David Oh | NASA, Systems Engineering, and Sending Robots to Space

 In Being an Engineer Podcast

David Oh

David is the former flight director for the Mars Curiosity rover, and current systems engineering manager and system architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the upcoming Psyche launch.

On this episode, David shares his insights and experience working with large engineering teams on mission-critical systems and subsystems. He also shares what it is like living on “Martian time” (with his family, no less).

He also recounts the indescribable excitement and fulfillment when got the success of a space mission. Specifically, it 2 am and he was in the control room when he knew they were the first people on earth to learn something new about our neighboring planets.

Update – David asked me to include this quick correction to the podcast: when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, it actually took 14 minutes (not 7 minutes as stated in the interview) for the signal from the rover to reach the Earth. It takes seven minutes to land on Mars, so when we received the first data showing the rover had entered the Martian atmosphere, it had actually already been on the surface of Mars for seven minutes.  For more information, see the video “Seven Minutes of Terror” on YouTube.


mars, mission, psyche, nasa, people, landing, spacecraft, rover, engineering, engineers, jpl, earth, launch vehicles, build, understand, planet, spend, project, team, space
Presenter, Aaron Moncur, David Oh

David Oh 00:00
T minus 15 seconds. T minus 10 987654321 Main engine start zero and liftoff of the Atlas five with curiosity. She can clue as to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars.

Presenter 00:29
Hi all today we’re rebroadcasting Aaron’s interview with Davido was among many other things, the flight director for the Mars Curiosity rover what you’re hearing in the background there? Oh, he’s the current systems engineering manager and System Architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the upcoming psyche watch. When I asked Aaron why he chose this episode of all our past episodes is one of his most favorite, he said this, David was in the control room at 2am and was one of the handful of human beings to learn something about our neighboring planets that no one had ever learned before. Plus, it’s NASA and NASA is just so cool whether you’re an engineer or not. So join us as we revisit David OHS guest appearance with Aaron on this week’s being an engineer.

David Oh 01:21
There is nothing like being in the control room. When the rovers on the surface and looking at pictures at two or three o’clock in the morning as they come down and thinking we are the first human beings ever to have seen what we’re looking at right now.

Aaron Moncur 01:49
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The being an engineer podcast. Our guest today is David Oh, who, in my opinion will end up being one of the more fascinating guests that we have had on the show to date. David holds an undergraduate degree from MIT in aerospace engineering, as well as masters and doctorate degrees also from MIT in aerospace engineering. He has been working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for over 17 years, where he previously held the role of flight director for the Mars Curiosity rover, and is currently the systems engineering manager and System Architect for NASA psyche program, which we’ll get into during the show. David, thank you so much for being with us today.

David Oh 02:30
Thank you, Erin. Good morning. You didn’t mention that I have a bachelor’s degree in music too.

Aaron Moncur 02:34
So I’m getting there. I definitely have a question about that, when in fact, why don’t we just start there. So you actually double majored I guess at MIT. One was humanities and music. And the other one was aerospace engineering. I have to know more about that. Tell me about the humanities and music major.

David Oh 02:52
Well, I wasn’t a musician. I was a singer and a piano player in high school. And when I got to college, I wanted to continue doing that. And I MIT actually has an excellent music program. It’s an engineering school, but it has a small but excellent music program. So I had no idea couldn’t turn down the opportunity to go study there and get my degree. And that was a wonderful thing to do.

Aaron Moncur 03:14
And you thought to yourself, I’m going to major in aerospace engineering and become a rocket scientist. With all the free time I have why don’t I just double major in humanities and music?

David Oh 03:26
Yeah, yes, that’s right. Actually, I mean, I find I find the jumping between disciplines to jumping between music and engineering. I found it then. And I find it now to be very gratifying. I’m not the kind of person that can just do 100 hours a week of just engineering, I need a little break to go do other things as I go.

Aaron Moncur 03:44
I think there’s a link there. Several of the team members at IT pipeline actually are musicians as well. One of them, writes his own pieces and publishes them. One of them has been in a band for many years. And actually two of them have been in bands and they pay to play the fiddle and all kinds of different things guitar. So I think there is some kind of link between music and the very technical nature of engineering that is, I don’t know it works well together somehow.

