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Dave Everett - Enjoying His Job the Hard Way
December 11, 2013

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Name: Dave Everett
Title: Project Systems Engineer for OSIRIS-REx
Formal Job Classification: Systems Engineer
Organization: Code 599, Mission Systems Engineering Branch, Mission Engineering and Systems Analysis Division, Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate

OSIRIS-REx project systems engineer Dave Everett thinks his job is fun because it is hard.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I am the project systems engineer for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification – Regolith Explorer. Our mission will bring back a sample from the asteroid known as Bennu.

What is a project systems engineer?

As the project systems engineer, I have the lead technical role. I make sure that everything works and that the whole system does what it is supposed to do. This includes the spacecraft, the instruments, the ground system and the interactions of each of these with the launch vehicle. I certainly don’t do all the details myself, but I do coordinate the effort of all the engineers on the team to make sure that everything works. My job is analogous to an orchestra conductor, only instead of playing instruments we make instruments—and we are spread across the country.

I work with the lead engineers of all the pieces of the mission, but our effort involves more than engineers. We also have scientists, accountants, lawyers, various managers and administrators. A few thousand people will contribute to our mission. If any one of these people makes a mistake that we miss, we could lose the mission. It makes my job really hard, which is why it is also interesting.

We launch in September 2016 and will reach the asteroid in the fall of 2018. We will spend almost a year studying the asteroid before getting a sample from the surface in 2019. We will depart from Bennu in 2021 and will return to the earth in Utah at 8:40 a.m. MDT on September 24, 2023. It is very strange talking minute by minute about something that will happen ten years from now, but this is the way orbital dynamics work.

What is the difference between an engineer and a systems engineer?

An engineer uses math and science to solve problems. A systems engineer solves technical problems that are too large for an individual to analyze. We divide up the problem into smaller pieces. Other teams of engineers solve these smaller pieces. Then the systems engineer makes sure that all the small pieces from these teams unite to solve the overall problem.

What is the “systems engineering problem” for OSIRIS-REx?

Our “systems engineering problem” is how to bring back a sample from Bennu.

How do you generally interact with team members?

I spend a lot of time on teleconferences. We use web-based applications to display graphics while we are talking on the phone. Our systems engineering teleconferences generally involve a dozen or more people spread across the country. We have several teleconferences a week to make sure that we are all working to the same requirements and building the same system. However, it is critical to occasionally meet face-to-face to better understand each individual’s perspective.

What do you like most about your job?

No two days are the same. Every day brings a new challenge. Also, I get to work with a lot of really smart people who make me think and show me new perspectives.

What do you enjoy most about working at Goddard?

Nearly everyone I work with is really enthusiastic about what they do, which makes my day very interesting and enjoyable.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done as part of your job at Goddard?

I have a spacecraft in orbit around the moon right now! I was the lead mission systems engineer for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is providing the most detailed maps ever of the lunar surface. I recently bought a globe of the moon, which is the first update since the 1960s, and it is composed of images from LRO. I feel like an explorer!

What is your dream job?

I’m in my dream job. I have always been interested in space. As a child, I watched the Apollo launches, followed the Voyager and other planetary missions and read Astronomy magazine. I never wanted to be an astronaut, but I was always interested in the challenge of designing and building things to go into space.

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How has your dream job evolved?

I was always interested in the technical problems, but what I’ve realized is that there are boundless challenges associated with leading technical teams given the non-linear dynamics of human interaction. Each of us impacts everyone around us. One small decision from any one of us could have a tremendous impact on someone else.

I do a lot of translating from one technical person to another technical person. I can sit in a room with two technical people and tell when they do not hear each other. That’s when I translate. I’ll say the same thing in a different way because I understand the different perspectives. I know enough about each of the technical fields to see when there is any misunderstanding and then fix it.

Why did you become an engineer?

In ninth grade, we had a class about different careers including stress levels, salaries and required educational backgrounds. I first learned about engineering in this class. Engineering fit me perfectly because I was good in math, enjoyed science and like to fix things. To this day, family members bring me broken appliances to fix. For example, I replaced the cracked display on my wife’s cell phone.

Do you work with students?

I give a lot of outreach talks to students of all different age groups and also to teachers. One of the messages is that my job is fun because it is hard. When I get the puzzled looks, I remind them that they don’t play level one over and over on their favorite video games. Another message for older audiences, especially when talking about leadership, is the importance of getting different perspectives. We cannot bring a spacecraft back once we launch it, so it has to work perfectly, without any fatal flaws. The greatest danger is the things we haven’t thought of.

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How did the asteroid come to be named Bennu?

The OSIRIS-REx project, in partnership with the Planetary Society and Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, held a Name the Asteroid contest. The contest was open to any student under the age of 18. Nine-year-old Mike Puzio of North Carolina said that the sample arm and solar array on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made him think of Bennu. In Egyptian mythology, Bennu is a symbol of rebirth depicted as a gray heron and often associated with Osiris.

What is the single biggest lesson you have learned at Goddard?

It is the things that we are not paying attention to that will cause the big problems. This means that every day the entire team has to be constantly vigilant to identify things we do not understand, even if they seem minor, and figure out what is happening. I once lost a mission over a 12 millisecond glitch.

Is there something surprising about you, your hobbies, interests or activities outside of work that people do not generally know?

I am renovating our home in the historic district of Laurel. My family lives in a Victorian house built in 1888. The house was livable when we bought it, but we added two bathrooms, built a new attic staircase, and enlarged and renovated the kitchen. I am doing the carpentry and electrical work myself. It’s a nice complement to my job because I can go from design to operations on the house in less than a year, while at work it might take a decade to do that. Of course, I don’t know where I’ll be working on the house in ten years, but I do know exactly where OSIRIS-REx will be in ten years.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Dave Everett
Dave Everett
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Dave's renovated house in Laurel
Dave's renovated house now.
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of D. Everett
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Dave's house circa 1910
The house was built in 1888 by Edward Phelps, who was mayor of Laurel for 7 years. This photo is from 1910.
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Courtesy of the Laurel Historical Society
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Dave and his wife, Lisa outside their home.
Dave and his wife, Lisa, outside their Laurel home. Lisa hopes to turn their home into a bed and breakfast in the next few years.
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Courtesy of D. Everett
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Page Last Updated: December 12th, 2013
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner