JPL Mission Planning Specialist and ERAU Alumna Visits Campus

Sara Hatch discusses her journey and tips for hiring

A 2003 Embry-Riddle Prescott graduate and 14-year Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) employee, Sara Hatch has quite the journey to share with students and aspiring aerospace scientists. In an evening lecture on Sept. 19, 2019, Hatch candidly spoke about her career history to the captive audience of students, munching on Papa John’s, in AC1-107.

Hatch introduced herself by explaining her convoluted path to becoming a Mission Planning specialist, which started with her early aspirations to become a pilot. “I was 17, doing my first solo flight, and I thought, ‘This is super cool.’ I asked my ground school instructor, ‘Where should I go to be a pilot?’ and he said ‘Embry-Riddle is the best school you could go to,’” said Hatch.

After realizing the pilot career was not for her, but having decided on Embry-Riddle, Hatch tried Aerospace Engineering on for size, and found her passion in the Space Mechanics class taught by Dr. Ron Madler, now Dean of the College of Engineering. “We talked about space debris, we talked about plane changes, getting to other planets, gravity assists,” according to Hatch, who felt inspired to apply for the NASA Academy and visited many of the major sites during the program.

Settling on JPL was an obvious choice for Hatch, though the orbital mechanics market was more limited 14 years ago, considering the recent emergence of private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. “There were really just NASA centers,” she recounts. After a 2-year stint in Boston for her MIT Masters Degree, Hatch started her first JPL job in 2005, which was in Concept Studies. “I got hired into the Inner Planet Mission Analysis group,” she said.

“Mission Analysis is all of the trajectories, all of the geometries, and all of the analysis you probably learn in your space mechanics class,” she remarked. “It’s also providing all that information to every single other individual on the project. If you’re going into space, you need Mission Analysis.” Her 14-year tenure in Mission Analysis is a testament to how much she enjoyed the work and the group’s wide sphere of influence.

In that time, Hatch worked on several projects, ranging from the earliest to the latest stages of missions. “There was a lunar sample return [concept study] idea that never quite got off the ground, an asteroid sample return, a Mars astrobiology laboratory, an infrared telescope behind the Moon,” she says of the early projects that never came to fruition. 

As far as projects that did make it off the ground, or will soon, Hatch had her hands in JUNO, GRAIL, Phoenix, MSL, SMAP, SWOT, and NISAR. Her pet project was GRAIL, the first formation flying of two spacecraft around a non-Earth body, which she worked on since conception. “I literally worked on it until we smashed those little babies into the moon, on purpose,” she said.

Just two months ago, Hatch was promoted to Supervisor of the Mission Planning Group. “Now instead of dealing with planets I’m dealing with people,” she says of the new role, which includes tasks like monitoring time cards and expense reports, but also has a major influence on the trajectory of the careers of her employees, both new and experienced. 

Now, Hatch has the power to hire interns and employees, and she offered a few tips for aspiring interns, especially those looking at JPL. First, all resumes look the same, so students are well-advised to set themselves apart by directly stating what they want to do. Then, follow that up by showing off experience that shows initiative and passion for that field.

Secondly, internship candidates should be prepared for a phone interview. Although Hatch acknowledges that phone interviews are often awkward, students can ease the tension by conveying their ability to communicate well, which is equally as important as technical skills. According to Hatch, knowing your strengths, whether by taking a personality test or just practicing self-awareness, will take you a long way.

Hatch welcomes students questions and connections at [].

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