Andrea Razzaghi: Getting People and Hardware Working Together
Photograph of Andrea Razzaghi
Hundreds of skilled scientists, engineers and others have devoted many thousands of hours over several years working to ensure the success of the Aura mission. The complexity of the preparation staggers the imagination.

Image to right: Andrea Razzaghi managed the design of the Aura spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Will the spacecraft attain the correct orbit? Will the science instruments onboard activate and operate according to plan? How do you put all the pieces together in the right way at the right time to achieve success?

Ask Andrea Razzaghi.

Getting everything and everyone to blend their separate roles is both her challenge and her job at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C.

Razzaghi manages the work involved in designing the spacecraft -- getting the interfaces to the instruments successfully built and demonstrating that everything works together. Her job ends successfully only when the spacecraft is in its correct orbit and the instruments are successfully sending their data back to Earth.

Symbiosis means teamwork

You probably heard the word "symbiotic" in your biology class. Biologists use it to describe a case in which different species mutually benefit one another, like bees pollinating flowers at the same time flowers are dishing up nectar for the bees.

Photograph of Andrea Razzaghi posing with a group
There's a similar kind of symbiosis going on with two of NASA's missions -- Aura, designed to study the Earth's atmosphere, and Aqua, designed to study the Earth's water. Although Aura and Aqua carry different science instruments, the launch vehicles that rocket everything into orbit and the spacecrafts that carry the instruments are essentially the same. And both missions are better off as a result.

Image to left: Andrea Razzaghi learned how important working as a team can be to complete a successful mission. Credit: NASA

Some of Aura's toughest engineering challenges were solved as Aqua advanced toward its April 2002 launch date. Razzaghi humorously refers to Aqua as a mission for making sure that Aura's expensive instruments all work right.

But symbiosis means that Aqua benefits from the deal too. Sometimes it saved valuable time and money to use Aura's newer hardware rather than trying to fix Aqua's. The Aqua engineers jokingly refer to Aura as their "spare parts" program.

As might be expected with a complex project, Aura has its share of what Razzaghi calls "nitty-gritty technical problems." Some of the most significant challenges have centered on the command and data-handling system, arguably the most important part of the entire mission. Balancing the input and transmission of data is a very difficult task. One misstep, and even these sophisticated computers can do the same thing as the one on your desk -- freeze and crash.

Launch of a rocket scientist

How did Razzaghi decide to become a rocket scientist? She says that she always had an interest in how things work.

Growing up, she had her share of traditional "little girl" toys, as she calls them, like Easy Bake ovens. But helping her parents restore an old house introduced her to the wonders of a workshop full of interesting tools and problems to solve.

In high school, science and math -- subjects that prepared her for pursuing her engineering degrees from Brown and Catholic universities -- were Razzaghi's favorites. But ask her today if English is one of the most important subjects in high school and her loud reply is, "Yes!" She explains that speaking well and writing well are critical skills, important both professionally and personally.

Her strongest advice for high school and college students is, "Get to know your teachers. Talk to them. Ask them questions. You can learn so much more easily if you do."

And for fun? One of her favorite hobbies is dancing, especially Middle Eastern dancing. Although born and raised in America, learning foreign languages fascinates her too. Fluent in Farsi, she also speaks some Spanish and a bit of Dutch.

In the face of her personal striving for excellence, Razzaghi admits that one of her professional difficulties is knowing when to accept "good enough." She explains, "Engineers are perfectionists, but if you always waited until something is perfect, you'd never get anything done. ... You need to know when it's time to stop."

What's the difference between a scientist and an engineer? Razzaghi says that scientists are the dreamers. They think of what they want to do and what they want to accomplish. Engineers? ... "We're the ones who build the machines so the scientists can make their discoveries."

Adapted with permission: ChemMatters magazine © American Chemical Society 2002
Edited by Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies