Suzanne “Suzy” Dodd

Project Manager - Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Where are you from?

I grew up in a town called Gig Harbor, Wash. until I went to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Whitman College has a 3-2 engineering program with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. After three years at Whitman I transferred to Caltech. I received a B.A. in mathematics from Whitman and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Caltech. I have lived in Pasadena ever since.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.

When I was in the second grade our class would stop work and watch the various Apollo program landings. I particularly remember the Apollo capsule splashdowns with the frogmen jumping out of the helicopters to rescue the astronauts who had splashed down in the middle of the ocean. I remember being excited about this capsule because it had been in outer space. I thought all of this was cool and fascinating.

How did you end up working in the space program?

When I graduated from Caltech I had a few different job offers and I decided to take the one at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that was going to let me work on the Voyager 1 mission. (I was a sequence design engineer for Voyager.) At the time, Voyager was going to Uranus, and I thought: "No other spacecraft I know of is going to go to Uranus anytime soon -- this is a once in a lifetime opportunity." Nothing else was going to go to Uranus and so far nothing else has gone to Uranus!

Who inspired you?

I had two high school teachers -- math and physics -- who were really inspiring. My math teacher had daughters and he liked to promote that girls could do engineering and science activities. My physics teacher was young and energetic and we did a lot of fun experiments. I particularly remember using the classical mechanics equation to measure how far a Hot Wheels car would jump out and over if you dropped it from a specific height. It's fun when you do physics experiments.

What is a Project Manager?

I am the project manager for the Voyager Interstellar mission, and I am also the project manager for the Spitzer Space Telescope. These two are unrelated projects, although they are both well into their lifetimes as missions; both are in their extended missions. I am responsible for managing these two projects, making sure that each meets its schedule, that we follow the processes we have established and that we take as much science data as we can without adding risk to the mission. I am also responsible for making sure the activities happen within the budget. I travel to Washington D.C. two to three times each year to do the budget negotiations with NASA headquarters. When I go, I can cover both of my projects with one trip. I typically also take one science trip for each project. For example, I just got back from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting -- that is where Voyager announces its science results. The American Astronomical Society meeting is where Spitzer announces its science results.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.

The Voyager Uranus and Neptune encounters each hold favorite moments for me, especially the Neptune flyby. For this flyby I was responsible for commanding the closest approach sequence. That was a special moment for me in my career because I can look back at it and say I did it and it worked and look at all of this great data we got back. Before Voyager 2 we didn't have very good quality images of Uranus or Neptune, but every time we got closer and closer to those planets we always saw something new. And that is always exciting. That is why you get into this business -- to be able to do something new and exciting.

Launches are always fun. I worked on Cassini and Spitzer during their launches. Seeing all that hard work pay off and get off the ground is always exciting, too.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?

One of the things that I always tell, particularly high school students, is that you need to have a good background in math and science, but you will not be able to get very far in your career if you cannot communicate your ideas. So, you need to pay attention to your English classes and to your history classes. You may be a super smart mathematician or computer programmer, but if you cannot sell your ideas to the person who is going to fund them or convince them that what it is you propose is the way to go then you are not going to get very far. You need to have communication skills, and I think some of that can be learned through English writing and speaking classes. An appreciation for history is important so that you can gain perspective on how the past effects the present and the future.

What do you do for fun?

I am an avid Masters swimmer. I swim 4 times a week in the evenings for a couple miles at a time. I do an occasional swim meet or an ocean swim, but not as much as I used to do.

I like to go on trips with my family. We've done a lot of interesting traveling. We have been to Iceland and Panama, as well as many car camping trips to places in such states as Utah and Arizona. I like being outdoors.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?

You can never have too much math. Math is going to be the basis for all the science and engineering that you will have to do in the future. I also would suggest taking a programming class in a modern programming language. You almost cannot get away without doing some amount of programming.

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Where are they from?

Planetary science is a global profession.