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Nikunj Patel


Flight Director, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory


UCF Degrees in Aerospace Engineering


Describe your job and responsibilities.

I am one of the Flight Directors for Mars Science Laboratory Rover which is currently operating on Mars. My job is in the field of systems engineering so I wear a lot of hats, which changes based on my shifts. On days when I am working as the Flight Director, I am responsible for leading the mission floor in assessing the rover’s progress and health status. Various teams report their assessment back to me and I make the decisions regarding mission’s engineering ability. I also work with the science team in planning next day’s mission.

On days when I am mobility and mechanism chair, I work under the flight director of that day and focus on assessment of the driving and mechanism of the rover. I also work in developing and testing new capabilities for the rover.

What do you enjoy the most about this role?

I enjoy every aspect of my job as it is one of the most unique opportunities in the field, but my favorite aspect would be driving in Mars Yard. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a Mars-simulated terrain called the Mars Yard. In addition to that, we also have a replica of the curiosity rover here on Earth, called MAGGIE. MAGGIE is used for various testing purposes and anomaly diagnostics. So there are numerous times when I am driving MAGGIE in the Mars Yard and testing different aspects of the mobility.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

My father grew up in the slums of India and my mother started working day wage jobs at the age of 16. I grew up in a middle class Indian family whose priority was to spend all they have on the education of the kids. I travelled to the states by myself at the age of 18 and overcame various financial hardships to complete my degree. I was also lucky enough to fight a fatal lung tumor disease that took 4 years of my life and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which still persists at some level. Hence, my proudest accomplishment would be fighting through all my hurdles and leading myself to achieving my dream job at NASA-JPL.

What are your future professional aspirations?

My goal is to become a Flight Director for a manned mission to Mars. I believe that achieving Earth independence is the next step forward in evolution. Humanity thrives due to its ability to evolve and the drive of gaining knowledge. Hence, I want to be at the forefront of that evolution and aid our society in becoming a multiplanetary species.

How did UCF prepare you for your career?

UCF is a hidden gem in the field of aerospace. Compared to few named universities, UCF does not get enough credit in terms of the education it provides for aerospace field. There are numerous multi-scale projects going around in different parts of the campus. From creating and launching cube-satellites to space, to manufacturing algorithm for multi degree of freedom space maneuvering, UCF is a space pioneering university. As a student, I was able to get involved with multiple such projects and learn beyond the required curriculum for my degree. UCF also has numerous engineering student organizations that aid students in gaining hands on experience with number of competitions and such. Getting involved in these organizations also gave me the experience of being the field even before I graduated.

What advice do you have for students?

My advice to each student would be to get involved on campus. It cannot be emphasized enough in terms of the importance it has. Doing well in your courses and school projects is important but it is also important to gain experience outside the classroom. Being involved with student organizations or volunteering for a professor’s research work will give one the exposure to things that they might not learn through classroom. Hiring managers focus on the projects one gets involved in and the leadership opportunities they have worked on. So my advice would be to get outside the classroom and get involved, work on student competitions, research projects, internships and such.