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10 Questions With Penn State Alumna & NASA Engineer Rachel Kronyak

In February, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, marking another milestone in space exploration. Penn State alumna Rachel Kronyak is a key part of the Perseverance project and has been working as a Systems Engineer to direct the rover as it explores the surface of Mars.

Kronyak graduated from Penn State with a degree in geobiology and was involved in Penn State’s Women in Science and Engineering Research. Before landing a full-time job with NASA, she completed several internships there.

We sat down with Kronyak to learn more about her journey to NASA and her out-of-this-world work involving the Mars rover.

Onward State: What brought you to Penn State for your undergraduate degree and made you interested in pursuing geobiology?

Rachel Kronyak: When considering colleges, I knew I was broadly interested in astrobiology and planetary science, and Penn State seemed to have an excellent selection of majors to choose from. I also completely fell in love with the campus when I visited with my parents as a high school student. I fondly remember browsing the catalog of majors the *night before* my New Student Orientation and stumbling across the geobiology degree. It sounded like the perfect blend of my interests and ended up being a great fit.

OS: What was your experience with Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER) like?

RK: At first it was intimidating applying to work in a research lab as a first-semester freshman. I felt like I didn’t know nearly enough about science and would have no idea what I was doing. In reality, it was one of my most memorable experiences and helped set me on my career path to NASA. I worked in Dr. Chris House’s astrobiology lab on a project involving extremophile bacteria, where I tested the limits of their survival under a variety of conditions (salt, pH, arsenic levels, etc.). After my WISER program ended, I continued to work in Dr. House’s lab for the rest of my years at Penn State and gained a ton of valuable research experience.

OS: How did you first get involved with NASA?

RK: During the summer of my sophomore year, I was able to get a NASA internship at Goddard Space Flight Center, which was a direct result of my lab experiences at Penn State. I continued to work with microbes but this time got to test their survivability under simulated Mars conditions (low pressure, low temperature, CO2-rich atmosphere). I returned to Goddard for a second summer internship the following year and was able to turn the research I worked on into my senior thesis project at Penn State.

OS: You’ve been working on the Perseverance Rover recently, so what have you been doing for that project? What has been your favorite part of working on Perseverance, and why?

RK: My role on the Perseverance rover mission is as an operations systems engineer, which broadly translates to a “jack of all trades” when it comes to operating the rover. I work with the team’s scientists and engineers to help build the plans of activities and observations that get sent up to the rover on Mars each day. Building these plans is a complex yet delicate balance of making sure we’re making daily progress towards our mission objectives while also managing the rover’s resources efficiently. My job is very interdisciplinary and team-oriented, and I’m constantly learning new things. No two days are the same on Mars!

My favorite part of being on the Perseverance mission is getting to work with incredibly talented and inspiring people that are all working towards a common goal. It’s also really exciting being able to see images of new places on Mars every day. It makes us really feel like explorers.

OS: What else have you worked on with NASA?

RK: I also work on the Curiosity rover mission. Curiosity is Perseverance’s predecessor and has been exploring Mars since 2012. I first joined the Curiosity team when I was a graduate student and got my first taste of what it was like to work in mission operations. I was completely hooked and knew I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to work on NASA missions. These days, the Perseverance rover takes up most of my time. Since we’re in the early stage of the mission, we’re working seven days a week to operate Perseverance.

OS: Perseverance is a big stepping stone in understanding more about Mars. How do you think Perseverance is going to impact further exploration of Mars?

RK: Each new mission to Mars builds on the lessons learned from previous missions. Previous missions have “followed the water,” demonstrating the ability to explore and identify environments on Mars that may have been habitable in the past.

With Perseverance, we’re ready to take the next big step in Mars exploration and actually search for signs of ancient life at our landing site. Although our carefully chosen scientific instruments will allow us to do that, being able to confidently determine whether we’ve found signs of life on Mars is an incredibly difficult task.

We really need to be able to analyze samples of Mars in laboratories here on Earth so that we can employ the full arsenal of analytical capabilities. Perseverance is equipped to collect cores of rock and regolith and store them in ultra-clean sample tubes inside the belly of the rover. Eventually, we plan to drop these tubes off on the surface of Mars for a future mission to collect them and send them back to Earth in the early 2030s.

OS: What was it like to train and prepare for the Perseverance mission?

RK: I joined the Perseverance mission in early 2020, only a few months before launch. By that point, the mission was many years in the making and the final touches were being put on to assemble and test the rover before its journey to Mars. My initial job was to help make sure our tools and team were ready to operate Perseverance once we landed on February 18, 2021. We did a lot of role training, software development, and operations dress rehearsals to really flesh out our processes and make sure we were ready for surface operations. Now that Perseverance is on the surface of Mars, we get to do it for real. It’s a challenging and dynamic work environment, but it’s also extremely rewarding.

OS: How and when did you first develop your interest in space? How did that initial interest point drive you to where you are today?

RK: When I was in high school, my Dad and I took frequent trips to the local observatory to learn all about astronomy and view objects in the night sky, which kindled my interest in space exploration. I also had the opportunity to attend Space Camp as a high school student, where I learned all about NASA spaceflight missions and trained like an astronaut. Both of these experiences played a huge role in inspiring me to pursue a career at NASA.

OS: If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self, what would you say?

RK: If I could go back, I would tell my younger self to believe in myself more and not sweat the small stuff. We’re all our own biggest critics, and it’s easy to get down on yourself, especially when times get tough. Always remember that hard work and perseverance pay off.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why?

RK: I think I relate the most to Parasaurolophus. I’m definitely a pack/team-oriented creature and almost always wear my hair in a ponytail, which almost resembles their characteristic curved cranial crest.

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About the Author

Mackenna Yount

Mackenna Yount is a freshman food science major from Manitou Springs, Colorado. She loves food, is addicted to coffee, and can give you random facts or bad jokes that nobody cares about. Ask her to bake gluten-free cupcakes and she'll throw in some brownies too. Mackenna can be contacted via Twitter @mackennayount.

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