Where are you from?
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
About an hour to the northwest of Wichita is the little town called Hutchinson, KS. Situated in Hutchinson is one of the most amazing museums you'll find anywhere in the world: The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. The Cosmosphere, as the locals call it, is home to the largest collection of space artifacts outside of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. My first exposure to space was a family trip my parents took me and my sister on to the Cosmosphere. I don't really know what it was about the place, but I was awed by all the rockets, airplanes and spacecraft, even at such a young age. I think that was the day I became a total space nerd!
The first time I really connected with the space program, however, was the launch of STS-95, which was John Glenn's return to space. Now, being only ten years old at the time, I didn't have a clue who John Glenn was or any of the other astronauts. My teachers sure did though, and my class was invited down to the library to watch the launch. And let me tell you, it didn't disappoint. I was hooked, captivated by every moment and the suspense leading up to liftoff. I almost couldn't contain my excitement as I watched Space Shuttle Discovery ascend into orbit. That was the moment I knew I was going to be the guy who builds those rocket ships and fly aboard them. I was going to be a NASA astronaut when I grew up.
How did you end up working in the space program?
By mere happenstance. I came to JPL as an Early Career Hire from the Georgia Institute of Technology after completing my master's degree in aerospace engineering. While I was diligently applying for jobs in the space sector, my background in aircraft flight testing was really preventing me from branching out into the spacecraft world. JPL recruiters came to Georgia Tech's annual fall career fair, and, on a whim, I talked with the recruiters, passed along my resume, and thought nothing else of it. Three months later, I showed up for orientation as a flight controller for Cassini. Funny how that works out.
STEM is, by far, the coolest field to get into. We fly spacecraft around other planets; how much better can it get?
Who inspired you?
My parents and teachers have always been my biggest inspiration and motivation. It was never lost on anyone involved in my life growing up that I was a future astronaut in training. My parents really encouraged the math and science early on, enrolling me in science summer programs and even space camp, while my teachers really challenged and pushed me hard because of where I wanted to go. I've made it clear many times before that I'm only in the position I'm in because of the supporting cast behind me the whole way. Along the way, there were also a number of astronauts who kept me motivated to stay focused on the end goal, even when times got really tough.
What is a mission operations engineer?
A mission operations engineer focuses on the sustained operations of a spacecraft. In terms of the NASA systems engineering cycle, we're talking about spacecraft in "Phase E" of their life cycle. Mission operations includes a number of different activities, such as long-term science planning, background sequence design, orbit maneuver design, and real-time spacecraft flight operations, which is what I do.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
After only three days on the job, I was already working Deep Space Network (DSN) passes for Cassini. Three days! I think it shows the immense level of trust that the Cassini team has in me to let me start commanding a multi-billion-dollar spacecraft after less than a week.
I didn't think much when I sent my first command. I queued the command (a command loss timer reset), enabled radiation at the station, and off it went. It wasn't until I saw the command file register on the spacecraft some three hours later that I really comprehended what I had just done. I sent out a command file from a radar dish on the other side of the world (the 70-meter dish in Canberra, Australia), it traveled through space at the speed of light toward Cassini, registered onboard, and radiated back down. I'm talking with a spacecraft that's orbiting thousands of kilometers per hour around Saturn, which itself is 1.5 billion miles from Earth. Not a lot of people can say they've ever done anytime like that. I feel really honored to be chosen to join JPL and work on this amazing project.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
Few people can say they get to work on a project that's orbiting another planet and be allowed to "fly" it. It was a long road for me to get to JPL, but it was all worth it. My best advice, if you really want something and are willing to put the work in to get it, is don't let anything hold you back. I've been chasing the astronaut corps for well over two decades, and there were many times I wanted to give up. Patience, dedication and commitment are hard to do when the goal is so big and so far away. I wanted to work for NASA my whole life, and now I'm doing that. I'm living my dream, and one day so can you!
What do you do for fun?
I'm a really adventurous individual. I'm an active SCUBA diver, both recreationally and professionally, and you'll find me diving almost every weekend. I go diving for fun and help with teaching new SCUBA students as a dive master with a local shop in Pasadena. I'm also training to become a technical SCUBA diver, both open circuit and with closed-circuit rebreathers, so I'm involved in almost every part of the sport. I'm also a pilot and go flying as often as I can. I'm finishing my private pilot's license this year and will continue toward my instrument and commercial ratings over the next couple of years. I'm also actively involved in triathlons and, on average, race in five events every year.
What advice would you give to a student interested in science, math or engineering?
I can only speak about engineering because that's what I know really well, but science and mathematics go hand in hand with engineering. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is, by far, the coolest field to get into. We fly spacecraft around other planets; how much better can it get?! Science teaches us to question the universe around us and ask the fundamental questions about why and how everything works. To be a really great engineer or scientist, you have to be inquisitive. Science and mathematics, and, by extension, engineering, can be a really challenging field, but, as I've previously mentioned, it is the most rewarding career out there.