As young and diverse professionals aspire to lead flight missions to space, they look to successful missions of the past and leaders in the field of space sciences and space systems engineering for insight. The process can be daunting, from creating a proposal, to building a science team, to the actual mission launch.
Enter the NASA PI Launchpad.
Held at the University of Michigan, the 2023 NASA PI Launchpad offered emerging scientists and engineers an opportunity to learn about spaceflight missions from experts in the field. The annual workshop was held in Ann Arbor in July, hosted by the U-M Space Institute with support from the U-M Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. It brought in principal investigators (PIs) and other experts who have worked on previous NASA Missions, as they generously answered questions and shared their “lessons learned” with an audience of future leaders.
The sessions during the event featured prominent speakers from NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as leaders from private companies in the space industry. Many PIs shared their advice including Zibi Turtle, the PI of Dragonfly to Saturn’s moon Titan; Bethany Ehlmann, PI of the CRISM imaging spectrometer on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; and Chris Ruf, PI of the CYGNSS Mission.
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at NASA Missions
Introducing emerging professionals to a broad range of mission topics, the agenda included introductions, motivations for becoming a PI, and upcoming opportunities, as well as specific components of the process. Presentations centered on the elements of a proposal, making a science case, basic requirements, the evaluation process, and steps for assembling a science team. Advice was also shared for finding industry partners and preparing for launch, and the group participated in speed networking opportunities as part of the workshop.
“The timing of this has been absolutely perfect,” said Angela Marusiak. She was selected to attend the NASA PI Launchpad, while working as a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Marusiak worked on the Dragonfly Mission Team, among hundreds of other scientists and experts. Now, she is interested in becoming a PI for a scientific instrument on a future spaceflight mission that builds upon her own ideas.
“I appreciate that they showed us the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the matrix,” said Marusiak. “So much of this work is discovering things you didn’t know you didn’t know.”
After reflecting on her takeaways from the program, Marusiak said she was thankful for the reminder that the space sciences, and the sciences more broadly, are very competitive.
“It’s a reminder that if you get selected on your first try, it’s an anomaly,” she said. “To hear that, it was really encouraging.”
Luke Anderson, who was selected to attend the NASA PI Launchpad as a postdoctoral researcher at Utah State University, said he gained a lot of knowledge and insight from the workshop. As a space design and research engineer, he works closely with companies in space systems engineering. During his college career, he helped design, build, and conduct test-flights for the first iteration of a new technology for satellite cooling, with the help of NASA funding.
“It’s great to see all the components of a mission come together,” said Anderson. “Unlike others here, I am not a scientist but an engineer. So, I’m coming to this from a completely different angle. I am really interested in the engineering and technology of the instrumentation.”
Not only did he get to network with leaders in the industry, but he also learned what goes into the technical planning for a flight mission. He appreciated the depth and breadth of the workshop, which ran from July 24-27, 2023 on the University of Michigan’s central campus.
Making the pitch for a new science mission
The portion of the NASA PI Launchpad that Anderson found most helpful was a presentation on the Anatomy of a Compelling Science Story: Successful Story Examples.
“It’s communications. It’s storytelling. It’s being able to paint a picture for people in a compelling way,” said Anderson. “All of that is really important to getting support for your proposal.”
The event was hosted by the University of Michigan Space Institute, a hub for space-related research and activities at the University of Michigan. Michael Liemohn, who served as the inaugural director of the U-M Space Institute, was proud to see the energy the participants brought to the NASA PI Launchpad.
“They were a highly active and engaged crew, asking lots of questions and being fully present for each of the speakers and panels,” said Liemohn. “It was inspiring to see the confidence of the participants rise throughout the week, culminating in 4 hours of ‘partnering roundtables’ the last day, where they pitched their mission idea to representatives from a dozen different space systems engineering companies and government labs.”
Improving Access to Flight Missions With Collaboration and Connections
By bringing the event to the University of Michigan in 2023, Liemohn and his colleagues were able to coordinate tours of the cutting-edge facilities for space sciences and engineering that can be found in Ann Arbor.
“These potential space mission PIs had an opportunity to see places where spaceflight hardware are designed and made, touring the facilities of the Space Physics Research Laboratory and CubeSat Laboratory across the street,” Liemohn said.
Along with the collaborators from many institutions who make the NASA PI Launchpad possible, Liemohn credits the success of the 2023 event to Jodi Holbrook, who works on the staff providing administrative assistant in the U-M Department of Climate and Space.
“This workshop would not have happened without the many hours invested in it by my administrative assistant, Jodi Holbrook,” he said. “She did a phenomenal job coordinating travel logistics for all of the participants and speakers.”
After completing the workshop, the participants now have not only the knowledge base to confidently approach the role of mission principal investigator, but also the contact list to make an informed decision about engineering and management partners.
Learn more about the annual NASA PI Launchpad.