Marjorie Lucas: She really is a rocket scientist

Hometown girl Marjorie Lucas is off to the Jet Propulsion Lab.

Marjorie Lucas was on the Vineyard recently before heading to Pasadena and the Jet Propulsion lab. — Photo by Sam Moore

Next week Marjorie Lucas, who graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) in 2008, will begin her new job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., as a software applications engineer working on the Mars project. For all you non–rocket scientists out there, that means she troubleshoots software programs on the Mars rovers.

“I’m not nervous, I’m very excited,” Marjorie told The Times recently by phone about her upcoming new job.

Her route from Martha’s Vineyard to Mars has been an interesting one (actually, it began in France, where she was born), full of telescopes, physics, and fencing; more on that later.

Growing up on Martha’s Vineyard

Marjorie, who is 26, was born in France, then moved with her family to Connecticut for a couple of years, where she learned English; she remains fluent in French. When Marjorie was 10, the family moved to Martha’s Vineyard, and she started fifth grade at the Tisbury School.

Her mother’s family had vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard for decades. Marjorie and her siblings — she has a younger brother and sister — went through middle and high school on the Island. “Neither of them are engineers,” Marjorie said. “They are both in the art field.”

It was in middle school, Marjorie said, that her interest in space began to flourish. “I’ve always been looking at the stars,” she said. “But I when I was about 13, I got a very nice telescope from some family friends.”

She said that studying space, she realized, “We tend to get caught up in our daily routines, but studying the universe and what lies outside, and beyond Earth, was extremely humbling and kind of makes you appreciate so much more. Anyone can look at the solar system and realize just how small we are. It’s a frightening, yet enlightening feeling, and I really like feeling like that. So I kept pursuing space-related stuff.”

In high school, Marjorie had two influential science teachers in her life, Mr. Dana Munn, who still teaches at MVRHS, and Mr. Lloyd Henke, who retired before Marjorie graduated. “Mr. Henke entertained a lot of the questions I had on the more theoretical aspects of physics,” she said, “and he very much supported my interest in space.”

Marjorie read a lot about black holes, jet propulsion, and rocketry. There were two books she read at that time that highly motivated her: “I really liked ‘Flatland’ [an 1884 satirical novella about a fictional two-dimensional world by Edwin Abbott Abbott]; it’s a classic.”

“Another one that stuck with me was ‘The Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene,” which introduced her to string and superstring theory, which seek to address some major conflicts in physics. Contrary to what you might think, Marjorie just wasn’t that into science fiction.

“Growing up on the Island and being around so many people who are so conscious of their surroundings definitely helped me become the engineer that I am now,” she said. “ A lot of people who grew up in places where the community was not as supportive might have not reached their fullest potential.”

At MVRHS Marjorie was part of the Science Club, the Fencing Club, and the Art Club. She played basketball for the first couple of years of high school, but realized she had a preference for more independent sports: “I saw an ad in the paper for fencing, and I just showed up one day. Fencing was a better fit for me. It was more involved from an intellectual standpoint.”

Ann Russell — a two-time Olympian, 1972 and 1976 — coached Marjorie at the high school, and still coaches high school fencers.

“She was always a very serious student in math and science,” Ms. Russell said recently in a phone interview, “and she had always talked about being an astrophysicist when she was fencing with us in high school. But there’s one thing about her she probably didn’t tell you — she’s a marvelous pianist.”

Ms. Russell remembers Marjorie as being well-balanced: “She had this scientific work, and then she’d fence, and then she had the arts with her piano playing — she’s just very well-rounded and absolutely delightful.” (Ms. Russell also said Marjorie is extremely modest.)

Marjorie would go on to become the captain of the fencing team at the Florida Institute of Technology, in Melbourne, and fenced there all four years of her college career.

Whenever Marjorie returns to the Island, she regularly fences with the Martha’s Vineyard Fencing Club. “When she comes back, I think she is very inspiring to the kids,” Ms. Russell said. “I try to push her and ask her questions in front of the kids, and then the kids ask her questions.”

Marjorie said that her alma mater, Florida Institute of Technology, was founded in the 1950s during the Space Race, specifically to train aerospace engineers for the next generation of space missions, and to funnel the engineers to the Kennedy Space Center. Marjorie chose the school thinking she’d end up working at Kennedy Space.

“I had a brief internship there,” she said, “but realized during my schooling that I was more interested in robotics and software design, and that was more JPL’s area of expertise.”

JPL, which is overseen by the California Technological Institute (CalTech) is another NASA Center, like Kennedy; each center focuses on a specific area of space and space exploration. The Kennedy Space center focused on flight, which no longer interested Marjorie as much. JPL focuses on robotics.

Marjorie started at General Electric in 2012, and has held software jobs in the automotive industry, and at a Florida startup, building miniature satellites.

