Wallops' Caitlin Burth Works Projects from the Stratosphere to Space

NASA. Elizabeth M. Jarrell

2021/02/03 | 1428 words | AEROCONTACT | SPACE
Wallops' Caitlin Burth Works Projects from the Stratosphere to Space © Burth at her desk at the Wallops Flight Facility. Lindsey Seo

Name: Caitlin Burth
Formal Job Classification: Aerospace Engineer
Organization: Code 548, Mechanical Systems Branch, Wallops Flight Facility (WFF)

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

The best part about working at Goddard and Wallops is that I get to do a little bit of everything! The turnover time is short for much of our work, so I’ve had the opportunity to work on every suborbital platform that Wallops supports. Those platforms include: balloons, aircraft, sounding rockets, small satellites, and CubeSat projects and proposals. And my work on these projects span the entire engineering life cycle, not just design or analysis. I love being able to have a hand in every single aspect of a project.

So far in my career with Goddard and Wallops: I’ve directly tested and flight-qualified equipment for two major satellites and one CubeSat, I have designed and launched a balloon pointing system on two balloon flights, and I’ve designed hardware that flew on an aircraft mission. So I have hardware that has flown in the troposphere, stratosphere, and beyond into space!

What is an example of when you worked on the entire life cycle of a project?

For the 5.5K rotator system, I was in charge of the research, design, analysis, manufacture, test, build, and launch of the system on a balloon mission. The 5.5K rotator is a coarse azimuth pointing system, which uses angular measurements to rotate and direct a balloon gondola carrying scientific instruments. This allows  scientists to position their instrument towards a target in the sky. Usually they either want to look toward or away from the Sun.

What other projects have you worked on at Wallops?

I am currently working on redesigning the Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) to reduce its weight, to allow scientist to have more mass for their instruments in flight. WASP is a fine pointing system that directs balloon instruments in the pitch and yaw directions. WASP is often used along with a rotator to help fine-tune the direction of an instrument mounted on a balloon gondola. I’ve also helped mount different cameras for various Earth science projects on an aircraft mission, called CAMP2Ex. I’ve helped with the design of a reaction wheel pointing system for sounding rocket missions. And I’ve participated in numerous proposal studies through Wallops’ Mission Planning Lab (MPL). In the MPL, a group of engineers of every discipline meets for just one week to determine the feasibility of a proposed mission.

During my first three years in the Mechanical Systems Branch, I was the lead for our 3D printer. We actually print flight hardware for balloon, aircraft, sounding rocket, and CubeSat missions. For example, all of the brackets for the electronics and sun sensors in the 5.5K rotator are made from ABS plastic. We use 3D printing for both prototypes and flight hardware, but it’s awesome to move beyond a prototype and actually see 3D printing used in flight.

What is your educational background?

I have a bachelor’s degree with honors in mechanical engineering from Penn State – University Park and Schreyer’s Honors College. “WE ARE!”

How did you come to work at Wallops?

In high school I was part of an online NASA learning community, called NASA INSPIRE, which allowed me to earn my first internship at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2011. I continued to intern at Goddard the following summer, again after senior year of high school and through college. My sophomore year of college, I was accepted into the Pathways Program, which allowed me to become a civil servant while in college. After junior year of college, I began working at Wallops; which is where I completed my second and last Pathways rotation. Once I graduated from Penn State in 2016, I converted to a full-time employee at Wallops.

When I was interviewed for the Pathways position, the interviewer asked me to describe my favorite engineering project. I told them all about the egg collection system I made for my father’s chickens while a college freshman. One of the interviewers later told me that they were thrilled that I grew up in and already enjoyed living in a rural area. They knew I would fit right in with the Wallops way of life.

What do you enjoy most about working at Wallops? What inspires you?

What inspires me most about working at Wallops is being able to see launches all throughout the year. Between the graceful launch of a balloon and the thrill of a rocket launch, they are always a great reminder of why our work is important. You can get lost sometimes in the importance of the design or analysis, sitting at a computer majority of the time. But at the end of the day, what we work on goes into space. Seeing launches reminds me of how incredibly awesome it is to work with a team to achieve our collective dream, and launches remind me of what incredible science will come from our work.

Do you have a famous engineer that inspires you?

I have always loved Rube Goldberg! He was an artist and an inventor, but was mainly known for his comics. His cartoons were famous for designing very complex machines to do one simple task. In college, I was in the Engineering Leadership Society that built Rube Goldberg machines for a competition each year, in 2014 we won first place and People’s Choice Award at Penn State for making a machine that zipped a zipper using 20-plus steps.

In school, I was trained to design machines as simple as possible. Rube Goldberg did the exact opposite, but I really appreciate his philosophy because it challenges you to really think outside the box and come up with innovative and unconventional solutions to a problem.

Please tell us about the some of the clubs you are in at Wallops?

I’m involved with the 540 Division Book Club, Goddard/Wallops New and Developing Professionals Advisory Committee, and Women of Wallops. The book club meets once a month to discuss either a leadership or engineering focused book that we all read. The New and Developing Professionals group offers both professional skill building and social events throughout the year. Women of Wallops has various social events too, including baking contests and potlucks. I tied for second place at the last fall bake off, so next time I’m going for gold!

I also started a social group outside of work, called the Wallops Young Professionals.

These groups bring camaraderie and a sense of community to new employees at Wallops. They help younger professionals come together to make lasting friendships when starting out at a new job.

What is the most important advice you learned from your mentor?

I have had many mentors over the years. My favorite piece of advice is that at NASA, we are here to rewrite textbooks. I keep this in the back of my mind every day; that our work is for a greater purpose.

What are your hobbies?

I like to read, dance, garden, and most of all I love to cook – because I love to eat! Recently I’ve taken on the challenge of not only vegan cooking (my husband and best friend are vegans), but also vegan baking. My best friend is getting married soon and she asked me to make her wedding cake (single tier with three layers) and 96 individual cupcakes. For the wedding cake and half of the cupcakes, they will be peach schnapps and vanilla cake, with peach schnapps icing. The other half of the cupcakes will be chocolate with a peanut butter frosting. I have always loved baking, and baking for others makes it even more rewarding!

Also, my husband and I bought a house in 2019 that came with some raised beds in the yard. We used them to plant an herb garden, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, and other vegetables. Since we wanted to enjoy the fruits of our labor, we got into pickling too. We really like to make things from scratch, and it is super satisfying cooking with vegetables and herbs we grew ourselves!

We also love spending all our free time with our three kittens – Apollo, Viking, and Gemini!

What is your “six-word memoir”? A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

Passionate about space, food, and family!

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