Rice University ECE graduates have been known to make significant contributions in a variety of fields, redefining the limits of what it means to be an electrical or computer engineer. We invite you to get to know our community and read about fellow Owls who share the Rice experience and can offer a viewpoint into the multitude of career options one can pursue “beyond the hedges,” be it in industry, academia, non profit or startups. This month the spotlight falls on Monica Visinsky, a BS, MS and PhD graduate of Rice. She works for Oceaneering Space Systems, and reflects on her career, her work in the space industry, and offers her advice to students.
BS EE 90
MS EE 92
PhD EE 94
Oceaneering Space Systems/NASA
Tell us about yourself.
I was actually born in Houston, but my dad was Air Force, so we moved around quite a bit. I was in Colorado in High School and actually chose Rice because my dad had been there for grad school - I was on the Rice campus the day before I was born! It’s a small school with a really good engineering program and it was near family.
I like to ski. I also enjoy scuba diving, but I don’t do it as much anymore. I also like to read and play games with friends.
Tell us about your current position and what you do at NASA.
I am designated as a Senior Engineer at Oceaneering Space Systems. I support Space Station robotics. That involves reviewing designs of new payloads or ORUs (orbital replaceable units). These are boxes on the outside of the Space Station – batteries, switches, experiments, and such. We evaluate the ORUs and payloads for compatibility with the dexterous robot (Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator - SPDM or Dextre). The dexterous robot is the maintenance robot for these boxes and also deploys payloads from the cargo vehicles to the Space Station.
I also support on console when the robots are being operated on-orbit. The one scene in the Apollo 13 movie where they dump the parts out and say ‘make this round filter match this square hole’ represents the group I support for Space Station. It’s the Mission Engineering Room. We follow along with operations as the Flight Control Team sends commands to the robots and make sure things are going smoothly.
Oceaneering Space Systems is a subcontractor with NASA. Oceaneering International manufactures underwater robotics and underwater vehicles for the oil industry. Oceaneering Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) recovered the Liberty Bell 7 capsule (sunk after returning to earth during the Mercury missions). They also supported one of the Titanic explorations, but they also do things like lay pipe and check underwater wells. About 25 years ago they thought about the fact that an underwater environment is harsh and remote and different pressure, and they realized it was very similar to outer space – harsh and remote. They felt like they could contribute to the space industry and Oceaneering Space Systems was born.
What is the Space-X 4 mission that you support?
It brings up both internal and external cargo – and mousenauts! (They actually had a cargo of mice on this one.) The SpaceX vehicle has an external trunk that the robot can reach into and remove cargo. A payload called Rapid Scat (for Scatterometer) was on this flight, in two pieces. Thee dexterous robot pulled the two pieces out of the trunk and assembled them onto the Space Station so the payload can conduct its experiments.
The robots are command driven and a lot of the commanding is done from the ground. The Flight Control team sends commands to the robot to move into the next position, open and close grippers, extend or rotate the socket, turn on the lights, etc. We don’t use hand controllers on the ground because of the delay and because of dropouts in telemetry.
How did you come to work in the space industry?
I have wanted to be in the space industry since I was in the 7th grade. Before that I wanted to be a math teacher. We were living in Belgium at the time and the shuttle was coming into its own at that point. I really got interested in the thought of being an astronaut – I have actually applied a bunch of times. It’s one of the reasons I chose engineering – it’s a good basis for becoming an astronaut.
When I graduated with my undergrad degree in 1990 NASA was in a hiring freeze, so I went back to school. Four years later NASA still wasn’t hiring so I actually went to work for Dowell Schlumberger in Tulsa. I had to convince them that my Ph.D. degree in robotics didn’t overly specialize me. Obviously with a Ph.D. you are focused on that topic, but you also learn how to research and you learn a wide spectrum of information about that field. I had to convince them I wasn’t too specialized because they were not interested in robotics. I used more of my computer education in that job.
