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Phuc H. Nguyen - An Engineer With His Sights on Mars
January 14, 2014

[image-51]Name: Phuc H. Nguyen
Title: Electronics Engineer
Organization: Code 544, Electromechanical Systems Branch, Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate

Born and raised in South Vietnam, Phuc Nguyen came to Goddard as an intern and is now an electronics engineer whose work is soon going to Mars.

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

As an electronics engineer, I design electronic components for subsystems to be used on spaceflight instruments. I also am responsible for keeping within the cost and schedule. Currently, I am working on the Mars Organic Molecules Analyzer Mass Spectrometer, a joint project with the European Space Agency. MOMA-MS will fly to Mars and get soil samples to analyze. If we find organic molecules on Mars, it may mean that life exists or did exist on Mars. It would be so fascinating if we found evidence of life on Mars. MOMA-MS is scheduled to be delivered to ESA in 2016 and we plan to launch in 2017.

What was your childhood like in South Vietnam?

I was born in South Vietnam. My family and I came to New York City when I was 14 years old on September 30, 1995. I will always remember that day. We were lucky in that my mother’s father was already living in New York City and could sponsor us. The toughest part was that none of my family, other than my grandfather, could speak English. I started attending the local high school without understanding one word. I don’t know how I did it, but I learned English. I used to carry a small dictionary with me all the time.

Have you returned to Vietnam since you left in 1995?

My family and I returned to Vietnam in 2001 to visit our family. While there, a family friend introduced me to the woman who later became my wife, Phuong. We now have an almost two-year-old son and an almost two-month-old daughter.

Why did you choose your profession?

Growing up, I was not quite sure what I wanted to be. Because Vietnamese is my mother language, I was more comfortable with math than with English. I love cars, so I took a few mechanical engineering courses in college but I did not like them. I always built toys as a child, so I switched to electrical engineering. I was fascinated by the fundamental theory of electronics and what makes the tiny electrons do what they do. It is almost like the electrons exist in their own world. I thought about becoming a physicist, but I stayed with engineering because I wanted to build things instead of focus on theory.

How did you come to work at Goddard?

I came to Goddard in June 2004 as a summer intern straight from university. I applied for the internship on the last possible day. I was already married and my wife was still in Vietnam at the time, so I wanted to make sure that I could still travel to see her. I was accepted into the intern program, quickly became a COOP and was converted into a permanent government employee when I graduated in January 2005.

My wife, who had remained in South Vietnam until I became established, joined me here in March 2005. She immediately went to school to learn English and is now a nurse. We speak Vietnamese at home, but I’m always impressed by her knowledge of English.

Why do you stay at Goddard?

I love the work that I do. I love the science that we want to learn. For my first 4 ½ years here, I worked on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be a window into what happened billions of years ago. It is beyond my comprehension that we can do this. I love that my contributions help make this all possible. We do things that we are not sure are possible and make them possible. What we do will be in textbooks for the next generation. Goddard has some of the most brilliant minds in the world.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done at Goddard?

My team designed an “automated safe to mate” ground support machine, which automatically takes measurements used by an engineer to determine if a piece of electronics is safe to power up. In the past, we had to make manual measurements that were time consuming and had the potential to damage the flight hardware. We applied for a patent and are now designing the second generation.

As a former intern, what advice would you pass along to current interns?

Work hard and find work that you love to do. The greatest outcomes will come when you do what you love. Be honest enough to admit when you don’t know or understand something and ask someone to explain. No one knows everything. People at Goddard are always willing to help.

What advice would you tell other employees?

Be flexible about your perspective. Open your mind to possibilities that may go against convention. After all, not too long ago, most people believed the world was flat. Perception may not necessarily be reality; perception may merely be your belief. That’s why perceptions change.

If you could meet and talk to anybody, living or dead, who would it be and what’s the first thing you’d ask them?

I would like to meet Warren Buffet because he is a very successful man. I would ask him how he maintains focus on his goals. I also think he is humble because he lives in a regular house and drives his own car.

What one world do you wish people would use to describe you?

Persistent. I never give up on something I believe in and will work as hard as I can to get the job done.

What is your one big dream?

I would love to take a trip around the world with my wife and family.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Phuc H. Nguyen
Phuc H. Nguyen
Image Credit: 
NASA/W. Hrybyk
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Page Last Updated: January 21st, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner