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Kara Vargo
Picture of Kara Vargo
Kara Vargo
Integration and Test Engineer, NASA Ames Research Center (ARC)
Kara Vargo in front of the integrated LADEE spacecraft prior to thermal vacuum testing at NASA Ames Research Center.

Where are you from?
Detroit, Mich.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
When I was young, one of my parents gave me a book that detailed all of the planets of the solar system. It was instant love and I became obsessed with learning as much as I could about the planets.

"[T]he integration and test (I&T)
engineer is responsible for assembling,
integrating and testing the hardware to
verify and validate its requirements."
Kara Vargo

How did you end up working in the space program?
It was a series of fortunate events. While I was in college at the University of Michigan, I had a summer internship with the Space Physics Research Laboratory. Out of several projects, I chose to work on designing the next revision of the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer (FIPS) instrument. The experience was amazing and opened me up to the world of working on instrumentations and payloads.

After this experience, I consulted a professor of mine for some assistance in finding similar work within NASA. She put me in touch with some contacts at NASA Ames Research Center (ARC). That following summer I was hired as an intern to work in the thermal protection branch monitoring the performance of a new thermal ablative material: Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA). The goal was to monitor PICA's susceptibility to micro meteoroid impacts during tests on the International Space Station.

While at ARC, I was introduced to Tony Colaprete through a mutual friend. It was this introduction that led to half of my internship time becoming the project I am also now currently working on: the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) with the Ultraviolet and Visible light Spectrometer (UVS) instrument. Since then, UVS has been the major project that I've been involved in at ARC.

Who inspires you?
First, my parents: both have worked incredibly hard to provide for me and get me where I am today. I am doing my best to live up to them and the example that they have set for me.

Secondly, a fellow integration and test engineer at NASA, Kim Ennico. Kim has been a huge inspiration to me in her ability to tackle problems with tenacity, as well as her ability put herself outside her comfort zone in order to complete projects. I admire her work ethic and often find myself thinking: "What would Kim do?"

What is an Integration and Test Engineer?
After the instrument or spacecraft has been designed and fabricated, the integration and test (I&T) engineer is responsible for assembling, integrating and testing the hardware to verify and validate its requirements.

I am the integration and test lead for the ultraviolet and visible light spectrometer (UVS) on LADEE. What this means (specifically for me) is assembling all of the instrument components, integrating them into the mechanical structure and then testing the whole system. These tests include any science requirement verification, calibrations, environmental testing, and interface tests between the instrument and the spacecraft.

UVS is currently integrated, the majority of the testing for UVS is complete and it is now waiting for launch on 6 September 2013. I have transitioned into an instrument operations role (I was the primary operator of the instrument during all of the testing). I work with the mission operations and science teams to plan and execute the instrument activities that it will experience in orbit around the moon.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
My favorite is actually one of the best and worst at the same time.

As I mentioned, one of my tasks is to environmentally test the UVS instrument. This includes an electromagnetic interference and compatibility test with the spacecraft, a vibration test to simulate the launch vibrations and a thermal vacuum test to simulate the thermal environment that the instrument will experience in orbit. The end goal of all of these tests was to verify that the instrument can survive the launch and space environment.

During one of the initial vibration tests, some of the optical elements internal to the spectrometer were shifted by the vibrations. This experience was stressful because we encountered an anomaly with our design, but the amazing part was how our team came together immediately to work through and solve this problem. Within 48 hours we had a solution, implemented it and were re-testing the instrument. I was so grateful to be working with such a dedicated and talented team.

I will admit, however, that the moment we receive the first spectra from UVS just might eclipse my current favorite memory.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
I would say that it's a very fun and rewarding career, however at times it can be extremely stressful and tense. In addition to having the prerequisite schooling, I would suggest that you be a very versatile and proactive person. A large portion of being an I&T engineer requires working with several different types of personnel and orchestrating their efforts.

Also, there will be some very tight deadlines that you will need to meet and many unforeseen hiccups along the way that you won't be prepared for and which you will need to work around when the time comes. An ongoing joke with the team is that the theme of I&T is "hurry up and wait." What this means is during the I&T phase we progress forward in our work at a fast pace only to encounter a problem for which we we have to wait for a solution. You would need to be very versatile and ready to change priorities quickly.

For example, I was working to get the instrument through a vibration test and the vibration table broke. All of a sudden we were "dead in the water" and needed to start researching outside test facilities, work with their schedules and find a good time to reschedule our test. We made it through, but at the time no one ever expected a large piece of machinery like the vibration table to break down.

What do you do for fun?
I'm an active person and I love being outside. Hiking, biking, running, swimming, you name it and I enjoy it. In addition, I love baking and I try to travel as often as work allows.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
I would suggest researching a few varying career paths and taking courses in each. Through trial and error you can narrow down the careers you enjoy and to which your skill set is best suited.

Pursuing math and science or engineering is a broad course to take that can at times be difficult to narrow down. The upside is that through either path you can do pretty much anything that you want. It's a fascinating and very satisfying way to contribute to society, but I would encourage anyone to have fortitude when choosing a career path.

For women specifically: Look into IEEE's Women in Engineering and the Society of Women Engineers. I was a part of both organizations in college. Both offer scholarship support in addition to networking and meeting other women in your field going through the same trials. I found both organizations to be incredibly supportive and wells of opportunity.

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Last Updated: 1 May 2014

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