She’s “the real deal.” Get to know Jana Mulacova — Trek fan with European Space Agency

Jana Mulacova
Jana Mulacova

Many Star Trek fans are drawn to the franchise and its stories because of the setting — space. We look up at the stars and wish we were up there too. For most of us, working in space is just a dream. For Star Trek fan and Jana Mulacova, it’s what she does every day. 

Jana works in the European Space Operations Centre as a Product Assurance and Safety service. She tracks down anomalies (yes, she does!) in various space-bound projects. She’s also a giant Star Trek fan who has met many cast members as they’ve come to visit ESA vehicles and facilities. 

We caught up with Jana and asked her what she does and how her Trek fandom affects her job and day-to-day.

Jana hard at work at the European Space Operations Centre.
Jana hard at work at the European Space Operations Centre.

TREK REPORT: Tell us a little bit about you and your background and your fascinating work journey…

JANA MULACOVA: I was born in socialist Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain. Despite all the changes that happened throughout my life, it means I do view things differently. People in the former West, even people around me here in Europe, seldom realize how different it was.

Over the years, I took the best out of this strange starting point and tried to shed the worst. The best was most certainly free and meticulous education in natural sciences and languages, which, in itself, puts me ahead of so many less fortunate people.

I hold a double degree in Space Science and Technology and a bachelor from the Nuclear Physics faculty of the Czech Technical University. I studied partly in Germany and Sweden in a program called SpaceMaster, because the Iron Curtain fell and the newly separated Czech Republic joined the European Union as I was growing up, opening all sorts of possibilities.

I met my first husband during my studies in Kiruna, Sweden, some 200 kilometers above the polar circle, and as he was a citizen, we eventually settled in southern Sweden and worked in Denmark — just over the super-cool Oresund Bridge.

Living a decade in Scandinavia made me a citizen of Sweden and working at the Danish National Space Institute, was a great opportunity to visit Greenland or build a payload for the Columbus module of International Space Station.

You may not realize how infinitesimally small a step you take in a space development project every day, so in the course of this fairly small project, I divorced the Swede and remarried, to a Czech, and quit my job and “wanted to go back to my people.” All that only to find out that I didn’t fit in to the industry in the Czech Republic any more than I fit into the Czechoslovakian socialism.

Jana with cast members from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Jana with cast members from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I left again, convinced “my people” must simply be nerds like me. I am a Czech, a proud Czech, I can down a pint of beer in less than 4 seconds, but I am not a normal Czech and Czechs, including me, were once taught that only normal is good, after all. And I was never normal, the Gaussian curve is unforgiving in so many parameters! 

TREK REPORT: How did you end up at ESA? 

JANA MULACOVA: Already during my bachelor studies in physics, I joined a research team in the field of Satellite Laser Ranging. It’s a super-cool subject, taking the phenomenon that mankind knows to measure most precisely — time — and using it to measure vast distances with stunning accuracy.

Satellites, lasers shooting into the night sky, retroreflectors made of uranium glass, mathematical models of atmosphere, tons and tons of data… (squeals in nerd).

Then, as I said, I transferred to the brand new joint European study program called SpaceMaster and got my double degree there, and things just naturally flowed from there on. 

After my short cultural shock outside of the aerospace industry, I was headhunted for the job I do now by the company I wrote my master thesis for.

My service is contracted to ESA, so my employer is really Telespazio Germany, it’s in line with ESA’s policy of redistributing resources to member states and supporting local industries. 

TREK REPORT: Tell us exactly you do…

JANA MULACOVA: Product Assurance and Safety service in the European Space Operations Centre. Sounds boring, I know, but only until you realize that I am the one called in when any of “my” spacecraft encounters an anomaly!

OK, that, on the other hand, sounds too exciting. Most anomalies are way less interesting than one would like:

  • a snowstorm disabling a ground station
  • a system that needed to be switched off and on again — we call it “power cycling”
  • a poorly soldered joint
  • a highly energetic particle hitting a sensitive electronic component
  • a software bug
  • human error during an IT system maintenance
  • a speck of dust on a lens
  • a misunderstood parameter naming convention
Jana with some colleagues and Brent Spiner.
Jana with some colleagues and Brent Spiner.

