My name is Leonardo Georgescu, and I am a Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) summer 2019 intern. The project I am working on is the Axel Rover. Currently, the steepness of the terrain proves to be a challenge for current rover platforms. For example, the exploration of the cryovolcanoes on Titan's moon allow researchers to better understand the moon. Likewise, the flows on Martian slopes are believed to be underground salt water. Finally, lunar pits are a large interest to researchers to explore the lava layers and uncover the truth behind the moon's existence, as well as the use the pits as shelter for astronauts.
Below is a picture of the recurring slope lineae, or RSL. During the warm season, the lines appear and then disappear.
Axel, as pictured below, will descend down the slope and collect samples for analyzing. The Rover has compartments in its wheels for instruments that will sample the RSLs and tell researchers what they are.
During this internship, I will focus on fixing the mechanical and electrical issues, as well as improving the rover for field tests.
After a four hour drive, I arrived in Temple City, the city I am staying in for the duration of my internship. The city, including surrounding Pasadina is very quiet and reserved; a large difference from Las Vegas. It didn't take long for me to get settled into my house. I didn't explore much on my first few days because I was getting ready for the internship.
The first day at JPL was breathtaking. Above is a picture of me in front of the JPL sign at the entrance. Orientation took some time, and immediately after my mentor grabbed me to head over to a meeting. This was the first time that I had the chance to meet everyone I was working with, and learn more about the project itself. After, my mentor took me around the JPL campus, and it was amazing to see the projects they are working on. One of my favorite parts of JPL is the assembly room, where the Mars 2020 Rover is being assembled. I was in shock that I was standing meters away from something that will end up on Mars.
I can say that I started my internship quite well. Unlike the other places I have been to, it didn't take me long to get adjusted at JPL - my group was extremely nice and helpful in getting me ready. Some things that I am working on now are new to me, which makes it very rewarding and fun, and other things I have done in the past.
This week I picked up skills regarding manufacturing some parts. Starting on Monday, I will be finishing all the projects that I started working on last week.
This week, I've learned that it's not about what you know, but how hard you're willing to work to learn. There are times now and in the future where I will be presented with something I don't know, and it's all about the time, and effort I put into learning it. I was amazed at how quickly I was able to learn when there was pressure placed on me. That's a problem that I am currently working on; I tend to procrastinate and become efficient when there's pressure.
Immediately upon arrival there was work for me to do. My mentor contacted me about the job before I arrived at JPL so I could prepare. JPL even makes students complete a project plan before their arrival at JPL so they are much more aware of the projects they will be working on during the 10-week internship as well as getting to know their mentor. I arrived on Tuesday, but had not yet received my JPL laptop, so I spent that day getting familiar with the rover and getting to know the people I would be working with.
The working environment at JPL is different from academic labs. It is much more challenging to find projects to work on at academic labs because they are more research orientated. Even though I am in an R&D lab, at this point, my work does not involve researching.
I am also beginning to see more of the difference between R&D and product development. For example, I am seeing the difference between the Mars 2020 rover and what we are building. R&D focuses more on coming up with the idea and making it work to some extent; it doesn't produce the final product. On the contrary, product development is in charge of taking the product from R&D and making it survive the harsh conditions of Mars, for example. My lab developed the idea of the Axel Rover, and now we are doing field tests to confirm is validate its functionality. If this project is to be approved for future lunar and Mars missions, then it will need to be redesigned to withstand the different environments.
My roommate arrived Saturday, and he asked if I wanted to go to a baseball game that Sunday. I've never been to one before, so I decided to join him. It was a game between the Dodgers and Phillies. It was a very good experience and I enjoyed the game.
At the same time, I also got to learn about him and his work. He is in the process of getting his PhD working on power supplies. He shared some of his experiences and what it meant to be a PhD. One takeaway from him was that I should know why I am going into my PhD if I decide to do it and not just blindly get into the program.
