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9 min read

From Soldier to Scientist, Mike Sekerak Brings Leadership Skills to Goddard

Man with brown hair and fair skin stands smiling next to a poster for the Lucy mission
Sekerak next to a poster for the Lucy mission.
NASA/D. McCallum

Name: Mike Sekerak
Title: Deputy Project Systems Engineer for Lucy Mission
Formal Job Classification: Aerospace engineer
Organization: Systems Engineering Branch, Engineering and Technology Directorate (Code 599)

What do you currently do at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

My job is to coordinate across all project elements to make the Lucy mission succeed. The Lucy mission is to explore the Trojan asteroids that are in the Jupiter LaGrange points, which are gravitational wells that have collected leftover debris from the formation of the solar system. Lucy will launch in October 2021 and will go to 5.71 AU from the Sun, making it the farthest solar-powered spacecraft ever flown. An astronomical unit, or AU, is approximately 93 million miles, so Lucy will be over half a billion miles from the Sun, where sunlight is only 3% the intensity it is at Earth.

When you were a small child, did you like to take things apart?

I would take things from around the house, go up to my room, hide behind my bed and take things apart and then put them back together. I never got caught. I also played with a lot of Legos. So I knew early on that I wanted to be an engineer.

Where did you go to school?

I grew up in Ohio outside of Cleveland. I earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and two master’s degrees from Caltech, both related to aerospace and space mission design. After nearly a decade break, I earned another master’s from the University of Michigan in nuclear engineering and ultimately a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering there too. Although I’m never done learning, I’ve had enough formal schooling.

What makes your career path so unique?

I had an Army Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) scholarship as an undergraduate at IIT. While at Caltech working on my master’s and researching Vacuum Arc Thrusters at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, 9/11 happened and I was called to active duty by the Army.

This is where Mike’s career path diverges widely from many at Goddard:

Active duty in the Army after 9/11:

In October 2001, I began training as an armored cavalry officer at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I learned how to operate M1A1 Abrams tanks as well as lead platoons of tanks. Then I was stationed in Germany outside of Frankfort.

Deployment to Iraq as a tank platoon leader:

In April 2003 as part of 1-1 Cavalry, I was deployed to Iraq as a tank platoon leader. I first commanded 19 solders and five tanks. Soon I was promoted to scout platoon leader in charge of 30 soldiers and six Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Then I was second in command of 130 soldiers and nine tanks, 13 Bradleys, and two mortar vehicles.

For 15 months, we did security and nation-building missions. We raided buildings and houses to secure weapons. We guarded infrastructure against insurgent attacks and worked to build local government councils and schools. We also fought against the rising insurgency and developed new tactics against their improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rocket attacks. Although two IEDs exploded near me, thankfully I was never hurt.

Deputy commander of the Cheyenne Mountains Operation Center’s Missile Warning Center:

After returning from Europe, I was stationed for two years at Cheyenne Mountains Operation Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as an Army captain. I was the deputy commander of the Missile Warning Center, which monitors the world for missile attacks against the U.S. and Canada. The facility is built deep inside a large, granite mountain and the buildings are built on springs to absorb the shock waves from nuclear blasts.

Satellite and missile systems work at Sandia National Laboratories and instructor in space systems engineering at the National Security Space Institute, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs:

After leaving Army active duty, I returned to engineering as I went to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to work on satellite and missile systems. I was involved in several launches from Kodiak, Alaska, and Kauai, Hawaii.

During my time at Sandia, I transferred from the Army Reserves to the Air Force Reserves. As an Air Force Reserve officer I have taught space systems engineering at the National Security Space Institute at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and conducted Hall thruster research at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

I remain in the Air Force Reserves, but I left Sandia to go to the University of Michigan for my doctorate. I was really excited about advancing the state of knowledge for advanced spacecraft propulsion with research at the Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory.

Electric Propulsion Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL):

After completing my doctorate, I went to work as an engineer at JPL. We were developing the advanced electric propulsion system for deep space and human exploration missions. Now is an exciting time for electric propulsion as its being used and considered for an increasing number of exploration missions.

What brought you to Goddard?

I saw a lot of great missions going on at Goddard and a need for electric propulsion system expertise. In 2016, I came to Goddard to work on Landsat 9. When Goddard was awarded Lucy, I became the deputy project systems engineer. I am very happy and excited about the many opportunities and possibilities Goddard offers.

Throughout your unusual career, you have led people under extraordinarily stressful situations. What is your advice to other leaders?

The best thing to do is make sure that you stop and access a situation and not act irrationally even though you may have to act quickly. There may be different kinds of stress, but the key is that when you are leading people, whether they are in the military or on an engineering team, leadership skills transcend the job.

Leadership is a people job.

Leadership requires the ability to listen to those working for you and gather their input whether they are engineers or sergeants. Then you need to make an informed decision to move forward and give clear direction. No solution is ever absolutely perfect and it is important not to get stuck trying to achieve perfection.

How do you move forward without getting stuck?

Perfectionism can become a paralyzing problem, “analysis paralysis” as it’s sometimes called. You gather as much information as practically possible and then you have to put a stake in the ground and make a decision. It may not always be the best decision, so be open for reevaluation, but be decisive and move forward. One of my old bosses used to tell me, “‘Better’ is the enemy of ‘good enough.’” To quote General George S. Patton, “A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.” My military experience drilled a few key points into my head that I have taken with me into my civilian leadership positions:

  • Failing to plan is planning to fail (make sure you prepare properly as a leader)
  • A plan is a basis for change (continually re-evaluate as you learn more information)
  • A plan never survives first contact with the enemy (be prepared to react as the situation evolves)

Where do you find inspiration?

I enjoy reading biographies of various leaders as well as learning from the many talented people that I have worked for throughout my career. I’ve read the biographies of General Colin Powell and Secretary Robert Gates among others. Leadership is unique to the person, so don’t try to emulate another individual. From each of the leaders that I read about or work for, I find facets applicable to me which I try to incorporate.

What is your favorite genre to read?

I love reading science fiction. I really like Neil Stevenson, Kim Stanley Robinson and of course Arthur C. Clarke. I particularly enjoy stories about colonizing the solar system and love to imagine how the missions I am working on may be small steps to that aspirational goal of humanity in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

What lessons or words of wisdom would you pass along to somebody just starting their career at Goddard?

Network as much as possible to meet all the fascinating people and see the many exciting projects going on here. Don’t get narrowly focused right when you arrive and be sure to explore all that the center has to offer.

Is there something surprising about you that people do not generally know?

My wife is a practicing veterinarian so of course we both love animals. Currently we have one dog, an Australian Shepherd and Border Collie mix, and two guinea pigs. We recently lost our other dog, a Corgi-Sheltie mix. We also enjoy watching the wildlife in the backyard or when we’re out hiking.

Is there someplace in the world that you want to visit, or someplace you have been and want to go back and visit again?

My favorite place in the world is the mountains of Colorado. Before our children, I was an avid mountain hiker, mountain biker, skier and back country camper. I have climbed nine 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado, including Longs Peak and Pike’s Peak. My wife and I love to travel. We both enjoy skiing and are exploring the local ski areas with our kids.

However, the most important project and greatest adventure in my life right now is my three young kids and helping them to explore the world and prepare for adulthood. There are so many amazing things the world has to offer, and it’s fun to see these wonders through their eyes.

What is your “six-word memoir”? A six-word memoir describes something in just six words.

Family-man. Hardworking. Patriotic. Adventurous. Athletic. Ambitious.