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Pictures of the Planets Led to Career in Space Engineering
Department of Defense | Feb. 21, 2022
In her youth, Dr. Lindsay Millard was fascinated by the photos she saw in Astronomy Magazine. At the time, she thought the best way to capture similar images was to pursue a career in photography. But soon, she discovered that merely pressing a shutter was not going to be enough.
"I learned that there's an incredible amount of engineering, hardware and software that goes into getting those images," Millard said. "That's why I initially decided to become an engineer with a focus on astrodynamics. By the end of graduate school, my passion was understanding how we could better image the Earth, and other planets."
Today, Millard serves as the Defense Department's principal director for space and oversees efforts by the department to make better use of space for the nation's defense. A top priority there, she said, is to create a strong commercial market for space products.
"We want to create and enable a commercial ecosystem between the Earth and beyond the moon, supporting industry, venture capital, startups and everything in between." she said.
Focuses will include, among other things, artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomy, she said, along with computing "at the edge."
At-the-edge computing, she said, is how those who are in space — and those in the field, far from reliable connectivity — will have access to the powerful computing they will need when communications are hampered by remoteness and distance-related delays.
"In space, like Special Forces deployed to a place without connectivity, there isn't necessarily reach-back or timely reach-back to computing resources normally available," she said.
Instead, computing at the edge means satellites and service members will need to take that kind of computing power along with them.
"In remote areas, a small device can be enabled to perform work required with minimal reach back to big compute," she said. "That's what we're looking at in space; if we support infrastructure near the moon, or operate a satellite beyond the moon, or even in geosynchronous orbit, what is the best way to develop models on the ground that can enable edge compute applications far away and disconnected from the rest of the world? What are those applications, and can they be updated? How can multiple satellite work together?"
Also, on the DOD's space efforts agenda is aiming to partner with NASA, among others, to once again explore cislunar space, Millard said.
"One significant milestone is understanding how we might assist NASA (and NASA's commercial partners) in the Artemis program," she said. "This will include understanding how the Department of Defense should use cislunar space. Due to the vast volume of cislunar space, space domain awareness is an incredibly challenging problem, not only from an orbital dynamics perspective but also from a sensing perspective."
It will be scientists and engineers who advance the Defense Department's efforts in space and elsewhere. The department has more than 100,000 engineers, and in advance of Engineer Week — which runs Feb. 20-26, Millard pointed out just how important engineers are to the DOD mission.
"The Department of Defense, along with our civil, commercial, and foreign partners, is pushing the envelope on key technologies needed for space," she said. "We at DOD are leading many of those efforts. We're supporting companies, laboratories, federally funded research and development centers, and many others to be at the very cutting edge."
The department has a lot of engineers in its ranks — both civilian and in uniform. But the department can use more. And Millard said there's reason for new engineers to choose DOD.
"The breadth and depth of what an engineer is exposed to and learns in DOD is different than the private sector," she said. "Working for the Department of Defense offers a broader picture, likely across classified and unclassified programs, across agencies and companies, across different proprietary technology, that is not immediately available as an employee in industry. Additionally, there is the opportunity to be put in charge of proposing ideas and managing those ideas as programs with the full backing of the DOD, including funding," she said.
While working at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Millard experienced just that kind of empowerment as an engineer.
"I had the opportunity to propose several ideas I was passionate about at DARPA," she said. "DARPA, DOD, and Service partners funded many of those ideas to program completion. DARPA provided an avenue for 'high risk, high reward' technology advancement, accepting 'failure as an option.' This is an incredibly empowering environment to push technology advancement beyond what is currently considered possible."
When most Americans think of the nation's defense, they think of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and now defenders. But all systems used by service members in defending the nation, to include fighter jets, stealth aircraft, the global positioning system, combat vehicles, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles, and the satellites that will move into cislunar space, are designed by engineers, with the hope of supporting those service people as well as the world.
"There are many things I'd like to tell the American public about what engineers are doing for the Department of Defense," she said. "In many ways, they're unsung heroes because so much of what they do is unacknowledged. DOD engineers, physicists, and mathematicians are dedicated civil servants and military persons who have the opportunity to work on the leading edge of technology to enable inspiring missions and, in many cases, interesting and unexplored technology."