You may be wondering why I posted a picture of a lizard as my photo of the week. This lizard was right outside my lab. I was working on a project with my colleague and we were having difficulties coming up with solutions at the moment. At this point I was in the lab for eight hours, ate my lunch while working, and only took bathroom breaks. My mind was foggy, so I decided to step outside for some fresh air when I saw this lizard. It immediately took my stress away since I was now distracted. Sometimes, it's helpful to get distracted for a few minutes when dealing with frustration.
This lizard also brought back amazing memories of a previous intern at the DASL lab, Jaewon. He was into lizard catching and then releasing them, but had a hard time finding them in Las Vegas. I had a great time with him while he was at the lab, and I even got to see him on my last day in Korea. I hope everything is going well for him.
Things are going very well. My colleague and I finished work ahead of schedule which is an amazing feeling to have before going into the weekend. I am on the 90/80 work schedule, so we were supposed to take Friday off, but because of some projects that were not finished, we ended up staying at work for 12 hours. I didn't mind it at all because we got everything done. After all, we love our work so it doesn't feel like we are working.
Additionally, we received our official work breakdown schedule for the entire internship. We have deadlines to meet, and other project members depend on us finishing our work so this is where the pressure comes from.
This week I began learning more about the lab culture at JPL. My lab is very well structured. The mentor leads the project, but the person above my mentor makes the final decisions. My mentor is in charge of guiding everyone and making sure that deadlines are met. Additionally, my mentor is the one who directly meets with us every week and sometimes comes to check up on us throughout the day. For example, if I'm struggling with a concept, he's there to provide his opinion and talk about why I am stuck. There's much discussion that goes on between lab members which I like because it creates a powerful bond. This is similar to my experience at the KAIST lab because I had Inhwan, a master student who was my mentor, and the PhDs were his mentors. It's a chain of command.
Also, I've noticed that many of these PhDs, including my mentor, do low-level work on top of the high-level work. They could tell my colleague and me to do all the low-level work, but they help us as well so the work can be completed faster. Not to forget that they designed everything from zero. I used to think that PhDs would only do high-level work behind computers, but they can do a wide variety of work ranging from low-level to high-level. Additionally, I was glad to see their openness to give us advise and teach us new things. I think a leader inspires others to do more, and that's the kind of leadership I've seen at JPL.
What amazes me about JPL is the passion that people here have. Most of JPL employers could make more money in other industries such as finance, but they choose to come to JPL because they love their work. The motto of NASA is “for the benefit of all,” meaning that everything we do is to benefit humanity. I can tell immediately that the people at my lab or the thermal engineers working on Mars 2020 are at JPL because they want to do things that no one has done before. This passion resonates to me. There is a fantastic feeling coming to work knowing that everyone else around you is happy. Most JPLers work more than the schedule requires them to work because they love working.
I went to a machine learning speech on Thursday hosted by Dr. Lukas Mandrake. Dr. Mandrake was accepted into college at the age of 13, which is extremely impressive. He is now in charge of the machine learning group at JPL. I can admit that I don't have experience with machine learning, but this speech gave me some critical takeaways. Dr. Mandrake spoke about how machine learning is thrown around and sometimes misused because bad data is used. What is the reason behind this? The people using ML use data without understanding it entirely; it's required that one has the right data. An example he used was how people called ML racist because it didn't select some races for loans. ML is a tool, as he said, so the problem isn't the tool but the person who inputted the data didn't understand the data. Regardless if one knew the specifics of ML or not, the speech was a caution against media and bad data.
My friend from JPL and I hiked up to the Hollywood sign at night. It was a very nice and relaxing hike, but the best part was seeing Los Angeles at night. At the same time, we got to talk about what motivated us to come to JPL. Immigrating to the United States at an early age, she had some difficulties to overcome both culturally and financially, but she was strong enough to get past them and do what she loves. She was very passionate about her project working directly with the Mars 2020 rover and wants to work at JPL after grad school. I enjoyed talking about space robotics and the future of the industry.
Also, special thanks to my lab manager, Dongbin, for coming to visit me and checking up on me.
The main goal of this week was finishing up projects with a quick turnover.
