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Megan Meehan - Finding Beauty in Numbers and Patterns
June 3, 2014

[image-78]Name: Megan Meehan
Title: Instrument Systems Engineer
Organization: Code 491, Instrument Systems Division, Systems Engineering Directorate

From counting pieces of light to building a competition robot with students, instrument systems engineer Megan Meehan finds beauty in numbers and patterns.

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

I work on the Advanced Topographical Laser Altimeter System, the lone instrument to be flown on the upcoming Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 mission. ATLAS is an altimeter that will monitor climate change by measuring changes in the thickness of the polar ice caps.

An altimeter works by shining a light, in this case, a laser, on a target. We then calculate the distance from the target using properties of the laser and the amount of time it takes for ATLAS to “see the light” that bounces back to it. My piece of the puzzle is to help monitor and measure the instrument’s vital statistics to ensure that it is performing its job correctly and consistently. I’m the instrument’s nurse, if you will. A doctor, in this case, the scientific kind, is always on call.

What is your final product?

I work very closely with numerous people including scientists, flight software engineers and the integration and test team. I help interpret the data. I often use specialized software packages, or write my own program, to look at an aspect of our data. I don’t consider myself an artist, but I definitely see a little bit of beauty in the data–perhaps because we are seeing things in a whole new light, so to speak.

The result is a set of visualizations, often histograms or line graphs, depicting how the instrument is functioning. Our visualizations look very similar to the daily stock market chart.

Why did you become an engineer?

I grew up about 15 minutes from an airport in a small town in northern New Jersey. As a little kid, I would sit in the backyard and watch the planes fly over. I was fascinated by the idea that a plane could stay in the air without flapping its wings like a bird. I wanted to understand more. From the third grade on, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer.

[image-94]What’s the difference between an aerospace engineer and an instrument systems engineer?

I’m an aerospace engineer by training, but I also work as an instrument systems engineer. The difference really boils down to the type of problems we solve. An aerospace engineer solves very specialized design and flight problems in aircraft and spacecraft. A systems engineer deals with all disciplines in examining how everything fits together and then puts all the pieces of the puzzle into place. My job here at Goddard is a happy mix of both of these disciplines.

What is the most important quality for an engineer?

Curiosity. Never be afraid to ask why. I constantly ask everyone a lot of questions.

What’s the coolest thing about working at Goddard?

I have moments where I still feel like I’m the third-grader in a small town in New Jersey. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m sitting across the table from someone who is one of the best in the world in their disciple and I’m peppering them with questions and they’re answering me. I have yet to meet anyone here who won’t take the time to explain things to anyone who is genuinely interested.

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

Hubble will always hold a special place in my heart for many reasons. About two years into my career at Goddard, I was working on payload support for the fifth Hubble servicing mission, STS-125. I followed the design of two pieces of payload from conception on a whiteboard through flight and then return. I went to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for payload processing and even got to go into the payload bay of the shuttle. I saw the launch. I was due to be on console 12 hours after launch, so immediately after launch I raced to NASA’s Johnson Space Center to work in mission control.

My husband joined me in Florida. He proposed the day before the launch. He really wanted to propose on the five-year anniversary of the day we met, but since I was going to be in Houston working the night-shift on console in a secure area that day, he had to change his plan.

Tell us about how you are helping high school kids build a competition robot.

This is my first season mentoring a team of ten high school students who are building a robot for the For Inspiring and Recognizing Science and Technology robotics national competition. We’re part of the SpaceRAIDERs/Team 2537 from Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland. Fernando Pellerano, ATLAS’s lead instrument systems engineer, got me involved. In only six weeks, we designed and built a lifting mechanism for our team’s robot. I worked 50–60 hours a week with the team after I had completed my normal work week at Goddard.

The students weren’t wrapped up in process from whiteboard to fabrication. They believed in their design and weren’t afraid to try. They weren’t afraid to fail.

[image-51]Is there something surprising about you that people do not generally know?

I’m addicted to puzzle games like Rubik’s Cubes, Sudoku puzzles and even crossword puzzles although I’m definitely better with numbers than words! I enjoy any game tinkering with numbers or patterns.

My husband and I are avid baseball fans. I grew up playing softball. My husband grew up playing baseball. We went to an Orioles game for our first date. One of our “bucket list” items is to see a home game for each of the 30 major league teams. As of the end of this summer, we will be half-way there.

I also enjoy following the statistics of individual players and teams. My cousin played professional baseball. I spent a lot of time following his career statistics, which helped lead me to what I do now.

What is your favorite TV show?

My husband and I love watching the “Big Bang Theory.” I definitely see moments of art imitating life. This one of the very few TV shows we watch together.

Read Megan Meehan's Conversations With Goddard interview

Read about the robot competition in "I, Tormentum."

Read more Conversations With Goddard

Also read about what our people do Outside Goddard

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Megan Meehan at Wrigley Field
Megan Meehan and her husband at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
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Courtesy of M. Meehan
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Megan Meehan at the FIRST Robotics National Competition
Meehan at the FIRST Robotics National Competition.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Meehan and Pellerano at the FIRST Robotics National Competition
Meehan and Fernando Pellerano mentoring at the FIRST Robotics National Competition.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Page Last Updated: December 19th, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner