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Center Snapshot: Frank Peri
01.07.11
 
Frank Peri, center snapshot. Image above: Frank Peri spent time taking a personal inventory before moving to a new job, running the Earth Systems Science Pathfinder office. Photo credit: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

By: Jim Hodges

The office was Spartan in early December, with bare furniture awaiting the necessities and creature comforts of a workspace that is part of Frank Peri’s new job.

Peri is head of the Earth Systems Science Pathfinder office, a NASA headquarters function run out of NASA Langley. He has just moved into the job after five years with Exploration Technology and, he added, a period of soul-searching.

"What's cool about what I'm doing here is that I've been in a kind of self-discovery mode for about two years, trying to be a better manager, better father, better husband," said Peri, whose wife, Stephanie, works out of the house; and who has three children, Giovanna, 14; Dominic, 12; and Dean, 6.

"I think as you get more mature in your job, you get to see things differently. I'm seeing things differently than I did, even two years ago."

It's allowed him to make a transition from Exploration Technology to a position in which he manages projects that figure out how to do new science, things that have never been done, to meet a specific objective.

Examples include how pollution moves around the Earth, how ocean salinity figures in climate study and the Orbital Carbon Observatory, which is being built after its first version was destroyed during launch. That's a far cry from Constellation: a concentrated effort to build a spacecraft to return to the moon and, eventually, to Mars.

"The agency made a decision to move (Exploration Technology)," Peri said. "It was a difficult move, but in the end, I saw an opportunity for bigger things to happen for me and for people who were working with me.

"That was a kind of maturity I didn't have two years ago." Or 24 years ago, when Peri, who hails from Cleveland, came to NASA Langley with a degree in engineering from the University of Akron. He worked in making Earth Science measurements, but from an engineering standpoint. That meant he had to interact with scientists to understand what they were seeking, and with engineers to determine how best to provide it.

Now he runs an office that orchestrates the efforts of both in missions that can cost as much as $150 million.

He doesn't have to "speak" science or engineering, but he has to understand both.

"There are a lot of people who can think in both domains," Peri said. "At Langley, in the Science Directorate, many of the people can do both very well. And if you talk to the Engineering Directorate, they know the science drivers and will say 'I've got an idea for an instrument that will measure that very well.' "

But the jobs on a project are more defined.

"A project scientist has one set of responsibilities and a project manager and project engineer have different sets of responsibilities, and they have to work together to be successful," Peri said. "Part of our job is to collect the science needs that the agency has and put together an engineering team that can enable those needs."

It's also to manage the project as though it was a business.

Away from the center, he enjoys riding competitively in mountain biking races and in road races. "I'm a workaholic, but I see value in trying to stay healthy and find other diversions to keep me from going crazy," Peri said. "I've been riding competitively for 20 years. It's a great diversion. When you're exercising, you don't have to think about anything, and it takes my mind off things that are going on around here."

He also plays drums in a pickup rock band with friends.

"I love the whole breadth of music," Peri said. "I like the '60s, '70s. The '80s got a little weird. I'm a drummer-guitar-bass kind of guy."

He is Italian, Stephanie is Greek and the two enjoy cooking, though finding the time to do so is becoming increasingly difficult as they cope with children advancing into their teenaged years.

And now he embarks on a new job, with new challenges and new potential rewards.

"I spent the whole summer figuring out what I want to do when I grow up, making decisions, trying to depersonalize the decisions," Peri said. "And I came out of that, I think, better in the end. Time will tell."

And that time will tell much faster than it would have with a mission to Mars, with science missions coming up in the next couple of years.

And an office to organize even sooner.

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