These days, as it has been throughout the proud history of the American space program, you will find NC State alumni in key roles, and we here at Statefans Nation have one amongst us: Spacewolf. Recently, I had the chance to do an email interview with him, where he told me about his job and how NC State prepared him for what is certainly a rewarding and exciting career, working with NASA.
What do you do for NASA?
I work in NASA’s Launch Services Program. We use expendable launch vehicles to launch NASA’s unmanned spacecraft for solar system exploration, orbiting observatories, and earth observation satellites. Check out the ‘Missions Finder’ at the NASA Missions website. Just about every unmanned mission listed for the last 10-12 years was launched by our program.
Specifically, I’m a guidance, navigation, and controls (GN&C) analyst. GN&C’s basic job is to make sure the launch vehicle delivers the spacecraft to its desired target and stays stable while doing so. I do a lot of mathematical modeling and simulation of the launch vehicle physical characteristics and avionics components.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever worked on in your job with NASA?
The great thing about NASA’s unmanned missions is that no two are the same. We’re not just lobbing communication satellites to GEO. We’re constantly stretching the capabilities of the vehicles we fly, evaluating new launch vehicles, and trying to find solutions to meet our unique spacecraft mission requirements. That makes my job very interesting.
From a science return standpoint, it’s hard to beat the Mars rover missions, but from a personal perspective the Pluto New Horizons (PNH) mission was probably the most challenging and fun mission I’ve worked on. Lot’s of firsts/unique things:
· First flight of the Atlas V 551 vehicle (5m fairing, 5 solid rocket boosters)
· First flight of a new avionics system
· The fastest thing we have ever launched. The Apollo spacecraft got to the moon in 3 days; PNH passed lunar orbit in 9 hours.
· The spacecraft required a spin-stabilized upper stage that had not flown on Atlas V.
· Oh, and we had to do it on schedule: planets don’t wait for launch delays!
We did an incredible amount of simulation development and evaluation during that mission. We’ve already gotten some science back from PNH as it swung by Jupiter for a gravity assist, but the primary return will have to wait till we get to Pluto in July of 2015, 9 ½ years after launch.
Although I hate having to do it, some of the most interesting work I’ve done is failure investigation. You learn so much about how different systems interact and gain insight into areas you’re not normally exposed to. Fortunately, I haven’t had to do that very much.
How did your time at NC State help you prepare for your career?
I was nearly seven years old living in Greensboro when the Apollo 11 mission, the first manned moon landing, occurred. Witnessing those events inspired me to dream of working in the space program. NC State helped me turn that dream into reality. My education at NC State (BS Aerospace Engineering, ’84) set a firm foundation upon which I’ve been able to build a career. I got a solid understanding of the fundamentals I needed to further my education in graduate school (MS & PhD at Cincinnati), and I learned valuable lessons in hard work and teamwork.
Does NC State have much of a presence in our space program? Could they do more?
I have encountered many NC State grads in the government and commercial sides of the space program. All NC State grads can be very proud of the contributions their fellow alumni have made in advancing all aspects our country’s space program.
As a research institution, NC State’s strength has historically been in aeronautics, primarily due to its long-standing affiliation with NASA’s Langley Research Center. Aeronautics certainly has space applications, such as planetary entry, descent, and landing. Space research also occurs at NC State, but on a somewhat smaller scale. Fundamental research in enabling technologies such as materials, electronics, and life sciences also contributes to space exploration.
Like other research institutions, I think NC State’s research focus typically follows funding sources. Aeronautics funding by NASA has dwindled somewhat over the past few years. While aeronautics remains as NC State’s core aerospace competency, it is branching out into other areas, including space.
Are there many Wolfpackers down there?
Not many, but I work with a few and occasionally encounter others when I’m out and about. Anyone who sees my car has no doubt where my loyalties lie, and I’ll occasionally hear a honk of a horn followed by a wolf sign when I’m driving around. The flip side is there’s not a whole lot of UNC-CH fans either!
Do you get back to Raleigh for any games?