This week I was able to see the assembly of the wheels for the Mars Rover. This is a good place to go take breaks and watch this rover that will end up on Mars be assembled. It's really impressive being so close to it. It's especially amazing seeing the progress being made on it. In one day the Rover's wheels were attached, so progress seems to be going quite fast. It's one thing seeing it online but it's another thing to actually see the Rover in person. This is motivating for us considering that my team is working on future Rovers that could potentially have the same destiny.
This week could be described as very fast paced. The turnaround for these projects is quite amazing. The Tuesday meeting brought new deadlines that we were not previously aware of. I have noticed that to get projects done quickly teams needed to be divided and each person needs to know exactly what needs to be done. Being part of the hardware team means that I have to get the robot ready for the software team to begin testing their algorithms. Sometimes deadlines need to be moved up instead of being pushed back which definitely requires 12 hour+ days.
This week is the most I have done in a single week. In research lab, there is usually more times to think about projects, but here there are time constraints that requires many hours. After this week, I have been thinking about my progress at DASL and realizing that I have taken things quite slow - I was meeting deadlines, but was not finishing projects in a timely matter. When looking at companies such as SpaceX and even Skunkworks, their turnarounds are very fast. Since week one, the turnarounds for this project have been very fast; a lot of small projects had to be accomplished and they got accomplished. It was frustrating and stressful, but the reward definitely outweighed everything else.
Do I like fast turnarounds? Yes, I think they're more excited. The problem I've witnessed is that when projects take too long, it usually ends up slowly dying. It happened with the Personal Tracked Vehicle - I still believe that project could have been successful if there was a plan in place and more work was being done on it. It almost happened with the strain gauges, and definitely with other projects. While they may be stressful at the moment, fast turnarounds are very rewarding. It's about keeping the momentum going. For a fast turnaround to happen, there needs to be clear goals. The “why” has to be answered otherwise it will not work. The reason for many JPL employees being motivated is that they know the reason for everything they do. I know my “why” for being at JPL and working on this project. I know that my hours put into this project will not only help me, but also move the project forward.
Another example of fast turnaround was witnessed at the KAIST Lab. Things were done fast, and sometimes lab members would sleep less than 4 hours. While I am not an advocate of little sleep, they were getting projects done and that really matters. Also, no one is forced to stay at work for a long time - people do it because they are passionate. That is something that is misunderstood with companies even like SpaceX. People talk about how they are overworked. I believe that they are overworking because they want to and are passionate about what they do.
JPL gave me the answer to the “why,” but research labs allow me to explore the “why.” I think that the problem, especially for undergraduates, is that we expect the answer to “why” be given to us when in reality research labs want us to find the meaning behind everything we do. It goes back to the Arizona trip that our lab had. To me, it was very valuable because until then, I didn't really realize what was going on. I was waiting for things to be handed to me. At the time I was working on a thrust stand and thought that the entire project revolved around the thrust stand and that's it. Very little did I know until then that the strain gauges can be used in haptics. The questions that need to be asked are: What can I do with such project? Could this concept be taken somewhere where no one else has taken it before? These questions are the difference between working in industry and research. In industry, the answers are given to you, but in research you are expected to answer them.
One thing I really like about Pasadena is the ability to have so much to do. After six days of working, it's refreshing to go out on different hikes that are not far away. Additionally, I decided to get back into photography. I decided to go to one of the best places for that - Griffith Observatory.
Besides signing up to have my name etched on the Mars 2020 rover not much was done was outside the lab. This is open to the public and JPL will etch all the names on silicon chip. Obviously, the name will be very small but it will still be something interesting.
The reason not much exploring was done was because of the deadlines. JPL workers are on a 9/80 schedule which to my team and I made things more difficult since we had to finish everything by Thursday. Many hours were put into getting the work done, but it did finally end up being complete. It was the biggest sign of relief that late evening when everything worked. As long as things don't end up going completely bad, this week is probably the worst that it will get due to unexpected deadlines.
