Flight Operations Lead Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Where are you from?
I was born in Teaneck, N. J., but my family moved away when I was 7 or so, for New York, and eventually California. Today, I live in the canyons behind the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Altadena, Calif.
Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I can still remember my first view of Saturn with those amazing rings, and of banded Jupiter -- whose moons were lined up differently every night -- in a 4-inch reflector when I was 7 years old.
To be able now to work on projects that are flying to the planets has been really a dream.
How did you end up working in the space program?
When I applied to work for JPL I insisted that my experience in flight operations (albeit with airplanes), and my experience with those newfangled microcomputers made me a good candidate. They believed me, so I went to work first with the Deep Space Network (DSN), and then I became a member of the Voyager flight team, as my first space project.
What is a Realtime Flight Operations Lead Engineer?
"Realtime" means as close as you can get, given the speed of light, to dealing directly with the spacecraft.
"Flight Operations" means working closely with the Deep Space Network to send commands to the spacecraft, and navigational signals to and from the spacecraft; it means running programs that check engineering telemetry (distant measurements) to be sure the spacecraft's systems are all operating within their limits. Also, it means making sure the teams of scientists are receiving their data (whether it's the images and other telemetry from instruments aboard the craft, or the pure radio tones from radio science experiments, such as flying behind Saturn's rings and atmosphere to probe them directly with radio).
"Lead Engineer" means I manage to have all the plans, procedures and communications working smoothly, so the rest of the flight team can depend on us.
Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career.
A favorite recollection is when my team members and I watched images building up line-by-line on the monitors from Voyager 2's very remote "eyes." We were in touch with the craft as it dove over Neptune's cold northern cloud decks and flew through a gravitational corridor that would take it close by the big, retrograde, captured moon Triton. Later, thanks to newly programmed image-motion compensation running perfectly aboard the spacecraft, clear images revealed a cold alien landscape where later analysis revealed active nitrogen geysers issuing from beneath Triton's nitrogen-snowy surface. This was Voyager 2's last encounter. It was on a hyperbolic trajectory, leaving the Sun behind forever. And Carl Sagan, one of the imaging-team scientists, threw the whole flight team a party. Chuck Berry was rocking and duck-walking his electric guitar across the wide concrete steps out in front of JPL's administration building. What a way to leave the solar system!
Who inspired you?
I have been inspired in person by my father, an electrical engineer and patent lawyer. I have been inspired by the books and/or public appearances of Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Timothy Ferris. And I have been inspired by the mathematic, engineering and scientific feats of giants like Kepler, Newton, Huygens, Faraday, Maxwell, Kirchhoff, Euler, Einstein, Oberth, Hohmann and so many more.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
(When it comes to your career) follow your heart, follow your nose, and don't take "no" for an answer.
What do you do for fun?
I used to love sailing and scuba diving, but lately I've gravitated to gardening, writing and enjoying nature. I'm a big fan of electric cars and solar power.
If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
Do well in math and science courses; if necessary, seek out the best teachers. And do your best with homework.