Tracy, let’s start at the beginning.  Where were you born?

Louisville, Kentucky.

What was your childhood like growing up?

I spent a fair amount of time playing outside like a normal kid when I was very young, but as a I got older I spent most of my free time curled up with a book. I also loved music; I took piano lessons and played the clarinet in the band at school. I was such a big nerd! But I loved it – I always had a few close friends who were also interested in the same nerdy things that I was, LOL. And luckily, I had a big brother who everyone knew would kill them if they bothered me, so I think that saved me from being too picked on in school.

Do you have any siblings?

Yes: 1 brother and 3 step-brothers (one of them lived with us for a while)

What did your parents do for a living?

Growing up, my Mom was a manager at McDonald’s. While I was in high school, she became an Optician at Dr. Bizer’s Vision World. My stepfather was a handyman.

You say your mom was a big influence on your life, particularly as it relates to the career you chose.

Yes indeed! She introduced me to the wonderful world of sci-fi (we watched lots of Star Trek and other TV shows and movies together) and science fact (she would always turn on the news to watch Space Shuttle launches, for example).

Why did you decide to become an engineer?

When I started thinking about what to do for a career, I decided that something related to Space could likely keep me interested and happy for many years. I considered studying Astronomy; but in the pre-internet days, I really just didn’t have a good idea of whether there were many jobs for astronomers out there, or if doing that meant eventually just teaching astronomy… I had the impression that engineering was more practical than Astronomy; that there were probably more engineers than scientists at NASA, so I’d have better odds of landing a job there. And I also thought that if finding a job in the space industry didn’t work out, a mechanical engineering degree would give me opportunities to work in all sorts of other industries, instead.

Why did you choose to work for NASA?

I saw NASA as having a mandate to explore our solar system and the universe as a whole… just the kind of thing that Star Trek was doing, only in real life! Albeit with less sophisticated technology – but I was intending to help with that, LOL. I definitely wanted to have a part in that grand adventure.

Your last assignment was the JUNO project.  Give us the highlights on that project.

 Juno is a mission studying our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. It was sent to collect the kind of data that would allow scientists to learn more about the details of Jupiter’s formation and evolution. It was launched in August 2011, and arrived at Jupiter on July 4th 2017 after a 5 year journey. Now that it is in orbit, it is using its suite of instruments to observe Jupiter’s gravity and magnetic fields, atmospheric dynamics and composition.

Tell us about the minutes leading up to the craft getting into orbit around Jupiter.

We had two Mission Control areas fully staffed that day; one at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA and one at Lockheed Martin in Denver, CO (LM was our spacecraft contractor for Juno). I went out to Denver to be with the LM team, along with a few other engineers from JPL.

Juno had to fire its main engine for 35 minutes to slow down enough to get captured into orbit around the planet. The minutes leading up to when that burn started were pretty tense… we were all elated when that happened on time. Then we settled down to a nail-biting wait to see if the burn continued successfully… but it turns out you can’t really sustain that level of excitement and nervousness for a really long time, LOL. Since we were broadcasting live, we spent much of that 35 minutes doing interviews with a some members of the team. When we got near the time when the burn had to stop, the tension started to build again. If it cut off too early or too late, we would have wound up in a different sized orbit than we had intended, and we would have our work cut out for us pulling out our contingency plans and deciding what next steps to take (and figuring out why that had happened in the first place). When the burn did cut off on time, then we all heaved a huge sigh of relief (it’s always nice when things go as planned!) and broke out the cheers and high fives.

 Jupiter is huge.  How big is it?

You’re right – it’s huge! You can fit 11 Earth’s across the middle of it. If Jupiter were a giant hollow glass globe, and you had some Earth-sized marbles, you could fit almost 1000 of them in there. If instead of marbles you had an Earth sized cup, you could pour about 1300 cups in (you can fit more in this way because there isn’t any space between them like there is with marbles).

What do you say to those who believe space exploration is a waste of time and money?

This may be somewhat subjective… but I think that humans need something that sparks a sense of wonder within them. Remember that sense of awe you got the first time you were in a dark enough place to look up at the night sky and actually see the Milky Way? I think close up images of beautiful, other-worldly sights like Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s stormy poles and craggy landscapes on Mars evoke that same kind of feeling. It’s a feeling that makes us fall a little bit in love with the cosmos, and adds richness to our lives. It’s hard to put a price on that.

A more practical perspective is that studying other worlds helps us learn more about our own planet. For instance, studying the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus can help us better understand our own climate. And there are so many technologies that are developed for space that become useful for people on Earth… folks can read all about those here:

Describe your leadership style.

I’d say my leadership style is very collaborative – I try to encourage team members to share their thoughts on potential options and work with them to hash flesh out details before making major decisions. Working here at the Jet Propulsion Lab (and also with our partnering commercial contractors), I have the luxury of being surrounded by pretty brilliant engineers and scientists all the time. I’ve found that the most effective way to take advantage of the expertise that these folks bring to the table is with this kind of collaborative approach.

What can we as lay people learn from our solar system?

One of the things lay people can learn is just how amazing nature can be… for instance, deep inside Jupiter, the hydrogen that the planet is mostly made from gets compressed into an electrically conductive fluid called “liquid metallic hydrogen.” Imagine: a planet-wide, deep ocean of such a fantastically exotic material… how cool is that? I think things like that stretch our mental horizons in ways that are hard to place a specific value on.

What was the most difficult professional decision you have ever had to make?

Probably making a recommendation to our Project Manager on a course of action for an issue that cropped up on Kepler shortly after launch. It all turned out fine (a temporary issue that resulted in no harm to the vehicle or instrument); but just due to the time frame, it was a bit of a pressure cooker situation for a few days.

 To date, what are you most proud of?  

Having played a part in the success of the Kepler mission. That mission has fundamentally changed our understanding of the number and nature of planets in our galaxy and the universe. Someone once said a hundred years from now, people will say that Kepler was the most influential mission of this century. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that turns out to be the case.

Define Success.

At work: contributing to the achievement of our mission goals

In life: finding ways to enjoy whatever I’m doing (life should be fun!), continually learning new things, being surrounded by people I love, and staying healthy.

 Please leave us with your favorite quote.

Carl Sagan: “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”


Tracy Drain has worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since completing her Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech in 2000. In her 17 years at JPL, she has participated in the development and operation of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (a science and relay orbiter at Mars), the Kepler mission (searching for Exoplanets) and the Juno mission to Jupiter. She was recently the Deputy Chief Engineer for Juno, which successfully arrived at Jupiter on July 4th, 2016. She is currently embarking on her next adventure as the Deputy Project Systems Engineer for the Psyche mission, slated to launch in 2022 to study the solar system’s largest known metal asteroid. Tracy is passionate about space exploration and loves taking every opportunity to encourage students to consider pursuing exciting careers in STEM fields.

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