photo of Erik Ballesteros
Hardware Quality Assurance Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Job Title

Hardware Quality Assurance Engineer


Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Pasadena, CA

Why did you decide to pursue an aerospace engineering degree at UT Austin?

I've grown up infatuated with space. From Star Wars all the way to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I've always wanted to figure out how to bring our own imagination to life. Space, containing so many unanswered questions, as well as the plethora of technological challenges to traverse offers so much to our imagination and problem solving. Growing up, UT Austin has always been a dream school of mine. Pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at my dream school became an obvious choice.

Describe your current position.

I work closely with flight project engineers to validate that their designs and builds are compliant with the standards JPL instills on all flight projects. Most of this work involves aiding with design decisions, performing physical inspection of hardware, and traveling across the world to ensure our suppliers meet those expectations.

What do you like most about your job? What do you find most challenging?

Flight projects at JPL are always first of their kind, making it highly difficult to standardize the processes used to develop spacecraft. Each and every project brings forth a new set of challenges that always keeps the work non-redundant. Not only that, but HQA engineers must be highly flexible in their work, one day I would be inspecting hardware, looking for sources of fault, the next I would be assisting testing of an entire spacecraft assembly. What is challenging most about this work is trying to instill assurance in a system that is exposed to an environment that is highly volatile and unpredictable.

What are your career goals?

I have always wanted to become an astronaut. Being able to be among the few to travel to the stars has been a childhood dream. With that, I want to become the best version of myself possible. Robotics specifically, is a field I'm deeply passionate about. I would love to become an expert in this field and use that expertise to bring forth a new age in technological achievement.

How did your involvement with student groups/organizations help prepare you for your career?

Each student organization (AIAA, SGT, LRA, TSL) I participated in gave me unique benefits that significantly benefited my career. To start, each organization enabled unique networking opportunities with industry leaders. In addition, each opportunity allowed me to work alongside other students with different mindsets and motivations, helping me to develop better team skills and social skills among my peers.

Were you involved in any fellowships or internships?

I participated in so many different internships throughout my undergraduate years.

I started at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, where I worked on the F35 program. Following that I worked at the Cryogenics Testing Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center. Eventually, I landed a Pathways co-op internship with the Johnson Space Center. There I worked with the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and the xEMU spacesuit. I even had the chance to be a flight controller in training for the ISS program. Each opportunity gave me a new perspective on how engineering systems are handled. A flight controller sees an engineering system far differently than a research engineer does.

Nearing the end of my undergraduate career, I took a sudden left turn and tried out Walt Disney Imagineering. There I designed and developed the mechanical assemblies for several Audio-Animatronics in upcoming new Disney Parks attractions. This opportunity solidified my interest in the field of Robotics as well as showed me what it's like being in a high stress environment.

Do you recommend any particular focus for students other than academics to improve themselves as potential candidates for jobs?

Work on your personal skills. Many times, companies look for people who not only prove they have the capacity to learn their processes, but who are also likable. Invest in yourself, take up a hobby, and be passionate about what you do. Employers can see this a mile away and that always gives you an edge when interviewing.

Are there courses at UT you wish you had taken?

I wish I took a course in electromechanical systems. I feel that this course would have established more foundation in my understanding of robotic systems. 

Who was your most influential ASE, COE or EM professor and why?

This would have to go to Dr. Efstathios Bakolas as well as Dr. Manuel Rausch. Both of these professors aided significantly in opening up the possibility of pursuing graduate school. Not only that, but they helped show me the academic side of the Robotics field. They are also just generally nice people who wanted to see me do my best.

What has been your most influential ASE, COE or EM course and why?

Linear System Analysis for sure. The course first introduced me to system behaviors and gave me a novel approach to looking at how systems interact with one another. There have been countless times the contents of this course proved useful in my everyday work life here at JPL. 

What is one piece of advice you have for current students?

Be open-minded. Be a team player. Regardless of the course or assignment, find an excuse that makes the course more interesting to you. Without that interest, you'll lack motivation and struggle far more.

List three things that most people don't know about you.
  • I am an avid cosplayer, I used to compete professionally.
  • I am currently building a fully functional R2 unit from Star Wars that is entirely 3D printed.
  • I love to surf.