Tracy Drain (right) and William Shatner in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Where are you from?

I was born and raised in Louisville, Ky.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

The first time I remember being fascinated by space was when I read about how the solar system formed. The fact that it was formed from a giant cloud of gas and dust spewed out by supernovas and it all came together under gravity and made the sun and all the planets -- I thought it was bananas that scientists could figure all that out based on what they can see today. I remember thinking, "That's really cool that we can know that about space."

The important thing about being a scientist or an engineer is learning how to think critically, learning how to be creative, learning problem solving and learning how to learn.
- Tracy Drain

How did you end up working in the space program?

When I started thinking in high school about what I wanted to do for my career, math, science and space seemed like things that could keep me interested for an entire career.

There was a Jet Propulsion Laboratory booth at a career fair that I went to in my second and final year in grad school at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Embarrassingly, I'd never heard of JPL, but once I realized that JPL was the center that did Voyager, Pathfinder and so many other amazing missions, I practically pounced on the poor recruiters. I got a call sometime later to come interview and practically drooled all over everyone they would let me talk to. I was offered a job by Steve Matousek in the systems engineering division (though I'd never heard the phrase "systems engineering" until I'd talked to him!).

Who inspired you?

My mom was always very excited about airplanes and spacecraft and anything to do with space, whether it was real or fiction. She was always pointing out airplanes overhead and having us watch space shuttle launches on TV. She was very big into Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and all of that stuff. So I soaked that all in from her.

She was always very supportive of anything I wanted to do or try. She was never a person to say, "You can't do that" or, "You shouldn't do that." It was always, "OK! What are we going to do to make that happen?"

I also had some really cool teachers through middle school and high school. I was in math competitions in high school, and I remember one day we were all in a minivan driving down the freeway to a competition with my ninth grade math teacher, Mrs. Brown. In Kentucky freeways run through big chops in hills, and in the winter, water will flow down the vertical face and freeze into these giant icicles. As we drove by, I said, "I've always wanted to break off one of those." She said, "OK!" and pulled over, instilling in me this idea that you should go explore things that you want to do. That was something that reminded me to take those opportunities and be an exploring person, because why not?

Tracy Drain with Star Wars droid BB-8
Tracy Drain enjoying a visit from Star Wars droid BB-8 in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

What does your job entail?

When you think about a spacecraft and all the different parts that are necessary to make a spacecraft work, there are engineers who focus on making each of those specific systems. But a flight systems engineer is responsible for knowing enough about all those things that we can make sure they come together in a design that will accomplish the overall goals of the mission.

The things I do on a day to day basis change over the course of the life cycle of a mission. Early on, you're involved in the requirements and rules the design has to follow so you can meet your mission goals. So you work with people at all the different levels to develop the requirements and make sure all those rules are written properly. Then systems engineers are involved with verifying those requirements and developing tests and sitting in on the tests.

Then after launch and during operations, you're flying the spacecraft. I would help develop command products that would be sent to the spacecraft to make it do activities. It's all about monitoring the information that's coming down from the spacecraft, making sure it's responding the way it's suppose to, and if things go wrong, understanding what went wrong and helping the team get back on track.

It makes for a very exciting, never dull, kind of job.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launch will be my favorite for a long time. It was my first launch, and I was doing a lot of things for someone who'd only been at the Lab for five years. I was involved in the systems team, helping to develop some of the command products. I was trained as an ACE, someone who communicates with the Deep Space Network when we're sending commands and monitoring the connection to the spacecraft.

On the day of launch, we are there listening to the count down, and you're a little horrified because your vehicle is strapped to a giant rocket and you have no control over that part. But it was so exciting! You could see in the telemetry you got coming down through the launch vehicle that everything was clocking out. It was a picture perfect launch.

What are you looking forward to in your career?

I'm looking forward to all the awesome science that's going to come out of the Juno mission.

One of the next missions I'm interested in would be Europa. That mission is near and dear to my heart because of all the possibilities that exist there on that moon that has a thick shell of ice and maybe water underneath.

What advice would you give someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

I really wish someone had told me that the important thing about being a scientist or an engineer is learning how to think critically, learning how to be creative, learning problem solving and learning how to learn so that you get a fundamental understanding of things so you can attack new problems you've never seen before.

When I was in middle school and high school, the way the school system seemed to work was to make you focus on getting a grade -- "How do I get my A?" You're drowning in so much homework that you're looking for the shortcuts to get an A, and that is not the best way to really learn the material deeply and foster that high level of critical thinking. I think I would have had a different educational experience if I was able to shift my focus to that.

What do you do for fun?

I read a lot, and it used to be 100 percent science fiction and fantasy, but a few years ago I discovered the world of nonfiction. I just wander through the stacks of the library and pick up whatever catches my attention. I feel like I've learned so much! I also watch documentaries on Netflix. There is so much great stuff to learn out there.