Fast-forward to the future, and she landed a job — her dream job she calls it — at JPL, finishing her first week as you read this.

And what will she do there? “We’ve had a surge of interest in Mars recently. Primarily we have discovered that there is some water on the surface — more like damp soil — and that has exciting implications for life.”

Currently two rovers on the Martian surface — the older “Opportunity” (that landed on Mars in 2004 and is the Mars Exploration Rover Mission) and the newer “Curiosity” (that landed on Mars in 2012 and is the Mars Science Lab Mission) — are both conducting geological experiments to get a better idea of what the Martian soil is made of, and what the surface looks like.

Marjorie said the flight to Mars, by the way, in the current proposed scenario, would be a one-way ticket and carry about a nine-month flight time. “It is also very expensive, and would need a great deal of equipment transported to make it hospitable for humans.”

“The mission statement for all the Mars missions [at JPL] is something like, ‘Find water, then find out what the conditions are like to be able to host humans on the planet,’” she said.

JPL is responsible for the rovers, and several orbiters which circle the planet and take pictures. In 2020, the JPL will launch another, as-yet-unnamed rover.

It is Marjorie’s job to troubleshoot the software on the Mars rovers as they lose functionality over time: “Maybe some of the arms may not work as well as they did when they landed on the surface, but we have to make sure that we still collect the data that we need, so we have to write software to compensate for those limitations.” She will also help create a better plan for the day-to-day activities for the rovers.

As to prospects for her “day one” problems, Marjorie said, “I’ve been warned that the rovers have some quirks that I will be dealing with on a daily basis.” Among them, we’re guessing, will be keeping those those humans on Mars entertained without Snapchat, “Game of Thrones,” or presidential politics.

Questions for the aerospace engineer

What makes you feel wonder?

“I think a sense of wonder is what drives most engineers in this field; we see the universe as being infinite and involving the possibilities that come out of something that is infinite.”

Are we alone?

“It’s almost flat-out narcissistic to think we are alone, considering we have discovered thousands of other planets, and there are hundreds of solar systems that are not unlike ours. We found planets similar to Earth in terms of their distance to the stars. I think it’s a matter of time before we discover proof of life (either past or present), but we’re expecting microbes, not green aliens.”

Marjorie thinks this might happen in her lifetime: “There are two moons in our solar system — Enceladus (one of Saturn’s moons) and Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons) — that have liquid oceans underneath their icy surfaces, and those are two worlds that we’re looking at for high probability of there being life on.”

“The reason everyone is so excited about those missions is that every form of life we have come across has needed water. So basically if we want to find life, we have to find water in our solar system.”

How do you feel when people say, ‘It’s not rocket science?’

“I think there are a lot of things more challenging than rocket science. The saying really does not have much weight to me. I think it’s just like anything else: You put in the work and effort and you get it, it’s not like this unattainable field.”

What did you think about the movie ‘The Martian’?

“It was pretty realistic. There were certainly a couple of scenes that were pushing it. My rocket science is a little rusty, I think they could have probably faked something and gotten away with it.”

Are there any gender biases in your field?

“Yes, absolutely. Of the aerospace engineering graduates in 2012, I think there were about 50 of us, and only six were women, including me.

“Every engineering job I have ever been in has been predominantly male; there has been no exception. I don’t feel any overt sexism, but if I stand up or complain about a project, there have been a few times where I have been dismissed as being too emotional, whereas the equivalent behavior from a male is not going to be perceived in that manner.”

Marjorie said that JPL has a much better ratio of men to women: “It’s wonderful to be in an environment where I don’t have to worry about that as much, and just focus on the science and engineering.”

Even more benefits to space exploration

Marjorie explained that other than satisfying our curiosity, space exploration has other benefits:

“Much of the technology that we develop for the space industry specifically is trickled down to more universally accepted technology. Good examples are Tempur-Pedic mattresses and some things surrounding cell phone technology.”

Martha’s Vineyard in her backpack

“I always have a green book [ferry passes] in my backpack. I never know when I’ll be back, and it’s always a hassle.

“It’s home. If I’m out in L.A. and things get hectic, it’s nice to know that the Island is slightly isolated and I can go back and regroup.”

Advice to kids

“I think the biggest thing is to keep trying new things, because that is how you will be able to better determine what you’re interested in and what you’re not interested in. If you pursue things that you are interested in, then there is not much of an excuse for not excelling.”

What Mars can teach us

Marjorie believes that Mars has issued us a warning, and that we need to learn from it: “We’re learning more about Mars, and we discovered that at some point in its past it harbored oceans. Scientists believe that if we’re not careful, Earth could end up like Mars. Learning more about other worlds will reveal more knowledge and information about our own world.”