The transition to working from home for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) teams behind NASA’s Mars missions has been surprisingly smooth, given the complexity of the work. Employees were issued the equipment needed to do their jobs, but did face major challenges working remotely, including video conferences and learning to concentrate despite the distractions of home.
“Since working from home due to the pandemic, my co-workers (office mates) are now my husband and two young boys,” says Ny Sou Okon, flight system engineer for Remote Sensing Mast (RSM) and High Gain Antenna (HGA).
“My husband also works on the Mars Perseverance Rover on the Sample Caching System,” Sou Okon continues. “Since having to telework due to the pandemic, we utilize one of our smaller bedrooms as our office with half of the room configured as my office and the other half configured as my husband’s.”
Working from home also means finding compromises and cleaning up space. “I am also more invested in keeping my home tidy since I spend most of my time here,” says Janelle Wellons, instrument operations engineer for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA). “I have been more inspired to do more self-improvement like exercising regularly, learning how to make websites, and reading more books.”
Many people appreciate being closer to family as well. “I’m able to spend extra time with my daughter and wife, which is wonderful,” says Jean-Pierre de la Croix, robotics systems engineer for Autonomous PUFFER, CADRe, and other projects. “For example, we can all have lunch together during the week.”
There are many ongoing missions as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, including InSight, and Perseverance, which launched July 30 and is scheduled to touch down on Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.
The transition from campus to home is reflective of the can-do and perseverance spirit that permeates the staff of JPL. “We’ve all had to adapt to finding ways to work together via what’s available over the internet,” says de la Croix. “Video conferencing was easy, but drawing out a design together on a whiteboard was a bit trickier, for example.”
“Impromptu interactions with co-workers and friends across lab do not happen as much, so I have to be more intentional about strengthening those connections,” says Wellons.
“During the first few weeks of the pandemic, I was supporting Flight Rover testing at Cape Canaveral from my home,” explains Sou Okon. “We had all hands on deck type of activity so it was nerve-racking not to be physically present, but it was really cool to be able to support a critical test from the (COVID-safe) environment of my own home!”
As great as technology can be, it does not replace human interaction and working side by side on campus. “While the teleworking tools and access have been working great, I do miss seeing my coworkers and bumping into folks in the hallway and having spontaneous interactions,” Sou Okon admits.
“I also miss the constant visual reminders of the amazing work that we do on campus: the model of Curiosity, the arrows that point to different places in our universe, a trip to the Mars Yard, etc.,” says Wellons.