David Oh 04:15
Absolutely. And I have I know multiple people at JPL who well played in bands then like went back to go do engineering I think one of the chief engineers on the on the perseverance rover, but used to be in rock man and then decided to go study engineering. So it’s very common, I think, remarkably common to have that overlap.

Aaron Moncur 04:35
Yeah, very cool. Well, were you a Legos kid growing up what were you always into building things and taking things apart?

David Oh 04:42
I did do a lot of Legos growing up, and I did some woodworking too. I did the kind of stuff you know, take the shop class at school, that kind of thing. building things was always fun.

Aaron Moncur 04:52
Did you did you know from a young age that you wanted to work at NASA or be in the aerospace field. or was that something that you became aware of just you know, in college or later?

David Oh 05:05
Well, that’s an interesting question. Because I grew up in Alabama, and I liked space. And I liked aerospace. I went to the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, all the time when I was a kid, even though I lived in Birmingham, which is an hour and a half away, but to be honest, because my parents are doctors and not engineers, and there’s not much engineering in Alabama in Birmingham, at least where I live, I didn’t really know what engineering was, when I went to college, I just kind of knew I was good at science and math and knew that I wanted to go and you know, maybe be a physicist or something like that. I didn’t really learn what engineering was until I got to college itself and started asking around and said, Oh, this looks like, this looks like something that it’d be fun to do.

Aaron Moncur 05:48
And what did you hear about engineering that clicked in your brain? And told you Yep, this is the one for me.

David Oh 05:54
That’s an intro? Well, I think one of the things is, I went and I thought, initially, I might be a physicist, and I took some of those freshman physics classes. And I just decided that really wasn’t what I wanted to major in very theoretical, write a lot of equations and thinking and not so much building. And then I remember when I got to got to the lab and just start I got to the university just started asking around. I remember asking somebody, what is the mechanic? What do mechanical engineers do? And the answer to that is, pretty much everything, honestly didn’t know that because I knew kind of what computer scientists did. But the concept of mechanical engineer versus aerospace engineer versus other engineering was just something that didn’t really know about. And then in the course of my freshman year, before I had to choose, I was asking around and thought maybe I’ll do architecture, maybe I’ll do aerospace, maybe I’ll do mechanical. And I ended up just assigning, when declared, when I declared my major, I’ll try aerospace and see how it works out. And fortunately for me, it’s worked out well. And I’ve gotten to work in it ever since.

Aaron Moncur 07:03
never looked back after.

David Oh 07:06
That’s right. It’s just it’s a fun, fun area to work in. And space is something that I’ve always been interested in since I was a kid. Like so many people in my generation. The Challenger disaster was something that happened when I was in high school. You know, I remember where I was when it happened, as do so many other my friends, and colleagues. And so these events I grew up, I was born in 1969, which is when we landed on the moon. So I am a child of the space age. Oh, wow. Yeah. So it’s always been a Star Wars Star Trek has always been fun. And then just the idea that I actually go build and work in that area has been a dream for me. And so that’s, that’s just fun. But it wasn’t like I sat down at the beginning and said, Yes, I want to go be an aerospace engineer. I just kind of said, well, I think space is cool. And engineering is cool. Let’s see if we can make this work. And I’ve been fortunate and blessed that it has.

Aaron Moncur 07:55
Well, space and engineering are cool. And speaking of space, you work in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, JPL for short. Can you tell us a little bit about JPL? I mean, what, what do the teams do there? What what’s kind of the overarching mission, what’s the reason that JPL exists?

David Oh 08:14
So JPL is one of NASA’s 10 NASA centers, a uniquely among the NASA centers. It’s what we call an FFRDC, a federally funded research and development center. So it’s technically run by Caltech, I technically won for Caltech. And then Caltech runs the facility for NASA. And all of us there work on a variety of missions for NASA. But JPL is one of NASA’s premier Deep Space Center’s it is built and operated the Voyager missions that went to Jupiter and Saturn and Uranus and Neptune and the Galileo mission that went to Jupiter after that it’s built missions that have gone to most of the planets. So it’s one of the few places in the world actually, that has the ability from the beginning to end to do a deep space space mission. We have the scientists that come up with the ideas, we have the operations centers, and the Deep Space Network. And we have everything in between the manufacturing and the mechanical and electrical manufacturing and the computer coders. So we can build a spacecraft from scratch and send it to another planet. And that’s almost I don’t think it’s quite unique. But there are not many places in the world that can do it.

