What happens when an electronic engineering graduate gets to ask a NASA scientist for career advice?

Kevin Too, along with VU’s Associate Professor in Electronic and Sports Engineering Daniel Lai, jumped at the chance to ask a few curly industry questions of NASA engineer and VU PhD graduate Professor Adrian Stoica.

Professor Stoica and his team worked on the Mars rover.

Q&A with a NASA engineer

Do you have any advice for fresh graduates, or first year students?

Learn for the love of it, pursue the impossible, value relationships.

"My advice is to learn with the intent of understanding and solving problems, not for grades. Don't let others discourage you by saying something is impossible – it may have been impossible in the past, or impossible for them, but that does not make it impossible for you. Learn from the mistakes of others, avoiding repeating them yourself – that is why reading, from history to literature, is very important. 

Build friendships and partnerships for noble endeavours. Don't be afraid of challenging the status quo, but respect others even when trying a revolutionary solution."

What does NASA look for in an employee?

Visionaries, the best engineers, technologists and scientists with a creative spirit.

"NASA looks first for high skills in science, engineering and technology. These are essential for us at NASA as we are tasked to do things no one has done before.

Then, it looks for leadership and managerial abilities – those with both are in most demand, as they will guide others in missions to come. Even if one may not be a born leader, one must be able to work well in a team, since all our projects are a result of a joint effort.

Then there is the creative spirit. The innovative minds who will define where to go next in space. Those who change space exploration. Needless to say these people are rare."

What is the most interesting/unusual research project you worked on, or biggest technical challenge?

A Wind Robot in the atmosphere of Jupiter.

"The most interesting and unusual project was a study of a Wind Robot (Windobot) - a flyer that could remain for a long duration in the atmosphere of Jupiter. The atmosphere is composed of primarily light atoms of hydrogen and helium; the gravity is high; the solar illumination is low.

Imagine a bird that needs to fly at the thin upper atmosphere and gets no food, and needs to fly for one year, while attracted by the planet with a gravitational constant two-and-a-half times larger than on Earth. It made me learn a lot about flight and atmosphere of these gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn."

Was there anything that surprised you about working for NASA?

The importance of politics in space exploration.

"One thing, at a high level, is that I did not realise how dependent NASA is on US politics, as the alternation of government (between Republicans and Democrats) can lead to changes of direction. Some programs really require long-term consistency, for example human missions clearly do.

I was surprised we more or less abandoned the moon instead of intensifying our efforts to build bases there. From time to time we plan to go there and then once again change direction."

What are the key fields of engineering that NASA prioritises spending in?

Artificial intelligence leads the way.

"We will see more and more artificial intelligence and autonomous robotics, including operations with large fleets of autonomous spacecraft/robots.

For now, the key fields are:

  • space-science mission engineering and related remote-sensing instruments
  • design and operation of planetary probes, including the Mars rovers
  • mission operations
  • controlling the dozens of spacecraft in operation now
  • spacecraft autonomy
  • Deep Space communications
  • advanced propulsion
  • human flight."

When you finished your PhD, what were your thoughts on the future of artificial intelligence? Did things turn out as you predicted?

Progress has been slower than predicted; but the days of AI exceeding our own intelligence are close!

"I had thought in 20 years I would have my own humanoid robotics company. I thought AI would be common, and here we are 20 years later and it’s been slower than I thought.

I didn't underestimate the difficulties, but I overestimated the level of investments that would be made. Investors finance projects when they can get highest profits at minimum risks; it’s likely they saw more profitable enterprises and invested there. Now everyone is investing like crazy in self-driving cars, but it was not the same a decade ago.

Science fiction movies have often been even more ambitious in predictions. AI is coming for sure and we are close to the moment it will exceed the intelligence of a single person of today. I believe, however, that we will also symbiotically coexist with AI, and it will empower us, not overpower us."

What do you see for the future of autonomous robots in space exploration – what types of robots are NASA seeking? E.g. Mars rovers? Bipedal? Or multi-legged/limb?

As we diversify our destination we will see all kinds of robots. Kangaroos in space could be just around the corner!

"The rovers we design are those that best fit the mission requirements. If the mission is to traverse 2km in a special flat region and to last six months, then we will design the cheapest and most robust robot that can satisfy those requirements.

The case for bipedal has not been strongly made so far, so there are none. When they come, it may not be of human type biped locomotion, but may be more kangaroo-like jumping robots – or whatever fits the mission requirements. I agree with many that for rough, mountain type of rocky terrain a multi-limb will inherently do better than a wheeled robot. Inside a lunar base station, a biped would be probably the best shape, especially if it needs to closely interact with humans and uses human tools and environment.

What do you do during your free time? What are your hobbies?

Finding new ways to explore my professional passions; travelling and exploring new cultures.

"I have very little ‘free’ time since I always do something I am passionate about. I am involved in professional societies, especially Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society, where I am currently VP for membership and student activities. I organise conferences every year, I travel a lot, and like exploring new countries and cultures. I like to read and watch movies, outdoor activities, spend time with my wife, my family and friends.

I try to contribute to making the world a better place, aiming to do things that are worthwhile."

Read the full article about VU PhD graduate Professor Adrian Stoica’s journey to NASA and his plans for the future.


Writer: Jessica Jury

Adrian Stoica moved to the US to join NASA, after graduating from VU.

Electronic Engineering graduate Kevin Too jumped at the chance to quiz our NASA scientist