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Nikki Desch: Space Lasers, Lunar Views, and Student Robotics

NASA Engineer Nikki Desch Applies Communications and Systems Engineering Expertise to Artemis Ground Systems

April 13, 2021

NASA Engineer Nikki Desch Credit: NASA

“The camera is the mission,” is an unofficial motto at NASA. High-resolution images of stars and planets inspire the next generation of space explorers and serve as a key component of scientific research. NASA engineer Nikki Desch leads a team of professionals developing ground systems that will allow lunar astronauts to stream ultra-high-definition video from the Moon — the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O).

“The O2O ground segment team is an absolutely brilliant group of engineers,” said Desch. “They impress me every single day with how much they know, their critical thinking skills, their flexibility, their dedication, and their energy.

“I’m very lucky to have landed in this particular position. Definitely."

Desch grew up in Ithaca, New York. She earned her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, and her master’s degree in telecommunications and networking from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

After college, she worked for a contract supporting the Joint Spectrum Center, a field office of the Defense Spectrum Office, which oversees electromagnetic spectrum matters for the Department of Defense. There, she performed radio frequency interference analysis on cell phone towers being installed on military bases. The company that oversaw that contract would later move her to the Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Her first position at NASA involved data processing and software development for NASA’s Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR) effort. SLR provides hyper-accurate measurements by bouncing lasers off mirrored retroreflectors on orbiting satellites. These measurements can be used in many applications including orbit determination and geodesy, which studies the geometric shape of Earth.

After SLR, Desch joined ESC’s radio frequency analysis group, generating link budgets for NASA missions.

“We were tracking 15 to 20 different missions at a time, each at a different point in the project lifecycle,” said Desch. “While there was never any strong attachment to one particular mission, we had the unique experience of our work touching a wide array of missions.”

After spending four years at NASA’s Mary W. Jackson Headquarters in Washington providing systems engineering expertise to the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program, Desch returned to Goddard and ESC to begin her current role. Here, she oversees the implementation of a ground station that will be key to providing NASA’s future Artemis missions to the Moon with unprecedented data rates.

O2O will provide Artemis astronauts with high-definition video feeds over laser links to Earth. Optical communications uses infrared lasers to provide higher data rates with reduced size, weight, and power requirements when compared to comparable radio systems. During Artemis II, O2O will transmit data from the Orion spacecraft to a Goddard-managed ground station at the White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a ground station at the Table Mountain Facility in Big Pines, California, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

“We just passed a series of six system design reviews, which is really exciting,” said Desch, “and have now fully entered our development phase, building one of the two ground stations that will support O2O.”

The Advanced Communications Capabilities for Exploration and Science Systems (ACCESS) project oversees development of Goddard’s O2O ground station in New Mexico. To complete the ground station, Desch is collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, which is developing some components; NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which is providing electronics for an uplink transmitter; JPL, which is providing the receiver; Peraton, the company implementing the design at White Sands; and Northrop Grumman, which is providing a weather system.

As project lead, Desch must keep all of these disparate and geographically separate entities united toward their common goal.

“It was definitely a challenge during the design phase to make sure everybody was sharing information, working on the same path, and communicating decisions well,” said Desch. “Now that we're in the development phase, it’s important to continue keeping our partners and stakeholders informed about each other’s progress, any challenges encountered, and ensure that the communication channels established during the design phase remain open.”

Outside of work, Desch applies her project management expertise to the home she recently purchased.

“My boyfriend, who is a general contractor, reports to me every single evening about the progress he’s made on the house,” joked Desch.

She also referees high school robotics competitions, supporting aspiring engineers as they learn about systems engineering from the ground up. These unique, hands-on experiences offer the students the opportunity to apply classroom lessons and participate in real world applications of STEM education.

“Last year was my first as a head referee,” said Desch. “These competitions are very high energy. What these high school students able to create in six weeks is beyond impressive and makes me excited for what the next generation of NASA engineers will bring.”