Dowell Schlumberger is a French-based company and they had a couple of people that actually worked in Tulsa with us who were French. One of the guys was returning from a visit to Spain and was sitting next to someone who worked at Oceaneering and who mentioned that Oceaneering was hiring. My coworker brought me back their card. I called and they remembered me from when I had been looking for a job in 1994. They hired me and I’ve been with them ever since. That was 18.5 years ago.
What has been most rewarding about your career?
I really enjoy doing the space station work. I didn’t necessarily build anything that went on space station myself, but just being able to watch Space Station being built over the past 18.5 years, getting that dexterous robot up there, watching the operations, and resolving the issues has been almost like play. I have fun with it.
We are officially at Assembly Complete on Space Station which means, in essence, that all of the main modules are on orbit and assembled. There are, however, things that keep getting added or moved around, and they do have plans to restructure it a little bit. There is a “module” going up called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. Bigelow is an entrepreneur who wants to design an inflatable structure in space that would be a hotel, so he is sending up this module that will be inflated and installed on Space Station as a test. Space Station is a great test facility for these kinds of things.
We’ve gotten into the science phase for Space Station. The astronauts are responsible for all the science experiments. There are procedures that get provided to them, and they follow those procedures to monitor what is going on with the different experiments. They have to be jacks-of-all-trades because some of the experiments are on themselves – they have to draw blood, inject things, and also run the experiments that they are tasked to do. Some of them are trained in robotics, so they use the large arm - the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) - to actually capture some of these vehicles that go up into orbit like Space X and then berth them on the space station. The on-orbit crew does the capture because that is a time critical event, and it’s easier for the crew to react to failures and problems in a quick manner. Then the ground takes over and installs the vehicle onto the Space Station.
What is an example of a tough decision you’ve had to make?
The toughest decision I had to make was to go work for Schlumberger in Tulsa. It moved me away from NASA. There is no NASA facility there, it was not space industry, and it was someplace I had never been. I had lived in a bunch of places, but always with my family. I chose Rice partially because I had family here, as well as the reputation of Rice and proximity to NASA, so it was a big step moving away. I got a lot out of taking that step. I was only there 1.5 years, but I learned quite a bit about the oil industry. It was also seeing that different culture than what I am in now with NASA being a government agency with very limited budgets.
I really wanted to be in the space industry. To me, it’s just more interesting and rewarding. I am a science-fiction geek, so being able to see this in action and see the reality of it is always fun.
What memories from Rice really stand out?
I was in the MOB for 13 years – and you’ll note that I was only at Rice for 8. I still lurk but it’s too hard to come in and be there for practice. I really enjoyed that. The thing about Rice is the variety that you have – it wasn’t strictly an engineering school, I wasn’t stuck with engineers the entire time I was there. My college roommate and still best friend was actually a medieval historian. It was that variety and the experiences that you can get out of Rice that made it so special. Being in the MOB, being at Lovett doing the Casino Night, having them build a huge sphinx to walk through for the Death on the Nile theme or the giant pirate ship that was crashed against the sixth floor of Lovett for another Casino Night.
What advice would you give to Rice students based on your experiences?
I think I would encourage them to really get as much of the experience as they can out of Rice. Try all the different things available in terms of the extracurricular activities that really interest them. Branch out from their majors to experience different things and people. I think if they have an opportunity to do any sort of internship or study abroad, I would encourage that as well. Getting that experience of what it’s like in the real world is always nice.
Who has been the most influential in your development?
At Rice it was my advisors. I had Ian Walker, who has since left Rice unfortunately, and Joe Cavallaro. They were amazingly supportive. They always put my name first on any paper that I wrote which always amazed me. My last name is Visinsky, so alphabetically I’m usually last. For my friend who went to grad school over at the medical center, it was always like a battle, a competition to see who would be first on the list of names for a paper. You had more prestige if you were first. Even when I put my name last, my advisors would always tell me to put my name first. They were very supportive and encouraging and it gave me more confidence both in presenting papers in grad school and in my later work life.
We welcome suggestions of alumni to profile. Please email name, class year and a brief introduction to the individual to Jennifer Hunter or call her at (713) 348-4212.