Ms. Zainab “Nagin” Cox
M.S. Space Operations, 1990
Ms. Nagin Cox is a Spacecraft System Engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. JPL is one of 10 NASA centers and is the leading U.S. center for the robotic exploration of the solar system.
Cox earned a B.S. in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering and a B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University on a ROTC scholarship. Following her commission into the Air Force, Cox was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB where she worked as a systems engineer in F-16 aircrew training. She then earned a masters degree in Space Operations Systems Engineering from AFIT in 1990.
“The degree was intended to prepare officers for a space operations career. It has served me very well, even at NASA, because it taught me the language of space operations by providing the basics of what I needed to know in all of these different areas.” She took several classes in propulsion, astrodynamics, spacecraft systems, orbital dynamics, and spacecraft operations. “It was a great generalist degree, just as it was intended.” The classes were small and even though she was the only woman in her program, the shared military background of the classmates lead to friendships she still maintains today.
At the time, AFIT Professor Matthew Kabrisky was doing research on epilepsy drugs and their effectiveness to treat motion sickness in pilots. “Even though that was not directly applicable to my space operations degree, the program was flexible enough that I was able to do that for my thesis work. They let me work on research that was personally interesting, where I could help the professor, and it was research that other students built upon. It was a good example of teaching something indirectly – teaching me how to be flexible in my thinking and finding a match in people’s skills to let them do what they are good at and what they are interested in. That can be more productive than forcing them into a particular box.”
Following graduation from AFIT, Cox served as an Orbital Analyst at NORAD/Space Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs. “While I was in the Air Force my work was about using space assets to look inward; I was interested in using space assets to look outward and to explore.” In 1992 Cox left the Air Force and joined JPL in 1993 – a place she had wanted work since she was 14 years old.
At JPL, most of the mission work is done in-house with teams that develop, build, launch, and fly the missions. Cox has worked on multiple robotic missions during her civilian career. Her role as a system engineer has been focused on development at the flight ground interface. “Before we send people, we send robots.” She is one of the engineers “…who leads the development of the commands that will execute on the Mars Rover the next day.”
To say Cox enjoys her job is an understatement. “Jobs like this are few and far between and they are incredible and amazing! One of the best things about my job right now is the first thing I do when I come in each day is to look at the pictures that came down from Mars the prior day. That’s incredible! We are explorers who see these images from Mars for the first time – we are some of the first humans to see these images! The robotic spacecrafts don’t feel like robots, they feel like an extension of us. They are like the best of ourselves that we send off to another world to explore until we can get there.”
“When I look at an image that is taken by a rover that I helped build, it is deeply satisfying and rewarding in a way that is not about your role specifically; it’s the fact that you are part of a team that works together for a common goal that benefits all of human kind.”
Cox shares that message of teamwork in talks all over the world. She has found that the story of being part of a team and doing something that matters resonates everywhere. The stories she tells of NASA and the rovers “…are really an example of what we can do as a human species when we work together as a team.”
“When most people think of NASA, they think of the astronauts, the space shuttle, and the space station, but they don’t think of the fact that there is a team of people behind our robotic emissaries. At JPL, it is about the missions and what those missions accomplish. That is what sticks with you – working with people on something that matters. Once engineering is put in that light, people see it differently.” Cox believes that STEM education is about showing kids, and even adults, the other side of engineering and science. “Science and engineering is a language that you can use once you know how to speak it. There are many ways to work on something that matters.”
Her advice to AFIT students is to “appreciate that you aren’t having to multi-task while you are getting your degree; always remember what a privilege it is as a working professional to go to school full time. In the years since AFIT I was surrounded by people who were trying to get their masters degree while working full time, having families, etc. and that is really difficult and takes years. I was always very grateful for the educational opportunities in the Air Force. I was paid to focus on my studies and get my masters degree.” Her second piece of advice is to remember that while at AFIT “you are still in the Air Force. At AFIT, you are expected to be well rounded. You don’t get to succeed in your major by letting everything else go. Take advantage of the opportunities to learn from and interact with your classmates and fellow military officers.”
Joining the Air Force afforded her the opportunities to realize her dream. “I am so very grateful for the opportunities that the Air Force gave me. I owe the Air Force everything. I feel very lucky. How many people get to do what they dreamed of since they were 14? Working at JPL is as much as fun 20 years later as it was the first day. But I have not forgotten my roots. When asked if I could something, I replied ‘I am an Air Force Officer; of course I can do that!’ Once an Air Force officer, always an Air Force officer. It is a huge part of who I am as a professional.”