SFN Reader Spacewolf: From the Brickyard to the Planets

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.

Alums General NC State

23 Responses to SFN Reader Spacewolf: From the Brickyard to the Planets

  1. Paramarine 05/27/2009 at 10:47 AM #

    What an excellent read. An interview like this should have a home on NC State’s admissions website.

  2. WolftownVA81 05/27/2009 at 12:08 PM #

    Great read. Thanks to both of you taking the time to do this interview. Its always interesting to see the varied places where Wolfpackers are making a difference.

    BTW, any room for Jed on one those unmanned rockets? You could always log it as mission with a chimp (no disrespect to chimpanzees).

  3. BJD95 05/27/2009 at 12:13 PM #

    Very interesting indeed. I do remember that Aerospace required a damned fine GPA to matriculate into, at least when I was transitioning into an engineering major.

    Yet this guy still found his way onto the NC State internet? I thought we were all morons?

  4. PoppaJohn 05/27/2009 at 12:51 PM #

    Great article – again, nice to be a Wolfpacker.

    And a quick aside, many, many compliments to those of you working to continuously improve the site. I’ve been reading for 3-4 years and have always loved the content (the best out there!!), but the presentation has now risen to the level of the content. This is a first class web site.

  5. StateFans 05/27/2009 at 1:08 PM #

    Thank you very much for your kind comments. We are working hard.

  6. spanky 05/27/2009 at 1:46 PM #

    Correct BJD we are all a bunch of ignorant rednecks… just like my very close friend who recently accepted a paid internship this summer at NASA’s Ames Research Center… the only person from the Southeast to do so. That moron, she has a measly 4.0 (3.998) in Aerospace Engineering as a rising senior…

    Internship is in rotor-craft aero-vehicular design or some crazy shenanigans like that…

    I’m in a biological sciences major so all that stuff is a bunch of black magic and voodoo to me. I’m outrageously proud and impressed.. It speaks volumes that the one person selected from the southeast was from NCSU. Also only ~20 were selected for that location.

    (edited to add that she TURNED DOWN the C.I.A. when they offered an internship)

  7. wufpup76 05/27/2009 at 2:54 PM #

    Very, very cool.

  8. Texpack 05/27/2009 at 2:57 PM #

    As one who has lived amongst the “NASA Nerds” that work at JSC for the past 25 years it is always nice to see the space program get some love.

  9. Zen Wolf 05/27/2009 at 3:44 PM #

    Come on guys its all ball bearings these days.

  10. wirogers 05/27/2009 at 4:47 PM #

    Great Article, being a State Alumni and having a father who was an Alumni of the EE program it is good to read about our connections to NASA. I was lucky to see this first hand growing up as Dad graduated and started the next week with NASA at the Greenbelt, MD location (made it fun to deal with the local Terps fans). I may be a little slighted in my opinion, however, I met many many State grads who worked the early days with NASA as they put us on the moon.

    The opposite side of this is a great story I was able to use in my ag classes of a ‘Rocket Scientist’ who knew nothing about soil; and the comment that you do not have to be a rocket scientist to know you cannot have a basement in eastern NC.

  11. ChuckAllYall 05/27/2009 at 4:53 PM #

    “I’ll have a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich.”

  12. LifeScientist 05/27/2009 at 8:16 PM #

    Spanky, no need to feel left out, fact is, NC State Bio Sciences is one of the biggest participants in NASA-oriented research. When we go into space, biological considerations are paramount. I think there is some kind of NCSU space consortium over at Centennial, and to anyone of any background who is interested in the topic, I recommend the Space Biology course which State offers by distance learning. At the time I was a grad student, one of my instructors got herself a sweet pot o’ research money from NASA as well. There’s no question NCSU is on the cutting edge of space research! It’s one more reason to be proud to be a State alumni.

  13. hai17 05/27/2009 at 8:50 PM #

    At risk of sounding full of myself, I’ll throw my lot in as another moronic Statefans “rocket scientist”. I’m currently in UT on my way to an internship with NASA Dryden dealing with aero structures (thanks for the mobile access by the way Statefans!).

    A good friend of mine worked with NASA Langley last summer (he actually got to work with some research dealing with the Space Shuttle – cool stuff!). Thanks for the interview by the way – it’s always nice to hear about successful alumni.

  14. howlie 05/27/2009 at 10:44 PM #

    Any chance we’ll see sports threads again?

