Sarah Sherman ’04

Member of the Mars 2020 mission team.

When Sarah Sherman ’04 was a ninth-grader living in Phillips Academy’s Double Brick House, she made herself a list of life goals: compete in the Olympics, run a mile in under seven minutes, and build something that ends up on Mars. Exceptional dreams, all of them, but possibly not realistic for the average person. Unless you’re Sherman, now a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Last January, Sherman was the flight director for the launch of SMAP, the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, an orbital observatory that monitors and measures moisture in the top level of the earth’s soil. It provides global maps of soil moisture, ultimately collecting data to be used in weather and climate studies. Sherman conducted the launch, deftly managing a variety of teams and getting SMAP into orbit. “I was nervous, but we had practiced so many times,” she recalls. “It was a perfect launch.”

Sarah Sherman ’04 works towards NASA’s 2020 mission

It was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication after Sherman’s rigorous undergraduate education at Princeton University and master’s program at University of Southern California. But Sherman fairly thrums with energy. Not yet thirty, the girl who once played with Legos and who “loved to tinker” in the San Mateo suburbs learned how to fly a Cessna plane before learning how to drive. She’s fascinated by how things work, having once helped rebuild a 1927 Model T truck engine for the fun of it. After falling in love with crew at Andover, she was invited to try out for the U.S. Junior National Team at the Los Angeles Rowing Club as coxswain, and is an accomplished triathlete.

“I remember when I was younger I was singing in a kids’ opera and I had a conflicting crew race,” laughs Sherman. “I didn’t know which to choose, but my parents said, ‘That’s not a conflict. We’ll do both.’ It was always stressed upon me to do both.”

Now Sherman is on to her next career challenge, one that definitely checks off that third and most ambitious item on her list of goals. Since May she has worked toward a Mars 2020 mission as part of a team putting together a rover that will collect samples of the Red Planet’s surface material. “Specifically, I’m designing the metal tubes that will get dropped on the planet’s surface and collect Mars rock,” says Sherman. “The tubes are the size of a marker. They’ll remain on Mars for two decades, and then be picked up and brought back here for study. Just saying that reminds me that I have the coolest job. I mean, I get to work on things that will go to Mars!”

For now, Sherman focuses on her day to day tasks at the lab, and spends a fair amount of time mentoring and tutoring young kids in math and science. “I think it’s important to teach the youth, to inspire them.” And Sherman thinks she has honored her to-do list written as a teenager at PA. “It occurred to me recently,” she says. “Fourteen-year-old me would be so proud of me now.”

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