Joe Stehly

Project System Engineer, NASA’s Europa Clipper Mission - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)


Park Hill High School

Missouri University of Science & Technology

B.S. Mechanical Engineering

Missouri University of Science & Technology

M.S. Aerospace Engineering

As a boy, Joe Stehly got to see what he remembers as a spectacular nighttime rocket launch during a trip to Florida. His family also took him on a trip to Kennedy Space Center, and he still has the souvenir pencil from KSC. Joe credits that family trip with sparking his interest in space and science which led him to his current job working on NASA's Europa Clipper mission.

What first sparked your interest in space and science?

During summer vacation between my 3rd- and 4th-grade years in school, my family and I took a trip to Florida. While we were there, we watched the launch of a Delta II rocket that occurred at night. It was spectacular and is responsible for my interest in space exploration. We also visited Kennedy Space Center on that trip and I still have the pencil that my parents bought for me from the gift shop. I chose to never sharpen it when I was younger because it represented something important to me.

How did you end up working in the space program?

I competed on the track-and-field team for my college in the 400-meter dash and was scheduled to complete my undergraduate curriculum in December 2002. However, I still had one year of eligibility remaining, so I decided to get an aerospace engineering minor and push back my graduation date to the following spring. One of the classes that I took for my minor was an orbital mechanics class. I was hooked and decided that I should try to make a career out of space exploration. Luckily, JPL gave me that opportunity.

Tell us about your job. What do you do?

I am currently the Project System Engineer for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. My primary task is to oversee the entire verification and validation campaign, which is the test program that we run to ensure that the flight system, mission operations system – and everything in between – function as we designed, and that those systems allow us to achieve our mission objectives.

What's one piece of advice you would give to others interested in a similar career?

I think that it’s important to supplement classroom learning with hobbies and/or projects that enable you to refine your technical intuition. This can include building remote control vehicles, constructing websites, woodworking, or whatever. Space exploration projects require so many different skill sets that you would be surprised to learn how many different ways there are to contribute to a mission.

Who inspires you?

I find art, film, music, and athletics to all be very inspirational. Anytime I observe somebody creating or achieving through hard work, focus, and dedication I become motivated to push myself harder in whatever I am doing.

I'm also inspired by my kids. They are still little (11, 9, and 6), but it is always great to see them achieve their goals, and to also see how my wife is able to help guide them toward those goals.

Finally, teachers are very inspirational. I would not have the opportunities that I have today without the great teachers I had in the public schools that I attended. My mother was also a teacher, so I know how hard they work at their craft.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?

I've been fortunate enough to work on several flight projects. These include Deep Impact, Spitzer Space Telescope, Phoenix Mars Lander, and Mars Curiosity Rover (also called Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL). All of these projects have contributed to a better understanding of the solar system.

Now, I'm really lucky to be working on the Europa Clipper mission because I think that the Jovian moons will provide us the opportunity to explore bodies in our solar system that are unlike anything that we've ever seen before. Clipper is the next step in that journey.

What are some fun facts about yourself?

I spend a lot of time with my wife and kids doing a wide variety of family activities. We are season ticket holders for the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) and Angel City Football Club (ACFC, our new women's professional soccer team.) LAFC games are probably my favorite thing to do in Los Angeles right now. Having grown up in Kansas City, I still enjoy watching the Chiefs and Royals.

I have also dedicated a lot of time to photography, which is one of my favorite activities outside of work. My favorite genre to shoot is black-and-white urban landscapes. I recently completed a ten-course photography certificate program at UCLA Extension.

What is your favorite space image and why?

My favorite image is one taken by the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter's HiRISE instrument in 2008. It captured the Phoenix lander during entry, descent, and landing while it was still connected to its parachute. The crater in the background makes it a very impressive image.

Phoenix Lander and Crater
The Phoenix lander hangs from its parachute while descending to the Martian surface on May 25, 2008. - More about this image
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

A close second goes to the first image that we received from the surface of Mars shortly after Phoenix landed. It was great to see that image as it represented something that we had all worked several years to achieve.

Phoenix Lander First Images
This image, one of the first captured by Phoenix, shows the vast plains of the northern polar region of Mars. - More about this image
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.