    As soon as there is something palpable happening in the Wolfpack sports world, we will talk about it. Right now, even the monkey boards are just spitballing and talking recruiting. It’s not like any major sport is in season.

    And it never hurts to talk about what NC State is and does in the rest of the world in the meantime.

    But there are less than 100 days to football. Plus there are some historical Wolfpack articles under development.

  15. spanky 05/28/2009 at 12:28 AM #

    LifeScientist – I actually got to talk with a NASA official about the biological considerations in space, very interesting stuff. I had also heard that there was a pretty big connection between NASA and the bio sciences department at State. Funny you should mention the space bio course, I’m actually scheduled to take it this fall!

    I meant more of the engineering math oriented stuff as far as the black magic voodoo nonsense. I finished my college level maths at Calc I… MA 121, and that was it for maths (unless you count statistics)

  16. McCallum 05/28/2009 at 6:00 AM #

    This is actually the type of journalism that NC State should be doing to build support. It connects several items: degree to profession, profession to alumni and students, passion for State and the transition to professional career, etc.

    Just a good piece IMO.

    But now a joke:

    What is the difference between an extroverted engineer and an introverted engineer?

    The extroverted engineer stares at your shoes while he is talking to you.


  17. kyjelly 05/28/2009 at 7:43 AM #

    Speaking of space ,where is that cadet “redfred” been hiding?

  18. packplantpath 05/28/2009 at 8:28 AM #

    If anybody is interested, there is the NASA specialized center of research and training (NSCORT)on centennial campus (I think it’s there). I know the Botany department participates since I was an undergrad there and did some work with a PI who worked with NSCORT.

    The website for them is http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/nscort/

  19. orionpack 05/28/2009 at 8:34 AM #

    I’ve been a long time reader, but have never posted here before. I started reading when everyone was tracking the plane during the coaching search. You guys do an excellent job with this site. Just wanted to admit that I’m another one of those geeks working up at NASA Langley (working on the replacement for the shuttle, Launch Abort System to be exact). There are a lot of State grads here although the VA Tech grads unfortunately outnumber us here.
    Interesting tidbit, for those that remember our kicker, Kiker, he was an aerospace engineer that managed to graduate with around a 4.0 gpa in aero engr.

    Alpha: I saw you mentioned on a post a few weeks ago that your dad worked on Apollo…mind me being nosy asking what he did?

  20. Alpha Wolf 05/28/2009 at 8:45 AM #

    ^It is actually the whole family that was involved.

    My father was Assistant Fire Chief for KSC in charge of Astronaut and Pad Safety until Houston took control (for those that don’t know that’s when the bottom of the launch vehicle clears the top of the launch tower.) He was in the APC’s one mile or closer (he sometimes was stationed beneath the pad in the bunkers there) to each Saturn launch.

    My grandfather was Telemetry Chief for MILA and MIS for KSC. He worked directly for Kurt Debus.

    My uncle was in Huntsville and was the Lead Engineer for the S1-C project, which most folks know as the Saturn V First Stage. He reported to to Wehrner Von Braun at NASA. He recently passed on and had collected well over 500 public (and we think an equal number of black) patents.

    Another uncle worked at IBM Huntsville as an engineer on the Saturn V IMU (Instrumentation Management Unit.)

    Me, I am a Space Kid from Cocoa Beach who was lucky enough to have seen every single Saturn V launch from six miles or closer. And someone who got to fish with some astronaut named Neil when he was in town (with my grandfather.)

    When I see documentaries of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo days on Discovery Channel (or another one) I often stop the DVR or DVD when they show the Firing Room or LCC so I can see my grandfather at work. Dad is in nearly every single collection of Spacecraft Films’ mission reports.

  21. orionpack 05/28/2009 at 9:08 AM #

    Pretty cool stuff Alpha. Sounds like your family really was involved with everything going on.

  22. mafpack 05/28/2009 at 10:15 AM #

    Awesome read!

    My brother-in-law is another NCSU grad doing some really creative and awesome work at NASA Langley. We were actually up visiting he and his wife this past weekend (which is why I haven’t had a chance to post on this until now) and got to hear about some of the cool projects he’s recently finished. Got to be honest, it’s kinda nice having married into an NCSU family coming from an NCSU family – game days are a blast 🙂

  23. PhilipRiversWannabe 05/28/2009 at 1:14 PM #

    Thanks for posting this. I just completed my freshman year at State and I am an aerospace engineering major. Its great to hear that they are decent amount of former Wolfpackers involved in space related activities.

Leave a Reply