Westmont Magazine Sending Space Signals
When the Mars Rover signaled its safe descent and landing, Kris Buckmaster ’02 and his co-workers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., were the first people to get the news.
“We saw the signal spike on the spectrum analyzer, and we knew the rover had landed on Mars and was pointing its antenna at Earth,” Kris recalls. “It was electric! We had waited so long to see it, and suddenly it was there. Everyone was on the edge of their seats — and then we were out of our seats.”
A critical events planning analyst, Kris works with the JPL group that coordinates the Deep Space Network (DSN), three communication complexes used to contact and track orbiters and other spacecraft. His responsibilities include configuring telecommunications systems on the ground to prevent communication lapses with vehicles in space.
When JPL temporarily lost contact with the rover, Kris quickly verified that the systems on the ground were operating correctly. Then he worked to make the resources of the DSN available to the engineers who eventually solved the problem.
“I have always been fascinated by space exploration,” Kris says. “I’m thrilled to be involved in some of the more successful space missions. I have supported six launches and numerous critical events, and all of them have been successful.”
Although he is young, Kris works with a partner who has more than 20 years of experience with the DSN. “He has the technical experience, but I have the computer skills, and we work together quite efficiently,” Kris explains. “We know our roles, and we play to our strengths. It’s been a great mentoring program for me — I learned so much in the first year. Every day was a new lesson. I am by far the youngest employee in my department; most of my co-workers have children who are older than I am.”
After working for a year in a manufacturing engineering position, Kris landed the job at JPL, where his sister works and his mother spent many years. “I grew up around JPL,” he explains.
Even with a major in engineering physics, Kris worried about getting an engineering job. “It’s hard to find engineering work when you have a degree from a liberal arts college,“ he explains. “But my ability to learn, to take on and apply new concepts is better than some of my colleagues who went to engineering schools. I can go in a lot more directions. I do several presentations a month to senior executives, and all the classes I took that required presentations have helped me so much.
“I loved the campus and the atmosphere at Westmont,” he adds. He served as a resident assistant and played club soccer during his student years.
Kris plans to marry Jamie Wagner ’02 in October. A biology major at Westmont, she did an internship at the City of Hope National Medical Center as a student and got a job there after graduation. She works in a clinical trials laboratory, and Kris says she loves what she does.
While he intends to stay at JPL, Kris is thinking about doing graduate work in electrical engineering with an emphasis in telecommunications. He’s ready for a new challenge.