What a NASA aerospace engineer does in a workday


Welcome to The Work Day, a series that charts a single day in various women’s working lives — from gallery owners to chief executives. In this installment, we hear from Caley Burke, a NASA aerospace engineer who recorded a workday in August.

Location: Titusville, Fla.

Job title: Aerospace engineer for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP)

Previous jobs: Flight design analyst for NASA’s LSP (2006-now); integration engineer for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (2019); flight controls analyst for NASA’s LSP (2004-2014); structural dynamics analyst for NASA’s LSP (2003-2006); command and data handling test engineer (intern) for the International Space Station (2002).

In high school and college in the Midwest, I worked at Dairy Queen, at an amusement park, as a lifeguard, at Blockbuster, as a waitress and as a receptionist.

What led me to my current role: As a 6-year-old, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was inspired by the 1986 movie “Space Camp” and a visit to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. As I neared college, I found I still wanted to be part of exploring the universe, even from the ground. I zeroed in on aerospace engineering and interned at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. There, I shadowed in different areas and considered several career options. I requested a move to LSP to work on multiple rockets launching robotic spacecraft to destinations all over the solar system.

How I spend the majority of my workday: There are 11 of us in the flight design group. We each take part in mission integration teams for several missions at a time. These are large teams involving the launch vehicle contractors and spacecraft customers. We provide inputs to and review analyses from the launch vehicle contractors. We create our own analyses to support our spacecraft customers in designing their missions, and to ensure that all requirements are met by the launch vehicle contractors. We also work on tools to improve our work or make it more efficient. On launch day, we sit on console for the Flight Dynamics or NASA Winds roles.

5:35 a.m: Wake up earlier than usual, but I often shift my workday to watch rocket launches. Today is unusual in that two launches bookend the workday.

I shower and throw on a dress and flats. I load the car with meals and snacks for the day, workout clothes (in case happy hour doesn’t happen), and my laptop and badge. I eat an apple and listen to the local news radio while driving to the space center.

6:29 a.m.: Watch the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 421 rocket launch of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO 6).

I swat bugs on the NASA Causeway on the Banana River as the rocket reflects on the water. The rising sun illuminates the exhaust trail with many colors.

6:45 a.m.: Log on to my computer in my cubicle. I deal with an IT issue before going through email, where I see I’m no longer double-booked at 2 p.m., because a meeting in support of the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) has been canceled.

Scheduled for Nov. 1, LOFTID will fly as an auxiliary payload on the NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) mission.

7:45 a.m.: Hear my co-workers start to file in. They probably watched the launch from their front yards, though one mentions that he accidentally snoozed through it (which I’ve done more than once).

I heat up a vegetable quiche in the microwave and douse it with hot sauce for breakfast. I start preparing my charts for an upcoming meeting.

10 a.m.: Attend my first meeting of the day. It’s the first dry run for an engineering review board (ERB) scheduled in two weeks. At the ERB, we’ll present a new launch vehicle feature and its impacts to the chief engineer and the rest of her board. The chief engineer has already had discussions with us about it.

My charts are at the end of the dry run, so I edit them throughout the meeting to help them flow better with the others. We come out of the meeting with a list of edits to make and plan for some of us to meet on a couple sections again next week.

12:15 p.m.: Eat lunch. I have my leftover chicken Florentine lasagna with my co-workers in the break room.

12:55 p.m.: Catch an email requesting I reschedule the Mars Sample Return Flight Design Working Group from this afternoon to Monday; a key team member had a family emergency today. I pick a time and send out the notice.

The mission is six years out from launch, but I’m performing some advanced mission trajectory modeling for them. It can be a lot of fun (and sometimes frustrating as well) to try to determine the best launch option for a given mission, especially for a mission design that has never been flown before.

1 p.m.: Attend a division meeting in the Mission Briefing Room; about two-thirds of the attendees are in the room and about a third attend remotely. I sit up front and squint slightly. I got glasses right after we started working remote in March 2020, so I struggle to remember to bring them to the occasional in-person meeting.

My division chief introduces the people in the room that have started in the last 2 ½ years. I find this useful, as I don’t recognize quite a few of the new people who started working with us during the pandemic. Our program director and her deputy talk to us about actions from the annual strategic retreat. The transition to hybrid work and where it’s going in the future is a key topic.

2:30 p.m.: Chat with various co-workers about what they’re up to these days as I leave the meeting and again while I wash my dishes from lunch.

My supervisor pulls my co-workers and me into his office one by one for a quick personnel action. While in there, I talk to him about a career question that came up for me recently.

3:30 p.m.: Meet with one of LSP’s Public Affairs Officers (PAO), Laura Aguiar. We talk about the launch blog for JPSS-2, which will be LSP’s 100th launch since we formed in 1998. We brainstorm about a post describing the different orbits for the two missions launching on the same rocket, particularly with LOFTID performing its science as it reenters the atmosphere.

4 p.m.: Snack at my desk: hummus with pretzels; cheese and cashews; cola; and candy. For the rest of the workday, I answer emails and schedule my tasks for next week.

I was hoping to work on the launch analysis to Mars and/or verification of a LOFTID requirement. I value Thursdays for all the interactions, but it’s not a great day for sitting down and completing tasks that require undivided attention.

5:40 p.m.: Order a salmon poke bowl at happy hour with co-workers. We talk BBQ, action movies, and work stuff. I listen to the launch stream as I drive back to the causeway.

7:08 p.m.: Watch the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch of the Danuri, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO). The white exhaust is striking against the bright blue sky.

It’s my first time seeing two rockets launch on the same day; this hasn’t happened in decades.

On the way home, I start a new audiobook from the library.

8 p.m.: Change into PJs, put away laundry, open mail and packages, make a grocery list for Saturday, and plan out taking my 9-year-old Little Sister (via Big Brothers Big Sisters of America) to a local theater to see “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.”

8:30 p.m.: Write the last of my vacation postcards and stream “The Umbrella Academy” with one of my roommate’s dogs curled up on the couch next to me. I enjoy a cup of chocolate ice cream.

It’s odd renting a room after having my own place for over a decade. However, after the isolation of the pandemic and being a digital nomad for a year, I like the company.

11 p.m.: Get ready for bed. I intended to read a chapter from a library book on mental health, but I couldn’t resist the series finale and watched more TV than I’d planned. I read a bit of a romance novel on my Kindle before falling asleep.

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