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Space exploration

Napa grad works as rocket scientist for future Mars mission

Rocket Scientist.

OK, so it’s not Evan Zimny’s official title. But this Napa native really is a rocket scientist. And his work could one day help astronauts travel to Mars.

Zimny, a Napa High School grad (class of 2011), works as a systems engineer for a company called Jacobs. That business is a contractor at the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“It’s pretty incredible,” being part of such history, said Zimny during a phone interview from his home in Orlando.

“This is the start of a new space endeavor and being able to be part of that first project, paving the way for deep space travel for humans, is remarkable.”

Zimny, 29, is working on the Artemis I mission. His assignment is the hypergolic (liquid) fuel system for the Orion spacecraft that will sit atop Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever developed.

“What my team does is test the ground support equipment and software that will be used to fuel the spacecrafts,” said Zimny.

It’s kind of like being the “gas station” said Zimny. “We’re basically working on the fuel.”

Orion is a type of partially reusable crewed spacecraft to be used in NASA's Artemis program.

With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on Earth's moon, “to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” said the NASA website.

NASA will work to establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then comes the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.

Zimny explained that the Orion spacecraft consists of a Crew Module space capsule and the European Service Module.

The Orion Crew Module is a reusable transportation capsule that provides a habitat for the crew, provides storage for food and research instruments and contains the docking port for crew transfers.

The European Service Module part of the Orion spacecraft serves as its primary power and propulsion component until it is discarded at the end of each mission.

“We just completed fueling the Orion and now the spacecraft is fully stacked on top of the rocket,” he said.

That’s a big milestone?

“Very big,” he said.

“After that, it just has a few more steps … (and then) it will roll out to the launch pad and launch,” at the space enter. That will happen sometime after this coming February, he said.

The rocket he’s working on now isn’t going straight to Mars. First, there’s an unmanned mission around the Moon to test it. But the eventual goal is to reach Mars.

Zimny said he’s always been good at math and engineering.

In high school, “Math was my favorite subject for sure. I was really good at calculus. Physics was also fun.”

He took AP classes including physics and calculus. Zimny recalled several of his teachers, including statistics teacher Steve Hansen and calculus teacher Sean Gregory. “The games we played in his calculus class were always so much fun,” said Zimny.

It wasn’t all books for Zimny. He also played the violin in the orchestra, plus baseball and basketball.

After graduating from Napa High, Zimny attended the University of Michigan to study aerospace engineering. Besides having a top aerospace program, both his father and grandfather went to the same university.

Why aerospace?

“I just was fascinated by planes,” said Zimny. He loved watching planes flying and landing. “It was like watching this amazing sight.”

He might have considered joining the military — such as the Navy — but unfortunately, he has high blood pressure. “They wouldn’t have allowed that,” said Zimny.

After graduation in early 2016, Zimny was hired by Jacobs. His favorite part of his job is “the fact that I’m a part of fueling the spacecraft going on the largest rocket in history.”

The rocket he’s working on will have more than 8 million pounds of thrust. To compare, a toy model rocket engine might have less 50 pounds of thrust, said the engineer. 

Besides that, “Just working with spacecraft and being able to work with hardware that’s going beyond the Earth’s atmosphere,” is amazing, he said.

What’s his least favorite part of the job?

“The hours,” he admitted. “Especially during fueling; we have to watch it 24/7.”

During those times, his shift has been either 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. or the reverse. “I don’t drink caffeine at all. You just have to get enough sleep and eat the right food.”

Zimny’s parents still live in Napa. He visits about once a year, but “I’m trying to make that happen more often.”

Zimny said in his free time he plays sports like softball and volleyball. And he still plays the violin.

He watches movies and has seen “The Martian,” a movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars. “That was really interesting,” said Zimny. One of his favorite space movies is “Mars Attacks!,” he said with a laugh. “It always cracked me up.”

Zimny had this advice for anyone interested in working in the aerospace industry: “I definitely recommend joining clubs that really grab your interest. These can be great ways to gain lots of experience as an engineer in designing, testing, budgeting, teamwork, and basically every aspect of what a professional engineer might see on the job.”

As a college student, “get to know professors and teaching assistants,” Zimny recommended.

“Go to office hours regularly, and don't be afraid to go up and ask important questions you might have. Having them put a name to a face is incredibly valuable for references or even projects associated with your field."

For example, "I happened to ask my professor about any help he needed on a project, so I could boost some of my skills and resume, and it turned out he had something I could work on over the summer.”

As for his future, “I would like to stay in the space industry,” Zimny said. He might consider working for another private space company like SpaceX or Lockheed Martin or even NASA.

For now, Zimny’s focused on this rocket and the upcoming launch.

“That type of power is really incredible to work with,” he said.

NASA has announced that it will land the first person of color on the Moon as part of its Artemis mission. The agency previously said that the Artemis mission will put the first woman on the Moon by 2024. In November 2020, NASA introduced 18 astronauts who will be taking part in the mission. The group includes nine women and several people of color. The announcement comes after President Joe Biden’s administration submitted a budget proposal for the fiscal year 2022. The proposal includes $24.7 billion for NASA. This $24.7 billion funding request demonstrates the Biden administration's commitment to NASA and its partners who have worked so hard this past year, Steve Jurczyk, Acting NASA Administrator.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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