “very near and dear” to her heart, as the new deputy systems program director.

She has a personal mission, as well. The Costa Rican girl who was told “you are never going to be able to do that” regularly makes trips to her native country, talking with students about getting involved in science, technology, engineering, and math, and showing them the payoff of hard work. She has even given a TED talk in Spanish about her personal experiences.

“It’s not the nature of your birth that matters,” she says, “but how much effort you put into what you want to achieve.”

Justin Lafreniere contributed to this story.

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