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High aspirations

Melony Mahaarachchi, an MBA student at Cambridge Judge Business School (MBA 2019), helped design the NASA Mars Rover project due to launch on 30 July.

Digital animation of space.

By the time Melony Mahaarachchi began her MBA studies at Cambridge Judge Business School in 2019, she had already achieved very high aspirations in every sense of the word.

Melony Mahaarachchi (MBA 2019).
Melony Mahaarachchi (MBA 2019)

Melony moved with her family to the United States from Sri Lanka, building a career in aerospace after graduating from UCLA with a degree in mechanical engineering – and has since worked at SpaceX, Boeing and NASA.

NASA’s Mars Perseverence Rover is scheduled to launch on 20 July, and Melony was a Lead Engineer of the Mars Rover 2020 mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, before beginning her studies last year at Cambridge Judge.

The Perseverance Rover is due to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with a launch window of 20 July to 11 August, and is scheduled to land in the Jezero Crater on Mars in February 2021, with a mission duration of at least one Mars year (about 687 Earth days).

“NASA’s Mars programme has never attempted to design a fully digital mockup of any electrical subsystem before because of its complexity,” she says. “I was leading the internal cabling design and communication system with a team of six, to help them achieve this feat.”

The mission calls for the car-sized Rover to be the first of the Rover series to attempt to bring Mars soil samples back to earth. It is also the first mission with a helicopter specifically designed to fly on another planet.

“When the Mars Rover launches, I will be immensely proud. The mission is the thing that always excites me,” Melony says.

Previous missions in Melony’s career included her first job after graduation from UCLA, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

“I was able to learn a lot from Elon Musk as the founder of SpaceX. I have always got dragged into new projects and designs, where sometimes Elon would sit with our team and he would give his input, like a working teammate, rather than a founder.”

When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launched on 30 May, delivering two astronauts to the International Space Station, Melony noted that the engine subsystem designs and second-stage cameras she worked on there were still in use.

She later moved to Boeing, where she worked on designing commercial aircraft and employee engagement before being contacted by NASA about the Mars Rover project.

“The Mars Rover programme interested me as the budget had been secured, the milestones planned out and it was a very, very ambitious programme – I knew it was going to be fast paced again. NASA was a mix between a startup and a traditional company, so it was a good balance for me.”

Despite the pace of her various posts, Melony has also developed a not-for-profit enterprise, iSTEM Without Borders, which supports and empowers young women in STEM (science, mathematics, engineering and technology) careers.

Choosing to do an MBA was another new “mission” for Melony.

 “Once you have designed something like Mars Rover, you have set yourself so high on the bar that you cannot go and do something much simpler. That’s when I decided that I wanted to come to business school.

“On the Cambridge MBA my boundaries were stretched enormously,” she says. “I have learned how to navigate ambiguity and understand a problem at a higher level, and how to apply solutions in a systematic way even in the absence of data”.

“I now have a lot more faith in myself and more confidence that I will be equipped to help companies make changes within organisational cultures and systems.”