Photo by August Linton | Jessica Martinez-Bowles poses with prototype power board from OPALS project.

NASA Engineer Jessica Bowles-Martinez speaks to students on Humboldt campus


by August Linton

Jessica Bowles-Martinez, an ex-NASA engineer and “systems engineer, aka science wrangler,” spoke to Cal Poly Humboldt students on Monday. About 20 attendees gathered in Science A 475, sipping coffee and hot chocolate as late-afternoon gray rainy light filtered through the windows.

The seminar, “Wrangling Scientists and Engineers to Make Something Awesome – Systems Engineering” was put on by the CPH Physics Department. It focused on Bowles-Martinez’s role in various NASA projects, defining what a systems engineer’s role is in these exacting and large-scale endeavors. 

After graduating high school in Fresno, California, Bowles-Martinez attended MIT where she majored in electrical engineering, computer science, and media studies.

In her 13 years working at NASA’s Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Bowles-Martinez was on the team for many high-profile projects. She worked on New Horizons, which was the first probe sent to explore Pluto up close, as well as the OPALS (Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science) laser data transfer project on the ISS. Her other projects include the Perseverance Mars rover and the Europa Clipper, which will fly by Jupiter’s fourth-largest satellite and assess it for markers of life. 

As a systems engineer, Bowles-Martinez’s role on projects is to facilitate communication and collaboration between the science team, engineering team, and the team that actually builds the finished design. 

“It’s not just checking the boxes, it’s about ‘does it all work together?’” she said. 

There were many problems which the OPALS team had to contend with to ensure a successful outcome, according to Bowles-Martinez. The entire project, which was attached to the outside of the ISS, was a test of an experimental method of data transfer, which would add the capability to send high-res video from the station. The laser used on the module was potentially dangerous to the astronauts on board the ISS, so there needed to be extensive safety measures around its deployment. 

“Because this laser is class 4, if an astronaut looked at it they would go blind. So we had to figure out how you make a system that will be safe enough to have it be on the space station and shoot this laser down to Earth; all the safety controls are there,” Bowles-Martinez said. “My job is to be in the middle of everyone on that type of stuff.”

As a systems engineer on the Perseverance rover, Bowles-Martinez worked on the systems which brought the rover safely down from orbit onto the planet’s surface, as well as the systems which launched the Ingenuity Mars helicopter from the main body of the rover. 

To physics and engineering students hoping for a career in NASA, Bowles-Martinez stressed the importance of internships and especially programming experience. 

Systems engineering is a little-known field, but absolutely essential to every NASA endeavor. 

“It’s a really intricate science dance, almost,” Bowles-Martinez said.

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