A portfolio that’s out of this world | MIT News

At the age of 9, Ezinne Uzo-Okoro SM ’20, PhD ’22 was preoccupied with down-to-earth problems, such as developing an alternative to her father’s messy paper Filofax organizer and fixing the unreliable electricity supply that plagued her home in Owerri, Nigeria. Could she have envisioned a groundbreaking 17-year career at NASA, followed by a position as the nation’s space policy expert?

“Absolutely not,” says Uzo-Okoro. “I knew nothing about space – I wanted to be an inventor.”

Though she didn’t start out as a stargazer, Uzo-Okoro used her curiosity, connections, insatiable hunger for work, and impatience with obstacles on a journey that brought her to the center of space exploration and now one of the nation’s foremost science and technology posts as associate director for Space Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She began her career at NASA in 2004, where she spent the next 17 years building her expertise in space engineering systems and management. Along the way, she earned three master’s degrees: one in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University, one in space robotics from MIT Media Lab; and one in public administration at Harvard University. Then, in 2022, Uzo-Okoro became the first, and so far only, black woman to earn a PhD in aerospace from MIT.

In 2021, Uzo-Okoro assumed her current position, where she set the nation’s priorities in space – a sprawling portfolio. On a given day, she has to deal with the increasing proliferation and threat of space debris, human and robotic space missions, monitoring of Earth’s climate and space weather, or the decommissioning of the International Space Station in seven years. It’s a kaleidoscopic enterprise, fueled by innovation that benefits society and the global economy, and one that suits Uzo-Okoro. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says.

factories in orbit

In April 2022, after Uzo-Okoro convened experts from federal departments and agencies, the White House released a national space policy that addressed an area of ​​growing interest: the use of technology, including robots, to manufacture and assemble things in space Space.

Uzo-Okoro responds to the increasing demand from commercial, scientific and security organizations for satellites that can be quickly and inexpensively customized or manufactured. It takes months to design and construct space hardware on the ground, and even longer to ensure the technology will survive a bone-shattering rocket flight into space.

Establishing orbital factories could drastically reduce the development time and cost of satellites with the ability to detect and monitor natural or man-made disasters. The orbiting facilities would build infrastructure for major manufacturing capabilities in space, whether for research outposts and habitats on the moon, asteroid mining projects, or missions to Mars. For all of these reasons, “we need to master maintenance, assembly and manufacturing in space,” says Uzo-Okoro.

Uzo-Okoro first started thinking about the question of space-based manufacturing after years of developing small and large spacecraft with NASA. She negotiated time off from the agency to work on the problem — a move inspired by Kerri Cahoy, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering (AeroAstro), who envisioned producing spacecraft this way , as if they were commodities like cars. When Uzo-Okoro landed at MIT and started pursuing this idea, Cahoy advised her to study for a master’s and doctorate.

“Ezinne had this vision of creating a kind of automated factory in orbit, similar to those on Earth that use robots to put things together,” says Cahoy. “Their approach was, ‘Let’s imagine the future in space, where we build important technologies, and let’s figure out the best way to do that.'”

For her master’s and doctoral research, Uzo-Okoro says she was basically “trying to invent the equivalent of an Amazon locker in space” — essentially an orbiting spacecraft that resembles a small refrigerator full of parts, with robotic arms, um to place the parts together. “In the locker are components for a small satellite like cameras and spectrometers, and the robot grabs and assembles what you need instead of creating and assembling it on Earth and then launching it.”

Uzo-Okoro has recreated multiple versions of this robotic space locker, starting on a lab workbench and ending with microgravity testing on zero-g flights. “Ezinne came up with the concept, assembled a team to test it on a relatively limited budget, and overcame several challenges to bring it to life—something she’s become very good at in her lifetime,” says Cahoy.

Today, a new generation of student researchers plan to take the idea to the next level with an improved and larger locker design. “My work proved that we can assemble a robot autonomously instead of through human assembly,” says Uzo-Okoro. “The next step is to actually launch one of these systems into space.”

A sequence of missions

Through her academic and aerospace careers, Uzo-Okoro became the inventor of her childhood ambitions. When she left Nigeria to study computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), she sought “the future of technology, where you can literally create anything by learning how to code.” This was her first contact with NASA an RPI job fair. “They told me that they only contact people and they didn’t take CVs, and I told them that there was no point at all when there was a 30-minute line of talented engineers just waiting to be hired,” she laughs.

This moment served as the launch for Uzo-Okoro. After graduating, she was hired by the Goddard Space Flight Center, and on her first day, July 12, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft was launched into orbit around Saturn. On her first assignment, Uzo-Okoro wrote algorithms to help mission physicists identify methane, hydrogen, and nitrogen signals in the data coming home. At NASA, she worked on a number of missions (earth observation, astrophysics, exoplanet detection, and neutron star interior composition) that forced her to innovate at every turn.

“I felt like a kid in a candy store because no matter what I did at NASA, there was always someone who knew more and could teach me something,” she says. “Once I realized I wanted to be the engineer in charge of a mission, I began to educate myself on all parts of spacecraft design and mission execution.” She studied mechanical and electrical engineering and began designing and directing entire missions. At NASA, Uzo-Okoro managed a mission design center for small spacecraft and was program manager for the Heliophysics Division.

Uzo-Okoro has not navigated her unique career without obstacles. Being “first” and “only” has left its mark. “You’re not giving yourself a hard time working 40 hours a week, are you?” she notes. She agonized over raising a family—which she eventually did while pursuing her PhD at MIT.

But how did she not only survive but thrive as a black woman in the mostly white, mostly male aerospace world? “I’ve decided that if you’re brimming with ideas, especially when others are getting in your way, you should seek help.” house directs. “It’s not important to be ‘first’ or ‘only,'” she says. “The value each of us brings is results.”

Uzo-Okoro understands the responsibility of being a role model and enjoys leading by example. “When people try something because I made it, that’s great,” she says. “I just always put one foot in front of the other and encourage everyone else to do the same.”


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