Kelly Smith

Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith at Mission Control in Houston during an EFT-1 simulation.

As an aerospace systems technologist at the NASA Johnson Space Center, Kelly Smith wears a lot of hats. But this alum is used to juggling many responsibilities, just like he did as a student. While at ISU, Smith kept busy as a community advisor in the residence halls, busted a move as the mascot CY, and co-oped with NASA, all while studying hard as a student. Now, as an active member of the successful Orion mission, Smith continues his education and is involved in many different NASA missions.


Describe a typical day. What are your job duties?

I’m part of the first Orion flight control team as the Trajectory Officer, known as TRAJ in the Mission Control Center. As TRAJ, I support the Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO, pronounced “FIDO”) to maintain knowledge of the vehicle’s trajectory (flight path) for Orion’s first spaceflight test, called Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1 for short. Everything at NASA has an acronym.

I’m also a team member on the entry and navigation teams for Orion. The entry team focuses on the design of the entry trajectory and the guidance, navigation, and control design for all entry, descent, and landing systems. In layman’s terms, we basically are responsible for designing and implementing the auto-pilot for Orion to fly from the top of the atmosphere at 20,000 mph to the targeted landing site for a gentle 20 mph splashdown with parachutes. Although it looks just like a big metal gumdrop, Orion is actually flies like an airplane when it’s screaming through the atmosphere. It banks to control how far downrange it will fly. So although it doesn’t look much like the Space Shuttle, they fly using very similar principles.

On the navigation team, we’re responsible for making sure Orion knows where it is, how fast it’s moving, and its orientation. To do this, Orion uses a GPS receiver, inertial measurement units, and barometric altimeters. Orion combines all of this information to estimate its location, speed, and attitude (aerospace-speak for orientation, not its temperament).

I also work on the Mars 2020 project in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m a team member of the Cruise, Entry, Descent, & Landing team responsible for the entry guidance algorithm, the part of the software responsible for steering it to land at its target on Mars when flying in the atmosphere.

What was the most valuable thing you learned as an aerospace engineering undergrad?

I had to learn to be resilient. It was the first time I had academically struggled, and it was bewildering as a freshman to work hard and not ace a test. The experience helped me grow tremendously.

What is your fondest memory of your time as an undergrad?

My fondest memories at ISU were spending countless hours in the AerE computer labs with my friends where we all struggled to finish our problem sets, being Cy for a summer and a fall semester, and the great people I met as a community advisor for 3 years in the dorms.

How did you land your job?

I received a co-op offer after interviewing with NASA recruiters at the ISU Engineering Job Fair. After I co-oped 4 times at NASA, I received a job offer in my senior year. I’ve been at NASA full-time since May 2010.

Where do you hope to be in the next five years?

I’d like to continue expanding my technical knowledge base as a GN&C engineer with the hopes of working toward a master’s degree.

Check out this NASA video of Kelly Smith talking about Orion.