But we have seen some interesting ones, like telemetry seemingly coming from the future. I also help manage risks of “my” missions, before and after launch, I attend the training for, and operation shifts of, the launch and early orbit phase, I take care of the “devil in the detail” things like configuration control, and I make sure we learn lessons from what we do and never repeat our mistakes. 

TREK REPORT: Can you tell us about some of your recent missions? 

JANA MULACOVA: Let me summarize some of the past ones: 

  • The Danish payload on the ISS is called ASIM and it observes special kinds of lightnings called Sprites and Elves — this is usually where people stop to believe my story, but sometimes, crazy scientists come up with some crazy names. I was part of the team that designed the Data Processing Unit that autonomously identifies those lightings and sends measurements and photos of them to Earth. 
  • I worked on ExoMars TGO (Trace Gas Orbiter) in the time the spacecraft was aerobraking at Mars — using the thin Martian atmosphere to slow down and get onto a tighter orbit around the planet.I was also part of the Galileo LEOP (Launch and Early Orbit Phase) team, Galileo is the European global navigation system. 
  • I was part of the LEOP team for quite a few Sentinels, part of the Copernicus program that strives to provide data about Earth and its climate to anyone freely (so no one claims that scientists have a monopoly on data).

TREK REPORT: Is this your dream job? 

JANA MULACOVA: It’s a very varied job and with my solid and broad educational background, I dare say I thrive in the environment. Flying missions are a completely different deal than project development.

It’s hectic, you have to be pragmatic and sometimes you have no choice but to accept what happened and patch up what’s left of your system to salvage some functionality.

There are days that somehow have 48 hours of full-blown panic attack and there are days when you take your coffee and laptop out to the sun deck between the Flight Dynamics building and the Planetary Missions building and leisurely update some documentation for hours.

I was feeling way more anxious in the slow-paced project work than I do in the unpredictable, somewhat chaotic world of mission control.

TREK REPORT: ​What projects are you working on currently?

JANA MULACOVA: I have now nine missions under my primary care, out of which 6 are in flight:

My other missions are in various stages of preparation. I also help sort out some projects and do a little bit of work for the Space Safety Programme, that is quite something! 

TREK REPORT: When did you become a Star Trek fan?

Star Trek: Voyager's Robert Picardo poses with Jana and a few other colleagues.
Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo poses with Jana and a few other colleagues.

JANA MULACOVA: That is difficult to say. We were isolated from your pop culture up until end of 1989, when the Velvet Revolution came. I came across Star Trek sometime during the 90s, and it was everything Trek done up to that point at once.

I took me time to understand that The Original Series was simply an older series than The Next Generation and it was frustrating to guess what happened first and what later, or which Trek in the TV program was which one, but I was super-happy that the storyline did not evolve dramatically — you could randomly catch an episode and it was a story you could watch and understand, how cool!

TREK REPORT: Tell us when you’ve met the Trek cast members: 

JANA MULACOVA: With some ESA and contractor colleagues, we are invited to speak at cons. I have been to FedCon here in Germany three times already and I was really surprised how kind and wholesome the community is.

We are perpetually shocked at how knowledgeable and interested Trekkies are in actual space science and technology, so we encourage them to join ESA either as direct staff or contractors like me — there is always some job position open.

Since ESA is cherished as “the real deal” at conventions, we get the same treatment as the stars, sharing the backstage with them. It’s so hard to keep it cool when you’re staring at Mr. Data (Brent Spiner) or The Doctor (Robert Picardo) and they’re just absolutely lovely people with interesting stories to tell well beyond their roles in Star Trek. Avoiding starstruck blabber is a serious struggle. 

The entire franchise makes me very happy just by existing. Star Trek brought the WOW factor of the ongoing mission that may have eventually placed me right here in OPS — that’s the code for mission operations in ESA. And hold on to your socks, I am a contractor of the Quality department! I work for OPS-Q, isn’t that something? My colleagues are not as amused as I am to call it the Q Continuum, but that has never stopped me. 

TREK REPORT: Which show is your favorite? Who is your favorite character? 

JANA MULACOVA: TNG and Q, hands down. There are other shows I love to re-watch, there are other characters I feel affinity to, but TNG and Q are just the best.