Aaron Moncur 09:19
While listening to you talk about that. I get chills. You know, I mean, if you can say it this way, that sounds like I mean, that sounds like NASA that’s kind of the core at NASA. It would be funny to hear to people who work at JPL. Do you guys kind of walk around a little bit a chip on your shoulders that were kind of a big deal here at NASA? Or do you guys are all the other senators? They’re kind of the same in terms of I don’t want to say priority, but maybe you know what I mean?

David Oh 09:50
I do and, you know, I want to say that. First of all, JPL does a lot of stuff in robotic spaceflight, but we really don’t do very much in human spaceflight. So the space shuttle landing on the moon, that type of stuff that’s also NASA and that’s kind of the big now. Now when the space shuttle stopped flying for a while, you know we we became much more prominent because we’re doing the Mars landings were landing rovers, we’d landed the Mars Exploration Rovers in 2003. We landed the Curiosity rover in 2012. That got a lot of publicity, just because of where NASA was and what it was doing at the time. But with return of human spaceflight coming with the new commercial crew, and the continued operation of the space station, you know, I hope I think that NASA will have a great future working in human spaceflight as well.

Aaron Moncur 10:40
Yeah, thank you for clarifying that, that that makes less sense. Now. Speaking of the the Mars Curiosity mission back in 2012, you were the flight director for that mission. And I definitely want to get into that a little bit. Before we go straight into the technical side of it. I read that you and your family had a really interesting experience living on Mars time for for several weeks. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

David Oh 11:04
Sure, sure, I can do that. So I worked on the Curiosity rover for seven years. And the last couple of years of that I spent doing mission operations, but actually worked a whole bunch of years before that I’m building it. So the very end of that process, but part of my career was when we landed on Mars, we started operating the spacecraft on Mars. And the rover when it operates on Mars operates on Martian time, actually, it wakes up in the morning, it gets orders from Earth, it goes and does its thing on the surface of the planet. Whatever it’s going to do, takes his pictures does its drilling. And then at night, it goes to sleep. The rover doesn’t have headlights on it or anything like that. So at night, it’s dark, and it recharges its batteries off of its power as a nuclear power source. And then wakes up in the morning and goes through that cycle again and again. Now, a Martian day is the natural operating cadence of the rover and a Martian day is 24 hours and 40 minutes. So it’s 40 minutes longer than an Earth Day. For the first 100 Martian days that we operate on the planet and immersion days, call us call the Sol Sol for the first 100 songs we operate on the planet, we actually sync up the operations teams on Earth to operate at the same time at the rover. So the operation team wakes up at the same time as the rover goes to sleep at the rover does, it’s actually what we do is we do we wake up when the rover goes to sleep. So we’re doing work at night. And then we send orders to the rover and it’s does its thing while we sleep. And then we continue that cycle over and over again. So we’re operating on this motor rotating shift system where we come into work about 40 minutes later every day. And if you do the math, you’ll find that that’s the equivalent of jumping to timezones every three days. And over the course of a month, you basically go all the way around the clock, you all go all the way through swing shift, and night shift and come back around the day shift. And that’s kind of a unique thing that we do for the Mars program. And the brilliant idea that my wife had with this because we landed in August and the kids weren’t in school was let’s just take the whole family and put it on Mars time as well. So we put the whole family including the three kids that we had, on Mars time, I think the oldest one was 13 at the time, and the youngest was like seven and those are approximate ages. Don’t quote me on that. And then And then so they got to follow around the clock with us, as well. And that was a great time because we would take them to go see La at night, right? We would have be having dinner at two o’clock in the morning at Denny’s or IHOP or some all night diner in Hollywood. We took them out to see Hollywood at night, we took them out to Santa Monica and did a midnight on the beach at a picnic on the beach at midnight. And it was it was great fun, and it was really just a great time for the whole family.

