Ravi Prakash doesn’t believe in problems that are too big to solve. Prakash, who grew up 30 miles from the Johnson Space Center in Houston and attended Texas City public schools, now works as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. As part of the team that landed Curiosity on Mars, Prakash is fascinated by the mysteries of the universe—but he doesn’t let his interest in celestial bodies get in the way of his care for humanity. Prakash has used his engineering background not only to advance our understanding of the universe but to help solve problems right here at home. In addition to his time at NASA, Prakash has worked as an engineer for global nonprofits that help lift people out of poverty. ATPE talked to Prakash about the value of hard work, what it’s like to explore the universe, and how Texas public schools helped him succeed.
Can you share a little about what you do at NASA?
I am a systems engineer, which is sort of like a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. We have a lot of engineers who focus on their particular gadget, and my job is to take a step back and make sure all the gadgets are fitting together in the way they should. If someone says we need a bigger parachute to land a spaceship on Mars, I figure out all the ripple effects of that design. I am currently helping to operate the InSight spacecraft, which landed on Mars this past November. This mission is going to help us understand how rocky planets, including Earth, formed.
How did you decide to pursue engineering as a career?
My whole life I wanted to be a doctor, just like my dad. I never considered anything else, and it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I realized doctors work really hard. My dad took calls late at night and went to work on the weekends to help save lives. That was not the life for me, but at that point I had no idea what I wanted to do other than be a doctor. I talked to my parents’ friends and asked, “What else is there?” The answer I kept hearing was that an easier way to make a lot of money was to go into business. So, I went to NYU for business school and quickly realized that, for me, it wasn’t exciting. The things I was excited about were science and math. I always knew that, but it took a class at NYU called Einstein’s Universe to make me realize I have a passion for science. That class really captured me, and also reminded me how much I enjoyed visiting the Johnson Space Center in Houston as a kid. At that point I realized I wanted to be an astronaut. I switched from business to aerospace engineering and transferred to UT Austin. It wound up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. From UT Austin, I went on to Georgia Institute of Technology and then to NASA.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The people I get to work with are amazing. I work with people all over the world with different backgrounds, and we all have this common goal—to explore the universe and answer questions that humankind has wondered since the dawn of time. Is there life on other planets? How did we get here? The work we do at NASA is truly unique.
My particular NASA center is called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We focus on robotic exploration. All the other NASA centers focus on getting humans to space. But we send robots, which means we get to take more risks and go beyond Earth. We have visited every planet in our solar system. We even have spacecraft that have gone beyond our solar system. It’s really fun and unique that we get to see things that no one has ever seen before. I got to be one of the first people to see the first pictures from the Curiosity rover and InSight lander, and to me, that’s really special.
What was your experience like attending public school in Texas?
I had some amazing teachers, especially in math and science. Mr. Tom Prouty and Mrs. Kay Potts kept me engaged in their classes and excited about learning. I was really lucky to have teachers who made learning fun. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I’m a big fan of the public school system in general. No one would doubt that we could make improvements to it, but I believe completely in having a diverse school system that brings people with all different backgrounds together. We learn a lot more when we have people who are different around us.
What would you say to students who struggle to understand what they want to do in life?
Deciding what you want to be when you grow up is one of the hardest decisions for a lot of people. I thought it was an easy one for me until I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. And all of a sudden it became a really hard decision. Find what you are passionate about because then you will be willing to work hard for it. Figure out the path to get there, and then do it.
Whatever you want to do, you have to be ready for hard work. Even when I was in kindergarten, my parents instilled the value of hard work in me. I was never the smartest student; I just outworked everybody else. That work ethic continued in college and even at NASA, where I felt like everybody else was smarter than me so my only option was to work harder. That’s what got me to where I am today.
How can teachers help their students succeed?
We only learn if we are motivated to learn. Part of what makes a teacher’s job so difficult is that people are motivated by different things, so they need to find creative ways to motivate all their students to learn. This is much easier said than done. It can be hard to help students connect the dots and understand why what they are learning is important.
I remember wondering why I had to learn certain things in school, but if I knew it was practical, I was more engaged in the topic. I also think it’s important to make lessons fun. I remember one high school lesson where we broke into groups of four to drop an egg off the football stadium with the goal of not having it break. I had no idea why we were doing this. All I knew was that we were having fun. But it turned out I was learning to design, prototype, and experiment. I was learning to fail.
Why do you think it’s so important for students to learn to fail?
I took a break from working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for three years to work for nonprofits where we designed tools to help lift people out of poverty. That’s where I learned the true value of failure. We would go to different parts of the world, and our designs never worked the first time we tried them. We expected this, but others would see the failure as a negative. After learning what worked well and what didn’t, we would iterate on the design until we had a working prototype, something we couldn’t have done so quickly if we were afraid of failing. At my nonprofit, IDEO.org, we had a saying, “Fail early to succeed sooner.”
In my job, I fail much more than I succeed. It takes a lot of failed designs to get a working one. When our missions fail, we learn so much more than we do from successful ones because we have to really diagnose every single part of the failure to understand what went wrong. We don’t spend as much time analyzing something when it’s successful. In many ways, failure is a great teacher.