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Center Snapshot: Terry Nienaber
Terry Nienaber. Image above: Graduation from the 2011 Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program (SELDP) in June marked the culmination of a yearlong program that provided Terry Nienaber and 19 others with knowledge, skills and experiences aimed at preparing them for the challenges of systems engineering leadership at NASA. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

By: Denise Lineberry

"I'd dream up big and vivid plans for projects that I couldn't possibly have accomplished at that age," Terry Nienaber said of his 9-year-old self.

What once seemed far-fetched, growing up on a Nebraska farm, had become actuality, working at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Nienaber was one of 20 NASA engineers picked to take part in the 2011 Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program (SELDP). His recent graduation marked the culmination of a yearlong program that included mentoring and coaching, technical training, leadership development exercises and forums.

The core of the experience was a hands-on developmental assignment at a different center. "They want us out of our comfort zone in as many respects as possible, to allow us to try out new techniques, approaches and styles," he said. "They also want to cross-pollinate ideas and cultures between centers and look at something through a whole new lens."

Nienaber, of Langley’s Mechanical Systems Branch within the Engineering Directorate, was assigned to Goddard Space Flight Center and served as a systems engineer on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission.

"MMS is a very large program. Next to the James Webb Space Telescope, it’s the biggest project at Goddard, so it had a lot of people and a lot of attention," Nienaber said.

From that experience, he learned that there was more to systems engineering, than a just a set series of actions.

"Processes can remind you of pitfalls, steer you in the right direction, and provide an opportunity for dialog," Nienaber said. "But systems engineering is an art in which you balance the needs of the many groups, each of which are required to make a mission successful."

Through the SELDP, Nienaber dwelled behind-the-scenes at Google and General Motors, and he participated in the 2011 PM Challenge in Long Beach, Calif.

"I was amazed at the degree of similarities in the design of a car and the design of our spacecraft and instruments," Nienaber said of his visit to the GM Vehicle Design Laboratory in Warren, Mich.

When Nienaber was hired at Langley in 2007, he worked on the manned lunar lander, later named "Altair." When he began to study the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) in detail, he developed a grand appreciation for the Apollo program and an excitement for the next manned exploration mission.

"Not having grown up in the generation that witnessed the Apollo moon landings in real-time, I'd truly taken the significance of the Apollo program for granted," Nienaber said.

Still, as a child, he was eager to learn. And back on that Nebraska farm, he found his own mentors and inspiration as "nearly the caboose" in a family of nine children. His older brother, Doug, was a gifted tinkerer.

"Doug would drag me along to the scrap metal pile in the tree line where we’d scavenge just the right parts to fix some wagon or toy, or to build a bike ramp that would keep us entertained for hours," Nienaber said. "He'd record music off the radio with an old cassette deck, and then pipe the music through a make-shift switchboard and wires he’d strung throughout our basement ceiling into old car speakers."

When Doug drowned in a swimming accident at a lake, Nienaber held tight to his love of tinkering. Instead of coping day by day, he coped project by project.

A family friend, Eddie Otto, grew his interest.

"Despite having no advanced education or formal training, Eddie could fix just about anything you threw his way, from satellite dishes, to small engines or electric circuits. And when he was around, I was right on his coat tail, watching what he was up to," Nienaber said. "That exposure was just enough to make me curious … dangerously so. This is when I learned about the ‘magic smoke’ that you want to keep inside the electronics. Eddie was an ordinary man, humble beginnings, and yet capable of extraordinary feats. The time he shared kindled my curiosity and prompted my interest in engineering."

His next dose of inspiration came by way of his boss, Walter Franz. Nienaber was working as a machinist’s assistant while working toward his mechanical engineering degree at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Franz was a first-generation immigrant from Germany, who received formal training through an apprenticeship.

"When I met Walter [Franz], he was ready to retire, but he had designed and personally built all the machined parts for an entire cell culture experiment and enclosure that had flown several times on the space shuttle," Nienaber said. "Here was a man of the most humble beginnings and modest training, building something that was flying on the shuttle. He spent a couple of years with me, sharing his love of the trade, and getting me hooked on the notion of spaceflight."

His NASA career and SELDP experience have increased his opportunities.

"SELDP has certainly helped me establish contacts at many of the other NASA centers, and has given me experiences that prepare me for new challenges I’ll face, along with the agency as a whole," Nienaber said. "For me, the biggest long-term benefit really is the dozens, if not hundreds, of personal connections and relationships and understanding where I could fit into it all a little better. I have no doubt it will boost my career opportunities, but I don’t expect immediate returns or promotions, and it will likely be in ways that aren’t necessarily tangible."

More tangible, is his ability to dream and plan big, much like he did at 9. And to be at a point in his life, where he can truly accomplish those dreams with the support of his wife of 15 years and a 7-year-old son who has dreams of his own.

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman