This Alaskan engineer is helping NASA send humans back to the moon and, maybe, to Mars

NASA Crew Systems Engineer Jessica Vos (NASA)

The first rocket launch in NASA’s mission to send humans back to the moon — and hopefully, someday, to Mars — blasts off next month, and one of the people working on it got her start in Alaska.

Jessica Vos is originally from Anchorage and a Chugiak High School graduate. Now she’s the Crew Systems Engineer for NASA’s Orion Program, under the Artemis campaign.

Vos says her job is very human-focused, as she and her team work to provide astronauts traveling from Earth to the moon and back again with everything they need for a successful mission.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jessica Vos: So I do like to liken to it unto, you know, if you were to take a camping trip, like car camping. You’ve got a lot of stuff that you can pack into this vehicle and a lot of different configurations that you’re probably going to move between. You’ve got a launch configuration and an orbit configuration, and then reentry and post-landing configurations. So very similar to how you would pack your car to get to your camping location, and then once you get there, you unpack it, and you you’ve set up your (camp) and, “Hey, we’re gonna stay here for a week,” and then you do day hikes from there. So the type of equipment that you bring is you’ve got things that you need nominally, but then you’ve also got emergency medical kits, and you’ve got, you know, potentially ways to put out a fire or compasses to recover yourself from getting lost in the woods. Things of that nature, right?

Casey Grove: Well, how did you get started here? And I guess maybe I should even back up from that, I heard you’re from Alaska originally. So tell me about that, where are you from, and also as part of that, how did you get into science and engineering?

JV: Of course, yeah, so I was actually born at Providence Hospital in Anchorage. We lived in Anchorage, we lived in a trailer park area right off of Muldoon. And at about, I think it was about third grade, maybe nine years old or so, we moved out to Chugiak. We lived in the North Woods neighborhood. And I remember the sign, and it said, “Welcome to North Woods, with fully paved streets and plumbing. Like it was a super remote neighborhood, but they were, you know, developed enough to attract people to come and live there.

And yet our streets still had a dirt road at the end with a what we called a frog pond, which was just a big lake. It all, of course, has been developed since then. But back when we lived there, it allowed for us to have some pretty dark skies. And my dad was always into astronomy. He had several telescopes in the house and had stacks of Scientific American magazines around all the time. So rather than what what many youngsters are doing today, and picking up their phones, or iPads and going to YouTube and learning about this stuff, I had a Scientific American magazine that I was, you know, fascinated by. And so I’d asked my dad questions, he’d pull out his telescope, which by the way, one of those telescopes was so large that it took up half of our garage. We had a two-car garage, but you can only put one car in it, because the other half belongs to this ginormous telescope.

CG: That’s awesome. So you were talking a little bit already about the the mission that you’re working on and your part in it, that has aims to put people back on the moon. I wonder what sort of things are different now that we’re trying to do this, you know, so many decades later? What has changed? Or what challenges still exist that you’re running into?

JV: Yeah, that’s a great question. So when the Apollo program, or the Apollo campaign, was put in place in the ’60s, there was a very specific goal. You know, it was very politically driven. And man, there were some tough lessons learned there. You know, about the Apollo 1 fire, I’m sure. And what we learned in that program is super essential and carries right into what we’re doing right now from an Artemis architecture or the Artemis campaign. However, the end goal is a little bit different. We’re really, this time when we’re going to the moon, it’s about how do we develop a system, more sustainable architecture, so that we can really live and work in cislunar space and on the lunar surface, very similar to how we’ve done with the International Space Station for the past 20 something years, right? It’s been continuously manned now, hanging out in low-earth orbit, doing all kinds of awesome science. But to go back to that camping analogy, that’s like putting your tent out in your backyard, right? If anything goes wrong, if it rains too hard, or your lantern goes out, or you don’t have the right stuff, you just come inside. Being farther away from Earth, it’s like that difference between putting your tent in your backyard versus putting your tent, you know, several hundred miles away next to a river, versus putting a tent on the top of Everest. So in our minds, that tent on top of Everest is more like our Mars expedition.

CG: So, recently, you you were talking to some kids at the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, in the Mountain View neighborhood here in Anchorage, about your work. What kind of questions did they ask you like? What do kids ask you about what you do? What do you end up talking to them about? What’s that like?

JV: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, of course, there’s always the, “How do you use the restroom in space?” Very important. People need to know. And then, “What happens to that?” and, you know, the answer is different. It depends on which spacecraft you’re talking about, what mission you’re talking about, the duration of the mission, how many people are involved. In general, they like to relate. Especially young kids, their world consists of going to school, having breakfast, lunch and dinner, you know, cleansing and taking baths or showers, and then using the restroom. So their questions are very like, “Well, what do meals look like? Do they get dessert? Is there ice cream? How do you eat a cheeseburger? Is there cheeseburgers?” You know, all of those kind of just fundamental daily life things that we do, which, of course, there is an answer for all of those things, how we do them in space. So yeah, that’s the kind of questions we get.

CG: Alright, well Jessica, I only have one more question for you. It just came up. Are there cheeseburgers in space?

JV: So the answer is there are. My understanding is there’s a rehydrated double hamburger patty. And rather than using bread or buns, because those can create a lot of fod, they kind of crumble and then now you’ve got all this floating mess of crumbs that the air revitalization system filters have to collect. And that just gets gross. So instead, they often use tortillas. And then I don’t know the answer on the cheese. But I do know that they do have condiments that are basically kind of the same way we would use those on Earth. We would just kind of squeeze them out of a packet and make sure we get as much of that on to the actual patty or the tortilla as we can, and any droplets of it will float, and the astronauts often just kind of scoop that up with their mouths.

CG: That’s amazing. I just thought you’re gonna say, “No, there’s no cheeseburgers in space, sorry.”

JV: No, there is, yeah.

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts.

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