Besides hardware, my mentor has also tasked me with some later projects involving programming.
Again, the things that matter the most are meeting the deadlines. It was very impressive and we were thankful to have our mentor stay up on Thursday to finish the project. Teamwork has the word team in it meaning that everyone has to participate. I like the ability of the team to come together and help each other when it is needed. I think that this creates a strong bond between lab members; I've experience this type of environment at DASL and at the lab in Korea. Helping others is also a good leadership skill.
One thing different from the lab at JPL compared to DASL is that DASL is generally very clean and organized. There is not much space at JPL, so many teams are working in a small area which means tools can end up not being where they're supposed to be, etcetera. This hasn't impacted my work whatsoever, but it has made it quite interesting since we're very close to each other and are always interacting somehow. At times, we'll even make jokes and tease the other robotic team that is nearby. I think this open space where everyone works together helps bond all of us. What I've noticed during my stay here is how passionate I am for airplane and spacecrafts. I think that I am very inclined to still getting my pilot's license; the only thing that slowed me down was the price of getting one. I think that in the future I should be able to make enough money to get one and fly on the side. Interesting enough, my roommate's friend got his engineering PhD while also getting his pilot's license
I didn't have the time to attend any lectures, but I did end up thinking about my future. With so many different engineering fields, it is difficult to choose where to go. That's one of the biggest issues for me, as I'm going into senior year, is decided where to go from here. At the end of the day, I have to choose what I like to do, but even then there are many choices.
I do want to make it my goal to interact more with others during this internship.Time has gone by very fast, and I've been caught up in work with not enough time to really explore everything there is at JPL.
My free time was spent in Las Vegas. It was nice seeing the lab again, and especially saying goodbye to my lab colleague, Meng, who will be returning to Korea. He was not only a great intern, but a great friend as well. He will be missed.
*Will update with photo once I get the picture from the staff assistant.
Three large events happened this week. The first was the summer intern kick-off with live music and food. We were testing the DuAxel system, and I only got to attend the last 15 minutes, but there was still some food left, and I got to talk to my friends. Later that evening the Axel Team celebrated the progress of the Rover. It was a great time to speak to my team outside of the lab. I ended up talking with the supervisor of the Robotic Mobility Group about the reason for coming to JPL and how I like it so far. The last event of the week was the Robotics Group picnic in the park. There was food, games, and the best part was getting to interact with others in my section that I have never met before. I think that it's time for DASL team members to go out and play some sports, or even go hiking - some activity that could be done more often that would help bring us together.
Many side projects were being completed while testing was being done on the system. This week was mostly designing components that would help with the functionality of the Rover. Outside of the lab, I went through all the ROS tutorials to familiarize myself with the system. Not only would it be beneficial while at JPL, but it is also helpful when I come back to DASL. I will continue working on the weekends to learn more programming.
Being able to interact with other JPL members more this week, I learned what it takes to get a project approved and how the cost is structured. These space missions are costly because many skilled laborers come together to ensure that the project does not fail. Most of the money goes to labor, of course, and the rest goes to the high precision components.
I seem to notice at JPL that everyone has a specific project that they are working on. Compared to the places I have been before, JPL employees have tasks, such as, for example, designing a power supply for some mission, or working only with path planning. As a mechanical engineer, it is expected that I am familiar with CAD programs, so most likely, I will end up on a project dealing with designing and testing parts. I came to JPL thinking that only a Ph.D. can get a job here, but I'm seeing that depending on what one wants to do the degree level does not matter. For example, half of the robotics group is made up of Masters, and the other half is Ph.D. There are some with a bachelor's degree, and I ended up meeting one mechanical engineer who is brilliant at designing and received his bachelor's. I'm seeing that JPL focuses more on the experience that the person has, and contrary to a popular misconception that JPL recruits only from top schools, there are people from all over the place.
