'Rewriting history books': New Milford native learns how planets work as engineer for NASA

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

NEW MILFORD — Kyle Cloutier said she has great memories of volunteering at the John J. McCarthy Observatory, an astronomical observatory on the campus of New Milford High School.

Cloutier’s love of space and science grew as she got older and now, at 28, she is a systems engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. In that role, she’s deeply involved with a variety of spacecrafts and missions that are helping to further science.

Early interest

“I really liked math and science in high school,” said Cloutier, who lives in Los Angeles.

“My dad (Bill Cloutier) was a volunteer at the McCarthy Observatory and we were there from the inception of the building process,” she said. “My dad really influenced my interest in astronomy. He’s always looking through a telescope.”

While at the University of Maryland, she took an internship with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and has been there ever since.

Her first mission was as an operator with the Opportunity rover at the Cassini spacecraft around Saturn.

“The Opportunity rover was one of the older rovers that landed on Mars in 2003,” Cloutier said. “The rover was like a remote geologist examining all the rocks and trying to learn the history of what happened to Mars.”

As part of her job, Cloutier worked closely with engineers and scientists to plan what the rover would do the following day on Mars — such as, “Do they want to go look at this rock? Do they want to use this instrument?” she said.

At the same time, Cloutier worked on the Cassini mission, which was a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn.

“I worked heavily with the scientists, talking about what they wanted the spacecraft to do, what instruments they wanted to use, and translating that as an engineer to operate the spacecraft as it orbited the planet,” she said.

After those missions, she got involved with the Insight mission, which was a lander bound for Mars. Unlike a rover, a lander is stationary and has no wheels. In that capacity, she worked with the science team to develop how the mission would get to Mars, land on Mars, and perform. The goal of that mission was learning about the inner workings of Mars using seismology.

“That mission was kind of rewriting history books,” Cloutier said.

Current projects

Cloutier’s current project — the Psyche mission, which plans to launch in August 2022, involves learning how different planets can form.

Cloutier said she loves the wide variety of projects. “You’re constantly exploring and discovering new things about our solar system and our planets,” she said. “Getting to share with the scientists and the rest of the world is great.”

She said she hopes to be involved with more missions in the future. She added while Earth has been explored, “the solar system is still open.”

Robert Lambert, co-founder of the McCarthy Observatory, said Cloutier is an “extraordinary person with a great mind and a great work ethic and always eager to help out any way she can.”

Cloutier has given talks remotely from JPL in Pasadena to students at Schaghticoke Middle School, her alma mater. “We had assemblies where she would teach all the sixth-graders.”

He said while in college, Cloutier had initially applied for two positions at JPL— and got both.

“Neither one would relinquish their demand for her, so they split her in half. She was assigned to two of the most complex, most significant solar system exploration projects ever done,” Lambert said. “She did wonderfully in both and she always gets assigned on plumb projects.”