A portfolio that’s out of this world

At age 9, Ezinne Uzo-Okoro SM ’20, PhD ’22 was preoccupied with down-to-earth issues, reminiscent of devising an alternative choice to her father’s messy, paper Filofax organizer, and fixing the unreliable electrical service plaguing her residence of Owerri, Nigeria. May she have imagined a path-breaking, 17-year profession at NASA, adopted by a place because the nation’s house coverage skilled?

“Completely not,” says Uzo-Okoro. “I knew nothing about house — I needed to be an inventor.”

Whereas she didn’t begin as a stargazer, Uzo-Okoro leveraged her curiosity, relationships, voracious urge for food for work, and impatience with limitations via a journey that introduced her to the middle of house exploration, and now to one of many nation’s prime science and expertise posts because the assistant director of house coverage within the White Home’s Workplace of Science and Know-how Coverage. She started her profession at NASA in 2004, the place she spent the subsequent 17 years constructing her experience in house engineering programs and administration. Alongside the way in which, she picked up three grasp’s levels: one in programs engineering from Johns Hopkins College, one in house robotics from the MIT Media Lab; and in a single in public administration from Harvard College. Then in 2022, Uzo-Okoro turned the primary, and thus far solely, Black girl to earn a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

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In 2021, Uzo-Okoro started her present place setting the nation’s priorities in house — a sprawling portfolio. On a given day, she could be coping with the elevated proliferation and menace of house particles, crewed and robotic house missions, monitoring the Earth’s local weather and house climate, or the Worldwide Area Station’s retirement in seven years. It’s a kaleidoscopic enterprise pushed by innovation benefiting society and the worldwide economic system, and one which fits Uzo-Okoro. “That is the perfect job I’ve ever had,” she says.

Factories in orbit

In April 2022, after Uzo-Okoro convened consultants throughout federal departments and businesses, the White Home launched a nationwide house coverage that addressed an space of burgeoning curiosity: the usage of applied sciences, together with robots, to make and assemble issues in house.

Uzo-Okoro is responding to the rising demand amongst industrial, scientific, and safety organizations for satellites that may be custom-made or manufactured rapidly and cost-effectively. It takes months to develop and assemble house {hardware} on the bottom, and even longer to make sure the expertise will survive on a bone-jarring rocket trip to house.

Organising orbital factories may dramatically scale back growth time and price for satellites with the power to sense and monitor pure or human-made disasters. The on-orbit services would develop an infrastructure for larger-scale house manufacturing functionality, whether or not for analysis outposts and habitats on the moon, asteroid mining ventures, or missions to Mars. For all these causes, “we have to grasp in-space servicing, meeting, and manufacturing,” says Uzo-Okoro.

Uzo-Okoro first started occupied with the query of space-based manufacturing after years growing small and huge spacecraft with NASA. She negotiated time away from the company to work on the issue — a transfer impressed by Kerri Cahoy, affiliate professor within the Division of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering (AeroAstro) at MIT, who envisioned producing spacecraft as in the event that they have been commodities reminiscent of automobiles. When Uzo-Okoro landed at MIT and started to pursue this concept, Cahoy suggested her grasp’s and doctoral research.

“Ezinne had this imaginative and prescient of making a form of automated manufacturing facility on orbit, very like these on Earth that use robots to place issues collectively,” says Cahoy. “Her strategy was ‘Let’s think about the longer term in house the place we construct vital expertise, and discover one of the best ways to do this.’”

For her grasp’s and doctoral analysis, Uzo-Okoro says she was mainly “attempting to invent the equal of an Amazon locker in house” — in essence, a spacecraft in orbit resembling a small fridge stuffed with components, with robotic arms to place the components collectively. “Contained in the locker, you’ve bought parts for a small satellite tv for pc like cameras, and spectrometers, and the robotic grabs and assembles what you want, somewhat than creating and assembling on Earth after which launching it.”

Uzo-Okoro mocked up a number of variations of this robotic house locker, beginning on a laboratory workbench and shifting to microgravity checks on zero-G flights. “Ezinne got here up with the idea, pulled a crew collectively to try it out on a comparatively restricted price range, and overcame a number of challenges to make it occur — one thing she’s gotten superb at in her life,” says Cahoy.

Immediately, a brand new technology of scholar researchers plan to take the thought to the subsequent degree, with an improved, and bigger, locker design. “My work proved that we may assemble a robotic autonomously, somewhat than via human meeting,” Uzo-Okoro says. “The subsequent step is definitely placing one among these programs in house.”

A sequence of missions

By her educational and aerospace careers, Uzo-Okoro has turn into the inventor of her childhood ambitions. When she left Nigeria to check laptop science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), she “sought the way forward for expertise, the place you possibly can actually create something by studying methods to program.” She made first contact with NASA at an RPI job truthful. “They informed me they have been simply conducting outreach and never accepting resumes, and I informed them that made no sense in any respect when there was a 30-minute line of gifted engineers simply ready to be employed,” she laughs.

That second served as liftoff for Uzo-Okoro. After commencement, she was employed by the Goddard Area Flight Heart, and on her first day, July 12, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft inserted into Saturn’s orbit. On her first task, Uzo-Okoro wrote algorithms to assist mission physicists determine methane, hydrogen, and nitrogen indicators within the information coming residence. At NASA, she labored on a sequence of missions (Earth remark, astrophysics, exoplanet detection, and neutron star inside composition), the place she was compelled to plan progressive options at each flip.

“I felt like a child in a sweet retailer, as a result of it doesn’t matter what I did at NASA, there was at all times somebody who knew extra who may educate me,” she says. “After I realized I needed to be the engineer liable for a mission, I started educating myself about all components of the spacecraft design and mission execution.” She studied mechanical and electrical engineering, and started growing and managing total missions. At NASA, Uzo-Okoro led a small spacecraft mission design middle, and was program government of the heliophysics division.

Uzo-Okoro has not navigated her singular profession with out assembly obstacles. Being “first” and “solely” has left its marks. “You don’t do something troublesome by working 40 hours every week, proper?” she notes. She agonized about beginning a household — which she in the end did, whereas conducting her doctoral analysis at MIT.

However how did she, as a Black girl, not solely survive however prosper within the notably white, notably male aerospace world? “I made a decision that should you’re simply brimming with concepts, get assist, notably if others put up obstacles.” Uzo-Okoro doesn’t trumpet the truth that she’s the primary girl to run civilian house coverage for the White Home. “It’s not vital turning into the ‘first’ or ‘solely’ one” she says. “The worth any of us will carry is outcomes.”

Uzo-Okoro is conscious of the accountability to be a job mannequin, and is ok with main by instance. “If individuals attempt one thing as a result of I’ve completed it, that’s nice,” she says. “I simply maintain placing one foot in entrance of the opposite and I encourage everyone else to do the identical.”


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