Pam Fusek

Pam Fusek '13 stands in front of a composite Mars Exploration Rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in  Pasadena, Calif.

Pam Fusek ’13 Stoked Her Passion for Space Exploration at Lehigh and Landed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab

Fusek is living out a dream as a test engineer. She says she owes her early career success in large part to her Lehigh experiences.

By Christine Fennessy

Europa was just the coolest. Mars seemed dusty and boring, okay not really boring, but definitely dusty and most definitely dry (or so it seemed anyway). Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons—so called as they were first seen by Galileo in 1610—was supposed to contain more water than exists on Earth, all of it trapped beneath a thick, icy crust.

“I was like, ‘That is amazing. Mars used to have an ocean, but Europa has one right now. We have to go there!’” recalls Pam Fusek ’13, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Lehigh’s P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

So over the spring semester of her senior year, during Professor Terry Hart’s Spacecraft Systems Engineering class, Fusek got her fellow students onboard with designing a spacecraft that could reach Europa’s orbit. A mission that could, theoretically, map the moon’s surface and transmit information about its composition. Information that could help guide a theoretical future mission. 

A mission, perhaps, like the very real one Fusek had worked on for 15 months as a systems engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A mission called the Europa Clipper.

A Childhood Dream

She remembers really wanting to be an astronaut.

Fusek isn’t sure where the fascination came from; maybe it was all the books her parents read to her before she was old enough to have a say in the subject. Maybe it was all the books about space she plowed through when she was old enough to entertain herself. Wherever it came from, the obsession was complete by the fifth grade. That’s when she had to dress up as a historical figure and present to her class. She chose Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to go into space.

“I thought she was the biggest, baddest figure in history,” says Fusek, now 27.

The astronaut dream eventually faded—she’s not a huge fan of small spaces—but the allure of space remained. And a high school physics class hinted at another way to get there.

“I loved the way you could characterize the world and everything around us with equations. My high school self thought that was the coolest thing, turning something complicated into something understandable. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is it.’ From there, it wasn’t even a question of whether I would do mechanical engineering. No other class had piqued my interest like that, so I just followed it.”

Terry Hart in his office at Lehigh

Terry Hart in his Lehigh office

Her interests eventually led her to Lehigh and to Professor Terry Hart ’68, who became her advisor after she chose to minor in aeronautical engineering. Hart is a professor of practice in mechanical engineering and mechanics and, among other things, a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and NASA astronaut. In 1978, Hart was one of 35 applicants—out of a pool of 8,000—chosen for the astronaut program. His group included the first six women astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space. Hart’s crew logged 168 hours in orbit aboard the STS 41-C Challenger, NASA’s 11th space shuttle mission. 

After NASA, he managed AT&T’s satellite system, and when he retired from the company in 2006, he joined the faculty at the Rossin College.

A Mission to the Europa Clipper

There’s a lot to look at in Hart’s office.

Like the framed photo series of his shuttle mission where he was the “rendezvous guy and the mechanical arm guy”—the pilot who captured and berthed the failed Solar Max satellite (a capsule launched in 1980 to study the sun) and operated the arm that took his spacewalking colleagues from the shuttle to the satellite for repairs. There are all the airplane models. Like the one on the windowsill he uses to show students what happens when a plane gets close to the ground (“It kind of floats.”). There’s the F-106 Delta Dart on his bookshelf, the interceptor aircraft he flew for over 1,200 hours as an Air Force fighter pilot. Below that, there’s the supersonic T-38 he flew during astronaut training. There’s a picture of the Telstar 401 satellite he launched during his civilian job, photos from space he took of the Nile River Delta, models of launch vehicles, and the blue, custom-fit helmet he wore as an astronaut, the initials “T.J.” printed in white on the back. 

It’s a room full of stories. “Life lessons,” he calls them—often about how things can go wrong, how inexpensive parts can break or explode and million-dollar machines can literally fall from the sky—the kind of experiences he shares with his students because he wants them to learn and do better. He’s got stories queued up for every course, including one called Spacecraft Systems Engineering. 

“It’s kind of a fun course, sort of a capstone course,” he says. “Students choose a mission they’re going to do as a team. Probably half of them do a deep space mission, but some do space communication, or asteroid defense networks, or come up with moon colonies. They detail their objectives, choose a launch vehicle, do the orbital mechanics. They have to calculate the propellant, design the satellite and antennas, and pick the electronics boxes for communication. They have to make sure it’s not too heavy. It’s all part of the process we call systems engineering. By the end of the semester, they’ve designed a spacecraft on paper.” 

