Lisa McGill On What It Takes to Have a “Weird and Great” Aerospace Career
This is the second installment in the Stellar Minds series, where Planet employees are profiled and their accomplishments are highlighted. Keep checking the blog for upcoming features on remarkable people working in the aerospace industry today.
Lisa McGill says the best way to succeed as an aerospace engineer is to do work that makes you stand out. From getting her B.S. in engineering mechanics and astronautics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to working at NASA, Skybox and Google, McGill maps out her path to becoming Planet’s engineering manager in flight operations—a journey that includes watching sci-fi shows as a teen and riding NASA’s zero gravity “Vomit Comet.”
Did you always know you wanted to be an aerospace engineer?
Kind of. When I was in high school I was super into the show Stargate SG-1 and I loved space. But beyond that, I didn’t understand how to get into the biz or what I wanted to do exactly. I knew that I needed a hands-on thing, but it wasn’t until I started checking out colleges that I realized engineering was the path for me. I like to joke and give my mom a hard time about how she didn’t prepare me for a career in engineering at all. Never once did she give me a clock to disassemble! What was she thinking?
How would you describe your experience as an aerospace engineer thus far?
My professional experience has been weird and great! I’ve been super lucky in that I haven’t felt many difficulties in being a woman in aerospace, even though women are outnumbered in the field. I’ve had really supportive managers and strong teams.
In college, though, it was a different story. In college, my classes of 30 or 40 students usually had only a few women in them. I remember being the only woman on a senior design project with a team of five, and I wasn’t always taken seriously. There were a few times I felt unfairly judged, which caused me to doubt myself more. It drove me to work harder to prove my worth. That’s what a lot of women have to do to be taken seriously, unfortunately. That can really be tough when you’re in school because you know so little about the real world and what you shouldn’t have to put up with. Fortunately, I had a core group of friends in my classes that stood by me, encouraged me and challenged me to be better.
What I love about working at Planet is that my team is really supportive. The company tries hard to break down barriers and create a diverse workforce.
How did you end up working at Planet?
I joined Planet through the Skybox acquisition. It was exciting. Skybox had already launched seven SkySat satellites and was getting ready to do our biggest block launch yet: six more satellites! I also had always known about Planet from my time at NASA Ames, and thought it would be a great fit.
Describe a day in the life of a Planet flight operations engineering manager.
My team and I are the first responders for all things SkySat. When a SkySat is launched, we are the first people to communicate with it and are responsible for its operation. We make sure the satellites stay happy and healthy so that they can continue to collect and downlink imagery.
Over the years, we’ve been able to build automation tools to monitor the satellites after hours, but each day we check on the fleet at 9:00 am to make sure they’re still imaging properly. If an anomaly does occur, it’s our job to run tests to ascertain what happened, figure out the problem and decide how to fix it. A big aspect of my role is understanding the hardware so that we can make safe decisions when anomalies happen.
Fortunately, the satellites work pretty well and a lot of our work has to do with ongoing calibration (making sure the satellite is pointing at the correct location), maintenance (software releases or hardware health checks) and maneuvers. Oftentimes we can solve many hardware anomalies with power cycling the device (turning it off and back on again), altering our concept of operations (policies and practices for how we operate the fleet) or changing our automation to fix any software bugs or make any improvements.
I spend time working with the developers on my team to design and implement more automation for the fleet to reduce the person hours needed to support activities in mission control. We also design and rehearse simulations on the hardware testbeds on the ground to prepare for on-orbit anomalies, launch and early operations activities (initial hardware checkouts and calibration immediately after launch), and review software releases (to make sure the upgrade process is smooth). It’s important that we plan and rehearse for the most common (or riskiest) anomalies so that we can be ready to quickly triage with tested and vetted workflows.
What career experiences prepared you for your current role at Planet?
I had three summer internships at NASA Ames before accepting a full time position at the center. While I was there, I supported the Integration and Test team (I&T) on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), which, as the name implies, went to the moon. It was a great experience. I spent most days in the clean room with the actual flight hardware—writing test scripts, executing them on the hardware and helping to mechanically and electrically prepare the satellite for flight. Once it launched, I transitioned to the operations team and commanded the satellite as it began its journey to the moon. I really appreciated the I&T experience before moving to operations because I felt like it helped me to better understand how the hardware actually worked and apply that to my work in mission control.
The mission was a success which was super exciting. We had all signed the spacecraft before launch, so now I like to say that my name is resting on the surface of the moon. After LADEE, I decided it was time for a new adventure, so I left NASA Ames and started my next role in operations at Skybox. We were just getting ready to launch the first satellite (SkySat-A) when I joined.
You mentioned that your career thus far has been weird and great. What are some of the greatest, weirdest experiences that aerospace engineering has afforded you?
Well, first off, I’ve gotta mention the “Vomit comet.”
(laughs) That’s what people call it. Officially it’s NASA’s Zero Gravity Weightless Lab, where you get to experience what it’s like to be in space.
Passengers fly in a specially modified Boeing 727 plane with removed seats and padding down the sides and on the ceiling of the plane for safety. Student experiments are contained in plexiglass boxes and strapped to the floor (no hardware floating allowed) down the length of the plane. During the flight, pilots manually fly the plane through a series of 30 microgravity parabolas where the plane climbs from 24,000 feet to 34,000 feet at a 45 degree angle and then back down to 24,000 feet. Passengers experience 1.8Gs during the pull-up and 30 seconds of weightlessness during the arc. This change, coupled with looking out the window at a 45 degree horizon, can cause some people to, understandably, vomit. Hence the nickname, “Vomit Comet!” Actually, half of astronauts experience space sickness or “space adaptation syndrome” during their first few days at the International Space Station.
What was it like to experience zero gravity?
Weightlessness feels a lot like swimming in a pool, but without the water resistance. So, naturally, my instinct was to try and swim when I accidentally let go of the rope on the side of the plane. Swimming doesn’t get you anywhere and I almost ended up kicking someone! Luckily, a NASA engineer was nearby to push me back to the wall in time for the pilots to yell, “feet down, coming out,” to make sure everyone readied themselves for the transition back to 24,000 feet. You don’t want to be on top of an experiment or a person when it’s time to transition to 2Gs.
Once I got better at moving around in zero gravity, the NASA engineers let me try somersaults. I rolled up in a ball and they picked me up and spun me around in zero gravity. The flight ends with a few lunar and martian parabolas, so I also learned that I could do push-ups with someone on my back on Mars.
How did you get the chance to ride the Vomit Comet?
NASA has an outreach program for undergraduate students to design an experiment that has relevance for microgravity. We designed an experiment and wrote a proposal. When we were selected for the program, we spent the semester building and testing the experiment to get ready for the Vomit Comet flight.
That was a great experience and really convinced me that working in space was for me. We spent a week at NASA Johnson Space Center working with NASA engineers to complete safety reviews and integrate the experiment with the airplane prior to flight. It wasn’t all work, though! We also were able to tour the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where astronauts practice performing tasks in environments that mimic space, visit historic and current mission control centers, and even experience hypoxia in a hyperbaric chamber.
What advice would you offer to people who want to get into your line of work?
The best advice I can give is to get involved with interesting projects that help you stand out. Find a way to get a free ride on NASA’s Zero Gravity airplane. Find something you’re excited about and don’t be afraid to tackle the difficult stuff. School was hard for me, but I’m glad I stuck with the aerospace program and spent time at NASA. Operations is a great environment for me because every day is different and there’s always a new challenge to solve. Some days are definitely stressful, but I leave work feeling accomplished and am excited to come back the next day.