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For Resident Engineers, MLAS Work Is Up Close and Personal
Engineers work on MLAS

“Young engineers came from all over NASA to work on MLAS, which offered many their first hands-on experience with space hardware.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith”
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They were already engineers when they came to the job 20 months ago, but this job was different. There was nothing abstract. This was real hardware, the front end of a rocket, and they were working next to people making million-dollar decisions, rather than biding their time several rungs down from the process.

The "resident engineers" of the Max Launch Abort System program, which will launch its product from Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, have been moved by their experience. It has prompted a change in career paths for at least one. For others, it has altered the way they look at the jobs they will return to at their respective NASA centers.

"I've worked in bigger programs," said Theo Muench, who will be lead cyrogenic test engineer on the Thermal Infrared Sensor project when he returns to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "But I was further removed from the decision-making. I hadn't gotten to hear Ralph say, 'There are 100 ways to skin this cat, and this is the way we're gonna do this one.' "

"Ralph" is Ralph Roe, head of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, which produced MLAS. The MLAS demonstration vehicle includes a full-scale composite fairing, a full-scale crew module simulator and four solid rocket abort motors. It is a demonstration of an alternate astronaut escape system that represents a departure from the tower launch abort system used during Apollo launches and retained for NASA’s Constellation Program.

Being close to the decision making -- even part of it -- was the goal of the resident program, which took bright, young engineers from centers all over NASA and created a team to take on important roles in developing MLAS.

"We were brought in to gain experience, but we were also given critical tasks to complete," said Samantha Manning of Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It also brought the residents in contact with mentors from the Apollo days, as well as some of NASA's most experienced engineers, who serve as part of NESC.

"They proved to be an invaluable resource to the project by providing insights and lessons learned from experience," said Manning of the Apollo mentors, who developed vehicles for trips to the moon before she was born.

In essence, the MLAS project made the residents and Apollo mentors kindred spirits. Both have built a rocket, something few others in NASA have done.

"I have been able to work with hardware and testing hands on," said Gary Dittemore of Johnson Space Center in Houston. "I most likely would not have been able to do that in my current position as an operations engineer. I have learned how NASA leaders make decisions based on schedule pressure, trading engineering judgment."

Dittemore also enjoyed the exposure to veteran managers. "Working and talking with folks like (former astronaut) TK Mattingly and Ralph Roe, just talking and listening to them can teach many leadership principles," Dittemore said.

Omar Torres of NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia also recognized the trading process Dittemore mentioned.

"The people in this project are very experienced and knowledgeable," he said. "Working with them provided me with an advantage to learn high-level design while measuring risk versus performance. I am definitely a much better engineer than I was 20 months ago."

So is Sam Miller, who worked in avionics on MLAS and now is in charge of the cameras that will provide visual data from the launch. And because Miller wants to be an even better engineer he’s decided he will go back to school.

"To see the dynamics of a large project has been incredible," said Miller, another Langley employee. "I realized that I need to go back to a doctoral program to get the knowledge I will need in the future."

"I really liked the role the chief engineer played in making analyses," Miller said. "He made good, sound engineering decisions in which he had to distill a lot of information."

It's a role Miller wants for himself on a future project, perhaps involving nano-satellites after working in robotics at Langley.

The lessons learned on MLAS is something the team can take back to their centers; that and working with one another. Each has a bigger network than they did 20 months ago. After spending many hours working with each other, and after being at Wallops Island for the better part of six months putting together MLAS, reaching across NASA center lines for help should be no problem in the future.

"There aren't many opportunities that give you the chance to work on a quick turn-around project with such a diverse team," Manning said. "I have learned alot about the agency as a whole just by working with the multi-center team."

Now the project nears its end: "I expect the best highlight for me will be during the launch, when I get the opportunity to see all of my hard work realized in a successful flight," Torres said.

But, even beyond that, he added, "Looking back in time, the period in which I participated as an MLAS resident engineer has been the single most evolving and educational period of my career."

By Jim Hodges
NASA's Langley Research Center