Alumna Anna Murphy ’01 has a job that is, quite literally, out of this world. Her work sounds like something from a science fiction novel, but it is quite real.… Murphy is an aerospace engineer working on Orion, a next-generation space vehicle designed to take astronauts into deep space.
“Not since Apollo have our spacecraft been able to go past low earth orbit,” Murphy explained. “Orion is designed for long-range human space travel. Our ultimate goal is to get astronauts to Mars or to a moon around Mars.”
And that goal is about to be realized. “Our first unmanned test flight is scheduled to take place within the next 12 months, and manned missions are expected to launch sometime between 2017 and 2020,” she explained.
So how did this St. Stephen’s graduate end up working on space travel? Her journey began with a robotics class offered during her senior year. “During the semester we had to build three robots, each with a different and more advanced control system,” she recalled. “I just loved it! By the end of the class I wanted to go into robotics.”
Murphy attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she planned to study electrical engineering. She quickly discovered, however, that she was drawn to more physical, ‘hands-on’ work, so she switched to the aerospace engineering department. While there, she helped to design the propulsion systems for FASTRAC, a two satellite collaborative project between the university and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab. As an undergraduate, Murphy secured an internship with the aerospace and technology company Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin won the contract to build the Orion spacecraft for NASA during her final semester, and Murphy was hired to work on the project full time.
For the last few years Murphy’s efforts have focused on ‘fault management,’ which involves developing the diagnostic systems and solutions needed to ensure that Orion continues to function through any type of critical failure. It’s an enormous and multi-faceted job, one that draws on Murphy’s passion for systems thinking and engineering. “As an aerospace engineer you have to first know a little bit about a lot of things and then become the expert on how the systems interact,” she explained. “Failures on a spacecraft like this can impact multiple systems, and you have to know how all of the pieces fit together in order for the vehicle to survive or recover.
“It’s the problem-solving that excites me,” she admitted. “The challenge is the draw.”
In addition to systems thinking, strong critical thinking and communication skills are essential for this work. “The most important aspect of the job is critical thinking,” she explained. “You can’t just accept the first answer you’re given. You have to be willing to dig deeper. You have to want to know not just what the answer is, but why. You also have to be able to communicate with people who have different backgrounds, technical knowledge and communication styles.
“I think St. Stephen’s really fostered those critical thinking and communications skills,” Murphy added, “with the small class sizes, open communication and teachers who were willing to prod our minds and make us really think.”
Murphy admitted that she often has trouble explaining what she does, perhaps because she has difficulty believing it herself. “When people ask, I usually say that I’m a rocket scientist,” she concluded, “and then I have to laugh, because I still cannot believe it’s true.”