Aaron Moncur 13:38
They must have loved that I think of my kids. And if they had that experience, they would find that just so so cool, right? I mean, were your kids telling their friends, you know, sorry, we can’t come out to play tomorrow because we’re in Martian time. And we’re gonna be asleep during that time. But were they really into that?

David Oh 13:53
Yeah, you know, that were young enough that they kind of just went along with it. At first, I don’t think they realized how unique and experience it is. But we are the only family that I know of where the whole family has gone off and done it. And at the end of the day, I think they loved it. My oldest son, you know, he was 13. It was a very it’s a very important time in his life when he’s forming ideas. And he’s going off to major and engineering now. And I think that’s part of his whole experience that that led to that. And they had no idea that you know, you can go bowling at two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning. They had no idea of the breadth that is Los Angeles because it’s a 24 hour city and all the great things you can do. The I think they loved it.

Aaron Moncur 14:34
What a magical experience. How did that that time shift especially not just being on a different schedule, but on a schedule that changed by 40 minutes every day. How did that mess with your and your team’s biology and physiology? How was it easy to cope with that it was a really big challenge.

David Oh 14:57
It’s both in a funny sort of way. But an extra 40 minutes a day is not is not that hard if you’re if you’re consistent with it, and if the rest of the world goes with you, which it doesn’t. So when the whole family was doing it, I actually found it to be very natural. And we got to a point with the family, where we would just go to sleep 40 minutes later, and we wouldn’t even need to set an alarm, we would just wake up eight hours later, and our bodies just knew this is the way our cycle should be running. Now, after the first month, the kids had to go back to school. So the rest of my family went back to Earth time and I spent two more months working on Martian time. That was hard. Because they’re, you’re working on shifts for four days or five days, then you get back on time with your family. And you’re basically trying to it’s like jetlag, you’re trying to flip your clock back. So you can actually spend time with your family. And then you flip your clock back the other way. And that’s really hard. I think by the by the time we had done 100 solids, the whole operations team was pretty much done, right? That’s about as far as you can do. And still live life with Earth with the rest of the earth. Ironically, I think if we were all on Mars, it’d be easy. We’d all just sync up, and it would just be a regular day.

Aaron Moncur 16:10
Well, Elon Musk has got the right idea, then let’s all head off to Mars. Yeah,

David Oh 16:14
that would be great.

Aaron Moncur 16:15
I read in a book not too long ago, about a study that was done about about sleep cycles, human sleep cycles. And what they found was that the the most natural, just based purely on our physiology, the most natural cycle was for for humans to have. It was just over 24 hours in their day, it was like, it was probably around around 24 hours and 40 minutes. I mean, I want to say that was about what it was they put people in it was a dark room with no lights or something they just measured, when do people naturally go to sleep and one of the naturally wake up and they found that that natural cadence was just over 24 hours. So interesting. Maybe Maurice knows something we don’t yeah,

David Oh 17:03
my experience was totally consistent with that. It’s It’s hard when you’re trying to go to stay awake at five or six in the morning, because there’s no sunlight. But once the schedule has come all the way back around and the sun is out, and you’re synced up with that. We found it to be very straightforward and easy.

Aaron Moncur 17:18
Yeah. Well, Curiosity landing on Mars was an incredible technical feat. Can you tell us about some of the technical challenges that needed to be overcome? I’m sure there were, you know, hundreds, if not 1000s of them, but maybe just pick a few of the most interesting or challenging that your team worked on?

David Oh 17:38
Well, there are a tremendous number of challenges just to operating on another planet, the rover is operating many light minutes away from Earth, so we don’t get telemetry in real time from it, it has to do what it does autonomously. The most difficult part of this is really at the end of a journey of hundreds of millions of miles. The spacecraft has to land itself on the surface of Mars through a process we call entry, descent and landing. And in that process, which takes place over about seven minutes, the spacecraft goes from 13,000 miles an hour and approach velocity to Mars to zero so it can land safely on the surface. And in order to do that, it uses a heat shield, it uses a parachute uses a rocket pack, and it uses a device called a sky crane, which lowers it down to the surface of Mars safely, and then flies away. So you can get a nice clean landing. And all of that has to happen completely autonomously has to happen perfectly. Because if you miss any of those steps along the way, then you’re not going to land on the surface. And it has to happen without any contact from Earth. So it’s a very challenging sequence of events. We spend a lot of time testing and working on it and trying to simulate it as much as possible on Earth. But there are key challenges there.

