I build robots for NASA. I face avalanches, poisonous gases, and even live volcanoes to test my inventions — it's dangerous, but I love it.

I build robots for NASA. I face avalanches, poisonous gases, and even live volcanoes to test my inventions — it's dangerous, but I love it.
Kalind Carpenter.Kalind Carpenter
  • Kalind Carpenter, 41, is a robotics engineer at NASA in Pasadena, California.
  • Carpenter builds space robots that climb ice walls and dive into extraterrestrial oceans.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Kalind Carpenter, a 41-year-old robotics engineer from Pasadena, California, about building robots for NASA. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I remember the first day I walked through the doors of NASA and I was shown the building where the Moon rovers were born. I was hooked.

I studied industrial and product engineering at Arizona State University and then started a master's program in mechanical engineering at California State University in 2010. California State partnered with NASA, which meant during my master's I was given the chance to be a researcher on a NASA-backed project for 18 months.

Before my master's was complete, I was working as an engineering intern for NASA in Pasadena. Without CSU-LA's relationship as a NASA research center, I wouldn't have had these opportunities. I cried with joy when I was accepted. Now, I work in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Over the last 8 years, I've helped create robots

I represented ASU in gymnastics, and this skill has helped me think of all the different ways I can make robots balance and move. I worked on the Puffer, a robot for Mars that inflates on location — its tractor-like tires help it roll and climb over steep surfaces. I also worked on the Ice Worm, which was a robot that can climb iced walls, and I helped create a robot that's designed to find life in the ocean of one of Saturn's moons.


One of the best perks of working for NASA is being able to see missions come to life. NASA attracts an amazing group of individuals from around the world, and being able to interact with people that you deeply respect is another huge perk — the launch parties are also a plus.

The most memorable party was the landing party for Mars 2020, during the pandemic, when the Perseverance Rover landed on the Red Planet. It was February 18, 2021, right around Mardi Gras so there were colorful hats everywhere. There were VIP groups, limos, and press, but the strangest thing I can remember is when my colleague and I had to give a presentation on EELS in a huge auditorium later that day. We wore two of the hats so that everyone could see us on stage.

The Pasadena lab works for years on different iterations of one robot and seeks out the most extreme environments on Earth to test its robots to the limits. I've sent my robots to Antarctica, mapped out volcanic fissures in Hawaii, and used Rainbow Basin and the Pisgah Crater in the Mojave Desert as a Mars analogue.

One of my most challenging trips for NASA was in July 2021

I went into the glacier caves of Mount St. Helens volcano. Mount St. Helens is so dangerous that parts of it are off-limits to the public. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted with 500 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. Now, just a handful of glacier-cave explorers and scientists visit the cave each year to look for signs of future eruptions.

While they're doing their research, we enter the cave with them and test the robots. We chose this network of ice caves filled with steam vents as an analogue for Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn. Enceladus also has water-vapor vents, but they geyser out into space to make one of the rings of Saturn. I worked with a team to create the articulated Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS) robot, which looks like a string of beads and adapts to the undulating terrain. It's designed to dive into one of the vents on this moon and explore the ocean below.


When we're working in Mount St. Helens, we face rockslides, avalanches, opening crevasses, and poisonous gases. I've been a caver since I was a teenager. For this expedition, NASA protocol required us to hike many of the peaks around Southern California, including Mount Whitney, for physical and environmental training. We also had to do CPR and hypothermia training, and the mountain-safety team provided helicopter, rope, and ice-safety training on site.

On this expedition, we camped on the glacier at the top of the volcano, but a spate of warm weather melted the glacier under the tents. We had to constantly dig new flat areas where we could pitch the tents.

While we were teaching the robot how to find new life on other planets, it helped us potentially find new life on Earth

Our goal for this expedition was to test the payload of the EELS. We manually fed the robot samples of dirt and ice from inside the caves so it would learn what to do when it reaches Enceladus. When we ran the samples through a digital holographic microscope, we found single-cell creatures, about 1/100th the thickness of a hair, swimming.

Our expedition into the cave also helped us test which sensors were able to make accurate maps of this environment. Ice reflects light and lasers differently than rocks and plants, and water vapors make it hard to see as well.

It will take 12 years for the spacecraft to reach Enceladus from Earth, but it will take EELS just 90 minutes to send its findings back to Earth. It's our hope that the Orbilander flight in 2038 will carry an EELS robot.


When I was 4 years old, I used to look up at the nights' sky above my parents' farm and dream of being an astronaut

When I was eight, I asked for my bedroom to be wallpapered with pictures of the planets, and by the time I was 10 years old, I was building Lego space bases, robots, and spaceships.

I still dream about the Moon, but now I'm also thinking about the ocean world and moons that lie throughout our solar system. I know the technologies being built will help us on Earth to fight climate change, produce sustainable power, and increase food safety and security.

At the same time, as a robotics engineer for NASA, I also aim to inspire more four-year-olds to pursue their dreams and bring a better future.