Some friends from JPL and I went down to the crowded and famous Santa Monica Pier. This was the third time I've been there, but I'll go again as long as I'm with friends. We ended up talking about the different projects going on at JPL, getting to share stories. One intern previously was an intern at Langley and was telling me about the flight research they do, which seems very interesting. Note, that this conversation came about after I correctly identified the plane that took off from LAX. People always give me the same reaction when I identify planes, but I remind them that I spent my childhood plane watching, and that's the reason I haven't watched most of the Disney or Marvel movies.
This week I met Sunggoo and Hanseob, JPL interns working on the DARPA subterranean challenge. Last year during this time, I was in the lab with them at KAIST under Professor Shim. Now I'm thinking to myself what a coincidence it is to see them again but at a different lab. I was very excited to see them and learn about the projects they are working on; looking forward to spending more time with them even though they are busy.
We only had to show up two days for work even though we decided to show up more to finish assembling the second part of the rover after the design change. We were continuing working on things that we have already started working on last week, and we need to finish them by the end of the next coming week.
I spent last weekend getting familiar with ROS, and this week, I took the initiative actually to get familiar by working with ROS on the Rover. I completed a little project nonetheless, but it did help me. One of my goals this summer is to pick up on some programming. I think it has been a little challenging by not being immersed in a project that is programming heavy and having to deal with the frustrations.
I've learned that spending every hour at the lab, for seven days a week is not the best way to go about it. I'm also not saying that I should cut down on my work, but instead be smart about how I work because I've found myself wasting time.
I have the mentality, which I believe is wrong, that if I can't figure something out, I will sit there and not leave until I finish figuring out what I have to. I think that when I run into a problem, I have to take a break and work or do something that is not related to clear my mind. Being frustrated and trying to solve the problem has only led me to be even more frustrated, and the cycle repeats itself. Another reason why I'm all about getting my pilot's license is so I can fly and take a break, or even exercise. It's not about doing less work, but doing the same amount of work more efficiently. I've come to this conclusion based on my experience and also seeing how the PhDs at the lab deal with problems.
Fourth of July, my roommate, and another intern hiked the mountain to see the LA fireworks, which were terrific. The other intern has some friends who recently got hired at JPL and wanted to help me connect to them since they do flight controls. Besides, I did some studying and started reading an exciting book called the “Vital Question” by Nick Lane. A fascinating book, but takes a long time to read since I don't know biology.
On Sunday, my roommate invited me to some Ultimate Frisbee Games on the beach. I met different people from LA, and also another JPL engineer at the games, and all three of us will have lunch at work to get to know each other better. In the morning, we watched the women's soccer team, and I was very proud of seeing the team win the game. Afterward, the games began, and we played for about 4 hours straight - I'm sunburnt and exhausted, but it was an excellent way to end the weekend before starting work again tomorrow.
This week we went to see the Apollo 11 immersive show since this year marks the 50th anniversary. I went with Nathan, a colleague working on Axel with me. The show was explaining the life of an engineer and what he had to go through to make this launch possible. It was very motivating because it shows that humans can achieve great things if we are determined to get it done. People worked hard, people got divorves, and people died to make the lunar landing possible. As Elon Musk said, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”
It was a very successful week. We finished the largest project on time, and now what remains is smaller projects that will contribute to the robustness of the rover, but the functionality of the rover does not depend on it. The hours put into getting the main project done completely paid off. The field test is approaching which is very exciting.
Additionally, I met with a Senior Research Scientist working on Aerial Robotics. We spoke for some time about the future of the drone industry, and how we can collaborate in the future on projects. There are many problems in the drone industry that need to be tackled before drones can be a vital part of our lives.
I need to ask more questions. Speaking with the Research Scientist was very valuable; many of the projects he suggested I left with excitement as there are many areas where I can make an impact in the industry. I think a large issue is that I have not taken initiative on any project. I may have mentioned this earlier, but as I'm speaking with students and senior researchers they are taking initiatives. I also spoke to a PhD candidate from University of Michigan who works on bio-inspired manipulators. Like I was previously saying, he has taken initiative with his projects and that launched him in the industry. As of right now, I am working on many different projects, but I have failed to fully take a project to the next step.