After moving from Colorado to Florida in 1999, I’d go to one or two football games a year. After Philip Rivers’ sophomore season, I jumped in with both feet and started getting season tickets. I’ve been a season ticket holder ever since and bought a couple of LTR seats in 2004. Since getting season tickets I think I’ve missed maybe two or three home games. I’m really excited about the upcoming season.
If there’s a basketball game when I’m back home I’ll generally try to go, and I went to the ACC tourney when it was in Tampa a couple of years ago.
Being a Wolfpacker in Florida is difficult sometimes; kind of like being stationed at a remote outpost. Obviously I’m vastly outnumbered by Gator and Seminole fans. One thing I love about going to games is the drive into Raleigh on game day. As I get closer to Raleigh I see more and more WPC stickers and car flags flying, and it reaffirms that I’m part of a larger pack of loyal fans. I love just walking around the parking lots on game day, soaking in as much Wolfpack spirit as I can to carry me over until my next visit.
Thanks much to Spacewolf for taking the time from his obviously busy schedule to answer some questions and let us know what he’s up to. Here are some of his favorite pics of his work down at Cape Canaveral:
Lunar Prospector provided NASA with the first global maps of the moons surface and its gravitational magnetic fields, as well as look for the possible presence of ice near the lunar poles.
A time-lapse photo of the same Lunar Prospector launch. You can clearly see the staging of the rocket as she climbed her way into space.
Finally, to underline how vital and important the space program is to our country, have you considered that you are using the progeny of Apollo right now? Bear with me a bit and read an excerpt from a magazine article I wrote some years ago:
The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was the first recognizably modern embedded electronics system using integrated circuits. While it is true that ICs were used in the Minuteman program, that usage was classified as a Top Secret and the world of electronics outside of the military was unaware of them. The AGC changed all of that, and in turn, that led to the microprocessor revolution you are enjoying at this very moment. After all, your computer owes a deep debt to Project Apollo. More on that in a moment.
The AGC was used in real-time by astronaut pilots to collect and provide flight information, and to automatically control all of the navigational functions of the Apollo spacecraft. It was developed in the early 1960s for the Apollo program by the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory under Charles Stark Draper, with hardware design led by Eldon C. Hall.
At the time, nothing like the AGC existed, and it needed to be invented. Mission constraints required a small footprint inside the Apollo Command Module, as the inside of that CM was perhaps the most exclusive real estate in history: square millimeters were at a premium, and every single one counted.
Enter the integrated circuit. As previously mentioned, the IC was used only in ICBMs at the inception of the MIT AGC project, and during the development of the unit, Project Apollo consumed approximately 60% of the world’s IC supply. Additionally, additional development was spurred on to make the IC units use less power, emit less heat and consume less space. In short, Project Apollo kick-started the IC revolution.
Now here is the payoff: integrated circuits quickly evolved into central processing units, or CPUs. Those are the brains behind the computer you are using at this very moment. CPUs also sit in cellphones, televisions, cars, airplanes, you name it. These days, many are even implanted inside our bodies to run devices like heart pacemakers and the like.
The United States has been a world leader in CPUs since their inception through companies like Intel, which formed in 1968 — as a direct result of integrated circuits achieving economies of scale and processing power. This has also be a boon to NC State, in the form of the CSEE school and also to North Carolina in all of the jobs that have been created.
That said, one can infer that the computer revolution owes its heritage to Project Apollo. As a result, Apollo paid for itself — many times over — not only in improvements to technology, but also in tax revenues that were earned as a result of products sold from materials of its legacy.
And that’s only one of literally thousands of examples. The work that Spacewolf and others do for NASA, for their country and for us cannot be overlooked or written off as expensive adventurism unaffordable in troubled economic times. Instead, it must be looked at as what it is — a program that has collectively given the United States pre-emenence in the sciences, in engineering and in jobs that go far beyond the ones that are direct results of what is being done at NASA centers.
NC State is in the middle of all of that, and as Spacewolf notes, could have an even more prominent role in preparing our young people for a career in aerospace but also in providing vital systems and materiale research. One can only hope that this comes to pass in future years.