That class was far and away my favorite at Lehigh. Before that, I'd felt like a job in space exploration was kind of a fantasy. 

Pam Fusek '13

A mission to anywhere. Doing anything. For Fusek, it had to be Europa. She had read that NASA was thinking about a Europa mission, and now she had the opportunity to learn what that could involve. Her enthusiasm for the moon’s unique ocean convinced her six teammates to spend a semester figuring out how they might get there.

Hart didn’t know Fusek was such a Europa superfan, but he’s not surprised she got her team on board with her idea.

“She really has a winning personality, and she’s a natural leader,” he says.

Pam Fusek at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab

Pam Fusek '13

By the end of the semester, Fusek and her team had produced a Critical Design Review of their mission. During the presentation of their 52-slide PowerPoint, they swapped leads explaining orbital mechanics, satellite design, mass and power budget, subsystems, their science package. The course was only a semester long, but for Fusek, it was enough. She knew what she wanted to do. 

“That class was far and away my favorite at Lehigh,” says Fusek. “Before that, I’d felt like a job in space exploration was kind of a fantasy. But Terry’s class made it feel real, like people actually do this for a living, and here are the steps they take, more or less, to get it done. Plus, I fell in love with the role of a systems engineer. The marriage of those two things just stuck with me.”

She left Lehigh, went to graduate school at UCLA, worked briefly at Northrop Grumman and stayed in touch with Hart. And then she became one of the stories he likes to tell. One of those stories about when things go right. 

In his office, Hart sits with his back to his computer, to all those pretty photos of Earth he took from space. All around him is the evidence of his success—as a pilot, an astronaut, an engineer. But behind him, on his computer, is proof that this is the most gratifying period of his life. 

“One day she sends me this note,” he says, “and she writes, ‘You’ll never believe what happened, I’m at JPL, and my primary job is the Mars 2020 Sample Return Lander, but I’ve also been assigned to the Europa Clipper.’” 

He sits back in his chair and smiles. “I was just so proud.”

Preparing for the Future

For Fusek, Hart’s class revealed her passion, while the rest of her Lehigh experience prepared her for it, especially all the labs and the group work. She knew these experiences mimicked the highly collaborative world she would enter as an engineer.

 

The percentage of women in the aerospace field—only about 24%—has plateaued. 

Aviation Week, September 2019 article

A world very much like the one she’s in now. At JPL, Fusek is part of an environmental requirements engineering group, in a systems engineering role that requires her to work with numerous teams and technical leads. Her group looks at how aspects of the harsh space environment can affect the spacecrafts. Their work goes to groups who will build models off their analyses.

“We have to determine what types of testing are necessary to qualify the hardware for space, so it requires a ton of time and communication to determine what a particular part is going to experience, what its vulnerabilities are, what the risks are,” she says. “So we determine the test campaign as well as the margins required to make sure we have a successful mission. It definitely stretches you in terms of communication. I’m really honing that skill at the moment.”

She’d been at JPL about eight months working on the Mars Sample Return Lander (which is still in a hypothetical, design stage) when she learned her skills would be stretched to include the Europa Clipper. 

“It was extremely exciting,” she says. “I had always wanted to work on Europa.”

It was a bit surreal, too, like everything was coming full circle—the kid who read space books and dressed as a cosmonaut, who found meaning and direction in physics, who took a class from an astronaut where she convinced her team to figure out how to reach the orbit of an ice-encrusted moon more than 390 million miles away, was now on the team that may one day learn just what makes that moon so amazing. And maybe someday, the book about that moon will inspire a kid to explore how she might go to space, too.

Terry Hart holds a model of a n exploration rover

Terry Hart holds a model of a space rover

It may be surreal, but it’s definitely not a fluke. 

She is where she is in her career at JPL, in large part, because of where she was. At a school with the precise blend of labs and group work that developed her technical skills and her leadership style. With the kind of professors willing to spend the time not only on the concepts, but on the stories—and the creative applications of those stories—that can lead to discovery, passion and purpose. 

Fusek has since moved on from the Europa Clipper mission, and is now assisting various other projects as a test engineer and still working on the Mars Sample Return Lander.

“I felt so proud the day I graduated from Lehigh. I learned that if I put my mind to it, I could grasp any subject,” says Fusek. “It was amazing for my confidence. And it continues to be.”

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