Thousands of miles to the south of us, engineers at NASA are hard at work on the NeMO Mission, the next orbiter mission to Mars. This summer they got a little help from an engineering intern from Bethel, and something called the Muktuk Plot.
Growing up in Bethel, Christopher Liu says that he was a quiet kid with a perfectionist streak who was always passionate about math.
“I think I just continued to maintain this sense of curiosity,” Liu said. “About the world, how it works.”
Today, after years of hard work, he’s studying electrical engineering as a graduate student at Stanford University in California.
This summer, Liu landed an internship with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Or, more specifically, a desk at Division 39, Section 392, where Liu crunched numbers for the next Mars mission.
The shop that Liu found himself in was surprisingly diverse, but to his knowledge he was the only Alaska Native on staff. Liu says that there aren’t many Native American people in his field and that he did what he could to introduce his colleagues to Yup’ik ways.
“I shared some pikes, uquq, seal, and dried fish with some of the other JPL employees,” Liu said. “And akutaq as well. And they were pretty happy to try it.”
As he snacked on akutaq in NASA’s basement, Liu chose to zero in on an issue that he calls “the missed thrust problem.” When NASA launches its next orbiter it will be preprogrammed with the most efficient route to Mars, but it’s trip will be treacherous as it hurtles through space. The unpredictable can occur: a volley of cosmic rays, a missed thruster boost, and it’s not something that a NASA engineer can go out there and fix. If an unexpected event occurs, the spacecraft will be programmed to go into “safe mode.” Its thrusters will turn off, and its software will wait for further instructions as NASA tries to plot a new course from Earth.
“It shouldn’t be a barrier,” he said, referring to living in the Delta. “A lot of people, they can’t even visualize themselves working for NASA or being an astronaut, but it’s definitely possible. And it’s something that should excite students who are currently in school.”