Roberta Beal: Building a community of engineers to support Mars exploration

Teamwork and attention to detail are priorities for this planetary explorer

October 19, 2022

Roberta Beal Sm Opt
The laser that zaps rocks on Mars is commanded by a talented group of engineers and scientists, including Beal, shown here with the Mars atmosphere chamber in the ChemCam lab.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Roberta Beal, a member of the Engineering Team for ChemCam, the laser instrument aboard the Mars Curiosity rover, understands the importance of empathy.

“If you’re not feeling well or your pet is sick, Roberta’s on it,” says Margie Root, who works with Beal on the ChemCam Engineering Team. “I lost two cats within a few weeks and Roberta organized the group to buy me flowers. Roberta makes the very stressful job that we do running ChemCam better with this close team dynamic.”

The ChemCam engineering team was recently awarded the Explorers Club Citation of Merit for their exceptional response to technical issues related to the laser. The accomplishment demonstrated effective teamwork under exceptionally challenging conditions to solve a complex problem on another planet. Not only does the Los Alamos team collaborate with teams of engineers in the U.S. and France, which creates the challenge of vastly different time zones, but during the pandemic, they couldn’t meet in person to address the technical issues with the laser.

“Our work is highly collaborative, and Roberta has built incredibly solid relationships with the other engineers at JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] so when issues arise, she talks to people, gets answers and gets things done,” says Nina Lanza, the principal investigator for ChemCam. “She makes an effort to build community and genuinely cares about people, which is a huge asset to our projects — no one is a lone wolf planetary scientist.”

Billion-dollar missions put a premium on precision

Beal always loved science and wanted to be a biologist at first, but then took a requisite course in geology. “I saw a meteorite flash across the sky and said, ‘That’s what I want to study: space!’” So, Beal pursued undergraduate and master’s degrees in Planetary Astronomy and Science at the University of New Mexico.

Though lacking a formal background in engineering, Beal is now considered an engineer on the Lab’s Space and Planetary Exploration Team. “The more I work on this mission, I think engineering might be my calling.”

Beal performs daily operations to maintain the working status of the ChemCam instrument on the Curiosity rover and the SuperCam instrument on the Perseverance rover. The instruments comprise the laser, camera, spectrometers and more that work together to identify the chemical and mineral composition of rocks and soils on Mars.

Beal also writes sequences that tell the instrument where to point and shoot. “There are things you can fix in a lab but not on Mars, so I double- and triple-check the sequences like Santa checking his naughty list,” to ensure the instruments are not pointing at the rover itself, or the sun, for example.

“We don’t want to fry the optics,” Beal adds. “Everyone thinks that we’re using a joystick for a video game, but it’s actually lines of spacecraft commands.”

Given that it’s a three-year trip to Mars, Beal can’t go hammer out mistakes on the rover, so preventing mistakes is a big part of Beal's work.

“Roberta has a very weird job that requires a special personality type: you have to care about details, really care,” says Lanza. “A typo can destroy a whole plan — not the instrument, but there are consequences to small mistakes. Roberta brings a very careful eye to every detail. She wants to get it right and she worries about getting it right. She’s got the perfect brain for spacecraft operations.”

All the while, Beal’s tuned into the people. “She thinks of things I wish I had thought of,” Lanza adds. “It comes naturally to her, and it benefits all of us on the team. She’s good at understanding where people are coming from and their pressure points.”

A survivor of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy

Beal is pansexual and “nonbinary-ish,” and uses a variety of pronouns. While fine with people using “she/her,” Beal prefers the singular “they/them” pronoun.

As part of a diversity talk given at the Lab and at conferences, Beal uses a circle graphic to demonstrate all the places people fall on the gender identity spectrum. Beal places herself somewhere between “female” and “neither female nor male.”

Joining the Navy right out of high school, Beal had to hide their identity during their time in the military, and after four years of service became a Quartermaster second class petty officer. Beal performed surface warfare while on the USS Bonhomme Richard, and served on the LHD6 stationed in San Diego. Beal traveled and worked in Pearl Harbor, Australia, Qatar, Bahrain, Singapore and Thailand.

Beal’s service took place during the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that lasted from 1994 to 2011. DADT prohibited discrimination against closeted LGBTQ+ people, as well as barring openly gay people from military service.

Earlier this year, Lanza suggested Beal present at the Advancing IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) in Planetary Science conference, sponsored by the Lunar Planetary Institute.

“Diversity isn’t about just checking a box but rather about hiring and retaining the best talent,” Lanza says. “Roberta wrote an abstract on the history of NASA [and LGBTQ+ people], as well as what we can do to make people feel more welcome, so we have the best people and ideas coming from every community.”

Beal’s group leader at the time, Brad Cooke, said it was one of the most interesting abstracts he’d read in a while.

“Roberta is sharing the difficult biases she has needlessly faced and has had to overcome,” Cooke says. “I don’t believe this was easy for Roberta but needed to be done to educate managers like me and others on institutional biases/impediments. Without awareness and appropriate change, the Lab will not be able to recruit, develop and retain top talent like Roberta. And make no mistake, Roberta is exactly the talent the Laboratory is looking for.”

Activism and powerlifting

Beal is proud to have helped revitalize the Employee Resource Groups at the Lab, especially as the chair and later co-chair of Prism, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer-plus (LGBTQ+) group. When they joined Los Alamos in 2017, Beal says, “I was looking for my people and I didn’t see them,” so they and others kick-started the LGBTQ+ ERG back into a vibrant group.

The group’s first activity was an event where passers-by wrote affirming messages on sticky notes in the colors of the rainbow that filled the windows of the Otowi Building breezeway, which is on the Laboratory’s campus.

Beal is most proud of Prism’s initiative to fly the rainbow flag and the Progress Pride flags in front of the Otowi Building (and eventually other Lab locations as well) during Pride Month. Beal also collaborated with community members to create a Los Alamos Pride Month event, and spoke at the County’s Pride Month proclamation ceremony. This year marks the fifth annual LA Pride. 

While Prism co-chair, Beal also attended the Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (oSTEM) conference with other Lab employees.

As a member of the Veterans Employee Resource Group, Beal is supporting an ongoing initiative to raise awareness about gendered language use at the Lab. “We learned to call people ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ in the military. Now we can unlearn it. I’m working on my own use of gendered language and catch myself using ‘guys.’”

With the Veterans Employee Resource Group, Beal organized a commemorative 9/11 Patriot Liftoff competition at the Lab a few years ago, combining their veteran and competitive powerlifter identities. “I’ve been lifting for years,” Beal says. “It’s about your own strength at the end of the day. You’re the only one picking that weight up off the floor.”