JPL Scientist Wants to Answer the Question: Is There Life on Mars?

JPL Scientist Wants to Answer the Question: Is There Life on Mars?
Danny Liao

Jacqueline Lyra's home may be in Los Angeles County, but her work is on Mars. "One thing leads to another, and you're a Martian," she says.

Lyra is a mechanical and aerospace engineer who has worked on recent Mars missions at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, or JPL, in Pasadena. "So far I landed four Rovers on Mars: Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity, and Curiosity — and now I'm working on the next generation of Rovers that are going to be launched in 2020," Lyra says. The new Rover has yet to be named.

Lyra has been working for JPL for 29 years and oversees other engineers on the Mars Rover projects; her specialty is temperature control. "A spacecraft is just like a person; they want to be in the right temperature," she says. Part of the work she does is ensuring a spacecraft doesn't fail when it's extremely cold. On frosty Mars, the temperatures plunge to negative 195 degrees and warm up to approximately 70 degrees, depending on the planet's proximity to the sun.

Lyra has always been fascinated by the mysteries of outer space. She grew up in Rio de Janeiro hooked on Star Trek. She remembers turning her play kitchen into a spacecraft with a command station. "It wasn't until I actually saw Neil Armstrong landing on the moon that I thought, oh, this is a career. This is actually something that I can do."

Though she excelled at math and science, her options in Rio were limited. "There were only two colleges in Brazil at that time that had anything that was close to an aerospace engineering career — and it was two military schools," Lyra recalls. "At that time that was for men only, so I could not even try. That never stopped me — I had to look for another path."

After a year of college in Brazil, she followed her brother to the United States and applied to schools, eventually receiving her master's in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1988. Soon after she landed at JPL and started working on the infamous, Saturn-bound Cassini spacecraft.

It's a story she shares when she's doing student outreach at her daughter's school. "One cool thing is that a picture of the Spirit and Opportunity is now the cover of the eighth-grade science book, so kids see the Rover that I worked on," Lyra says. Her daughter used to point to the textbook and tell her classmates, "This is my mom's robot."

When she talks at schools, it's not just the kids who are thrilled by her intergalactic work. "Some of the parents approach me, and they are from Mexico or from another South American country, and they sometimes get very emotional," Lyra says. The parents thank her for being someone their kids can identify with and look up to.

Lyra never expected to be a role model. She shyly admits that in Brazil she's actually famous. "An interesting fact is that I have a song that was written by a very famous Brazilian singer and songwriter that was made for me and the Mars folks," Lyra says. The song is called "Samba de Marte," and was written by Brazil's "Godmother of Samba," Beth Carvalho. It name-checks Lyra, NASA and JPL.

Lyra recognizes the enthusiasm behind Carvalho's fan letter to another planet. After all, she and her NASA colleagues can't be the only Martians. "We have to believe there's a possibility of life on Mars," Lyra says. "That's why we go there."


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