Molly White’s team at NASA designed a heat shield for Orion that weighs about 1,000 pounds and is built to withstand temperatures of up to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. (NASA via YouTube)

On December 5, the spacecraft Orion splashed into the chilly water of the Pacific Ocean, marking the end of its first test flight and the beginning of what NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. called “the Mars Era.”

The new spacecraft — a lampshade-shaped capsule built to carry humans farther into space than they have gone before — is the key to NASA’s goal of landing astronauts on Mars within the next 15 to 20 years.

That may seem like a long time. But this is a huge project involving thousands of scientists, engineers, astronauts and administrators. Over the next few months, KidsPost will be profiling some of these NASA employees as they head into this new era.

Orion’s first flight last December was as much of a test for Molly White as it was for the spacecraft.

NASA engineer Molly White stands outside the Kennedy Space Center before the liftoff of the Orion spacecraft in December. (Family photo)

White was one of dozens of engineers who worked on Orion’s heat shield, which protected the craft during its high-speed return to Earth at the end of its flight. She felt both nervous and excited as she watched the ship take off from outside the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If the shield didn’t work, it would be bad news for her team.

Luckily, the test flight went off without a hitch. The heat shield did its job of absorbing heat caused by the friction of Orion’s descent through the atmosphere. (Just as your hands warm up when you rub them together, the air around Orion generated heat as it rushed past the spacecraft’s exterior).

Watching the descent on television was “indescribably exciting,” White recalled. But she’s more excited to analyze data from Orion’s four-hour flight. She and her team will use the information to improve the shield for Orion’s next test run in 2017.

The focus of White’s job is a specific one — designing the structure of the heat shield — but it’s affected by the work that other NASA teams are doing. For example, when the team that creates the material for the shield comes up with a new idea, White and her co-workers must revamp their own designs to fit the new material.

“There’s so much back and forth that goes into it; it takes a long time,” White said.

There’s another reason for the constant testing and tweaking: Once Orion is in space, carrying human passengers, it would be in­cred­ibly dangerous for one of the ship’s systems to break. So engineers such as White need to make certain that the components they’re responsible for are completely reliable.

Sometimes White still feels amazed to be working on the spacecraft that will one day take humans to Mars.

Engineers remove the heat shield from Orion after its test flight. White’s team will study how well the heat shield worked as the spacecraft descended to Earth. (NASA)

“I never imagined myself working for NASA back when I was in middle school or high school,” she said. “I kind of thought really, really smart people worked for NASA, and there was no way I could get my foot in the door.”

But White took a chance and applied to an internship at the Johnson Space Center in Texas while she was in college. She loved the work so much, “I worked really hard to try and convince them to hire me back,” she said.

Five years later, she’s still there. It looks as though her strategy worked.

Meet Molly White

Age: 28

Home town: Des Moines, Iowa

Book worm: As a kid, White’s favorite book about science and space was “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, but she liked to read books from all genres. “I pretty much always had a book with me that I was reading,” she says.

Budding builder: She and her siblings liked to build huge cities out of Legos.

Well rounded: She likes to dance, camp and spend time with her dog, Bailey. She has recently taken up woodworking.

Together since birth: White’s best friend is her twin sister, Emma.

Sarah Kaplan