From balloons to Mars: NASA systems manager speaks to Fairfield community

Photo of Katrina Koerting

FAIRFIELD — In the span of just a few days, Joe Sauvageau fielded questions about why Mars is dusty and if fire comes out of a rocket and opined on the future roadmap of NASA and the commercialization of space.

The former questions were from a preschool class at Harbor Light in Fairfield and the latter from a talk at Fairfield University, his alma mater.

Sauvageau, who is a system manager at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said talking to both types of audiences is important in inspiring future scientists, though the Fairfield talk also included alumni.

“I like to encourage the next generation,” he said.

Sauvageau graduated from Fairfield in 1979 where he majored in physics and mathematics. He went on to earn his master’s and doctorate in physics engineering at Stony Brook University in New York, but really credits his time at Fairfield and the professors there for his career.

“It was such an inspiring place to go,” he said.

It’s that appreciation that led to the talk a couple of weeks ago. He had connected with the university’s president and alumni coordinator at an alumni event in California a few years ago and in turn was inspired to reach back out to the engineering school.

“I really feel compelled to give back to Fairfield any way that I can,” Sauvageau said.

The Fairfield University talk focused on Mars and the Perseverance and Ingenuity missions.

Sauvageau and School of Engineering Dean Andres Carrano decided to focus on Mars because the topic is of great interest to both the public and Sauvageau.

More than 300 people registered for the virtual talk with attendance remaining above 200 the whole time, Carrano said. It was open to faculty, current and admitted students, as well as their friends and family who might have an interest in the Mars missions.

Carrano said the university just got the clearance from NASA to release the video, which should be available for more people to view in the coming week.

While not directly on the Mars team, Sauvageau said he has friends on it and closely follows the work there. The autonomous helicopter is also a key part in the state-of-the-art technology coming from JPL, where he does a lot with research and development.

Carrano said these kinds of talks are important because they show real world applications.

“One of the aspects that we highlight the most is the exciting career opportunities that a Fairfield engineering education can facilitate,” he said. “We also aim at providing educational programming which is both interesting and relevant on various topics of engineering and technology.”

Then there was the preschool class talk. Where the adults were interested in Mars, the Harbor Light one took a more general look at space and aeronautics, including why a balloon floats.

The connection between both talks rests with one of the professors who left a mark on Sauvageau’s own flight path: Robert Bolger. It was through Bolger that he got to know Bolger’s daughter, Mary Garbe, the preschool teacher who set up the talk with her students.

When he was a student himself, Sauvageau would stay with the family, discussing mathematics and physics with Bolger. That, in turn, developed into a friendship with the whole family, he said.

Garbe and her co-teacher at Harbor Light, Anthony Chabla, had been working on a space unit with their 16-member class this spring — a long held interest among their 4- and 5-year-olds.

“Since the beginning of the school year in September, we could tell the kids were interested in space,” she said.

Garbe told Sauvageau about the students’ fascination and he suggested doing a virtual call with them so he could answer their questions.

“It was amazing,” Garbe said.

The Harbor Light talk was driven by the students. Garbe sent the 15 or so questions ahead of time and Sauvageau gathered videos and pictures so he and the preschoolers could work through the answers together.

“I was trying to stir their imagination,” he said. “You never know.”

He said he was about their age when he first became interested in rockets and science and now works at NASA JPL.

Both Garbe and Sauvageau said they were impressed by the students’ curiosity, which looked at a variety of topics, including how the Mars rover and rockets work, as well as the types of animals who have been to space.

“The questions were adorable,” Garbe said.

Sauvageau stressed the importance of continuing to ask questions and to keep exploring.

Garbe said space exploration and the Persevance program is great for all children because it teaches them about teamwork and to not give up. She added there’s also a chance the talk planted a seed for at least one child about a future career around outer space.

“It would certainly be awesome if one of them grew up to be a rocket scientist,” she said.