EPOXI Flight Team Telecom Lead Engineer*, JPL
* (also same for Dawn, for the Mars Rovers, and soon for Mars Science Laboratory)
What's the coolest thing about EPOXI?
That it's up there, not too far away (right now a couple of light-minutes) from our antennas at Goldstone, near Madrid, and near Canberra, and that we can hear its familiar voice via the engineering telemetry every time one of our Deep Space Network stations tracks the spacecraft. May it fly "forever"!
Why do you like working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?
I work at JPL in California, and I've been here going on 39 years. I like being at JPL best because I get to work with different spacecraft, especially when I can work with several of them at the same time. I like being on flight teams, able to see the numerical and plotted data coming in to the mission support area, talking with my colleague engineers who are experts on the different subsystems such as Power, Thermal, Attitude Control, Command & Data Handling.
What is your job on the EPOXI mission?
My job, my subsystem: "Telecom", which refers not only to the on-board radio (receiver/transmitter), power amplifier, and antenna, but also to the corresponding antennas and radios in the ground stations. I think what I like best about this situation is that telecom is always interfacing with a wide variety of other disciplines.
I like working with people on my projects face-to-face, by telephone, and in written form, primarily e-mail. I work in both planning future activities on-board, and in reviewing health, status, and performance data coming down at the present time. Planning refers to selecting commands (more often blocks of commands) that will remotely control the spacecraft. Reviewing includes querying the data and running it through various analysis tools (in my case, primarily spreadsheet macros) that produce plotted curves of voltages, currents, temperatures, radio frequency power levels, and frequencies. The real challenge is then at hand: interpreting the listings of commands or the plots of data, looking for patterns, looking for errors, looking for trends in the subsystem performance.
[Learn more about Deep Space Communications and Navigation Systems.]
Then on any given day, when I'm done doing these things on Deep Impact, I do them again on Dawn or on the Mars Rovers. There is great serendipity in being able to apply what I see or learn on EPOXI to the Rovers or Dawn, or vice versa.
How did you end up in Space Science?
I'm not quite in Space Science - is Space engineering close enough? It all started out in 1962, on my first job at an aerospace company - RCA, no longer in existence - in New Jersey. As a young engineer, degree in electrical engineering, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do. But this company built weather satellites, some of the first in the world. My supervisor discovered I could write. I secured a position in the proposals department, but my favorite place was the library, where I read about the Deep Space work that JPL was doing. I set out to get a job here, and once I did that, my new supervisor asked me how I'd like to go into flight operations. I guess my question, "What's that?" was the right one, because I've made a very satisfying career of it - starting with the first sustained Mars Orbiter, Mariner '71 (referring to its launch date). The radios, on-board and on the ground, derive from similar equipment on Mariner '71.
"That's me with my wife Barbara. The lucky photographer, our son Mike, is the one privileged to be looking out beyond us toward Lake George and Vermont. The picture is taken on our cottage's deck, which is about 8 feet above and 15 feet from the lakeshore. We sleep on an enclosed porch a few feet to the left, and we can hear the moods of the lake and the weather through the night, and the birds (an occasional owl, a rare loon, and many day birds just after dawn)."
Credit: Mike Taylor
What do you do in your spare time?
Having helped raise a family, the kids all married and out on their own, my wife and I enjoy being grandparents. We enjoy visiting the families, three of them within an hour or so's drive, another in northern California, and the last in in Spokane. I particularly enjoy my summer vacations - most often involving a drive across the country to our cottage on Lake George in upstate New York, a few weeks there - while the families visit US - and a drive back on some other "blue highway." At home, I enjoy reading.
Who in your life inspired you?
My father - a mechanical engineer who graduated from Stanford and inspired me to do the same. My senior high school English teacher who taught creative writing and had faith in me. That first supervisor in New Jersey, who put me on the path to working with spacecraft. Now some of my young colleagues at JPL who inspire me with their questions and their abilities.
What is one yet-to-be achieved life goal?
To continue living, another day, another year, however long is given to me, in reasonably good health with family members who love me also living good happy lives. And if JPL wishes to continue to pay me for doing what I enjoy here, and I can can continue to contribute, well, that's icing on the cake.
Were you science-oriented as a young person?
Sure, if you consider making a play microphone out of a broomstick and a hunk of wood and pretending to be broadcasting on the radio. And putting together radio kits as a teenager, and working on a seismic data processing laboratory as a college student. All of these activities were fun, and they exposed me to various facets of radio communications and to data processing. And in high school, learning chemical formulas and simple physics was more fun for me than English literature.
What was your favorite book as a young person?
Can it first be a magazine? Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog). Of course from that, I graduated to books, particularly those by Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. Best book of the batch? The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury). It was very rewarding personally, within the past year, to attend when Ray Bradbury came to JPL as part of the celebration of the 5th year of the Mars Rovers operating on the surface of Mars.
What did you want to become when you were young?
I'm glad you're not putting too fine a point on the word "young." I actually didn't know what I wanted to do even most of the way through college - though I was majoring in electrical engineering. I figured it would be something with radios, but when interviewing for jobs in my last year at Stanford, I was actually more interested in being in a pleasant place (northern California would have been fine) than in the particular work. It actually didn't become clear until after I chose a job at RCA on the basis that they had the best training/orientation program of any of the companies that would have me. Trying out circuit design for military radars made me realize right away that putting together spacecraft subsystems was "way cooler" (though we didn't have that phrase in the early 1960s).
If you weren't working in space exploration now, what might you be doing?
I don't know, I can't imagine - but I can certainly hope that it would involve being able to write as part of the activity - whether a job or a volunteer position or at home.