• Todd Brown, Guidance and Control Engineer

    "The analytical approaches that I apply to my work assignments at NASA are the same as those I originally honed in the Physics Department at Luther."

Todd Brown '06

Good Prep for His Career

After graduating from Luther, Todd studied orbital mechanics at Purdue University. He wrote his master’s thesis on the design of complicated spacecraft trajectories that allowed gravity-assisted flybys of many planets and moons.

Shortly after, he was a summer intern at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland. “This is where I did my first serious work in guidance and control for the Radiation Belt Storm Probes spacecraft the APL was building,” he says. “My master’s degree and APL intern experience gave me the background I needed to finally secure my dream job. A year later I was hired as a guidance and control engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).”

Over the last few years Todd has been part of the team that flies the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn. “I led the guidance, navigation, and control team for the Soil Moisture Active/Passive (SMAP) spacecraft at the time of its launch in 2015,” he says. “I’m currently helping to design the Europa Clipper spacecraft which is a mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa and search for life there. That mission is currently planned to launch in 2022.”

JPL builds robotic spacecraft to explore the solar system like the Mars rovers and the Voyager I and II spacecrafts. Todd is a member of the team of engineers whose responsibility it is to control the orientation of some of those spacecraft.

Acquiring Essential Skills

“The analytical approaches that I apply to my work assignments at NASA are the same as those I originally honed in the Physics Department at Luther,” he says. “Luther also made me a much better communicator. I frequently give technical presentations at work and find that I’m very comfortable presenting to large groups. My Luther education gave me a great deal of self-confidence and taught me self-sufficiency.”  

Astronomy Research Sparks an Interest

Todd joined Professor Jeff Wilkerson’s astronomy research team during his sophomore year and it made a significant impact on his professional career. “It all started when I was learning about astrophysics and the art of collecting and analyzing the thousands of images that we took of star clusters. It was then that I first appreciated the deep-seated fascination that I had with space exploration,” he says. “There were also exciting events happening in planetary science that year (in 2004), with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landing on Mars and Cassini arriving at Saturn. These NASA successes, along with my passion for the astronomy research, made me realize that my dream job was working for NASA and exploring the solar system.”

Valuable Work-Study Experience

While at Luther, Todd was a Physics Department teaching assistant. He helped with grading and was a lab assistant for intro physics and astronomy courses. “During three of the summers while I was at Luther I had a paid research assistantship in astronomy.,” he says. “It was fascinating technical work that I enjoyed doing, so it was awesome to get paid for it. I also appreciated how much time I had to dig deep into the research without the nagging stress of upcoming exams and homework deadlines that are part of a typical semester.”

Todd found that his three years of experience as an undergraduate research assistant were very rare among my classmates who were just beginning graduate study. “Larger institutions would have entrusted research work similar to what I did to graduate students,” he says. “This gave me unique insight and experience that I could leverage. Luther had given me an advantage over classmates who had done their undergraduate study at much larger institutions.”

Advice for First-Year Students

“Embrace the liberal arts philosophy and take courses in topics that you find interesting but might have no intention of pursuing as a career. I was exposed to so much at Luther in terms of religion, philosophy, and anthropology/archaeology. Explore those topics while you have the opportunity.”

—Todd Brown