Aaron Moncur 18:53
How do you simulate it? I mean, given that the Earth’s gravity is very different than Mars, how do you simulate that environment,

David Oh 18:59
so we can’t simulate the gravity. So really, the first time we were the sky crane system that I’m talking about was used for the first time on the Curiosity rover, and it will shortly be used for the second time to land on Mars on the perseverance rover this February. But the first time it’s really run under real conditions under real gravity and everything is on Mars. That is the first time you can do it. cannot test it end to end here on Earth. Oh, now we try and test as many of the pieces as we can. So we take the parachute and we simulate it in a wind tunnel for perseverance. They actually put some on a rocket and flew flew way up to 100,000 feet at Mach three and then released parachutes up there were the conditions of the Earth’s atmosphere are similar to Martian atmosphere, you can’t get the gravity right but you can get the atmosphere right. We have radars that are used to track the surface on Mars. As we’re coming down. We put those on fighter planes and use them to fly down these super steep trajectories to simulate the landing trajectory on Mars and check that the radar worked under those conditions. And then we’d run tons of simulations Monte Carlo simulation And so when we take all these different pieces that we have, we string them together, and we run them over and over and over again and simulation to try and find every possible failure mode and deal with as many of them as possible. But there are still things which can go wrong on the way down, which we, which we know could be fatal to the mission. It’s always a risky endeavor you do as the best you can to make it as robust as you can. And then you have to let this spacecraft go do it all by itself on landing day.

Aaron Moncur 20:27
Well, it’s like sending your kids off to school watching them get on the bus, right? It’s hands off at that point, you can’t do anything, you just have to trust that they know know how to do it themselves. That’s right.

David Oh 20:37
And you got to go watch them too. In fact, you can’t even watch them in real time. It lands on Mars. And then seven minutes late 47 minutes later, we get the radio signals back on Earth that tell us whether it actually landed on Mars

Aaron Moncur 20:49
seven men, I was going to ask about that. So it takes about seven minutes for the I guess radio transmissions to make their way from Mars to Earth. Right? That’s right. That’s quicker than I would have expected.

David Oh 20:59
Well, it varies depending on the distance from Earth to Mars, because that varies over time. Depending on where we are in our orbits. I see short, it can be long, depending on where we are.

Aaron Moncur 21:08
Okay. And you mentioned that the sky crane, once the sky crane drops off the rover is its job done and it just what floats off into space.

David Oh 21:18
It flies away using its rocket fuel and it will run out of fuel and basically crash land on Mars about 200 300 yards away from the main rover.

Aaron Moncur 21:27
Okay, okay, so there’s a wreckage on Mars somewhere of the space crane.

David Oh 21:32
Right? That’s right. She’ll sit in there, you can see it from orbit, actually, we’ve taken pictures from orbit, we can see where the parachute ended up, and we can see where the sky crane ended up. And then we can actually see the rover itself going around. But otherwise,

Aaron Moncur 21:44
you have just the coolest job. People probably never say that to you.

David Oh 21:49
I am blessed to have this job. Trust me, I enjoy it every day, every day. There is nothing like being in the control room. When the rovers on the surface and looking at pictures at two or three o’clock in the morning as they come down and thinking we are the first human beings ever to have seen what we’re looking at right now. And in 24 hours, these pictures will go out to the world and everybody else can see it. But right now at this instant, it’s just the 567 of us here in this control room. We’re the first people ever to see this.

Aaron Moncur 22:20
Again, it’s just it’s magical. What an incredible experience. Well, you’re the engineering manager for mission called psyche journey to a metal world right now what what can you tell us about that project?

David Oh 22:33
Ah, so this mission is going to visit a metal asteroid. So in the orbit between Mars and Jupiter lies the asteroid belt. And the outer edge of the asteroid belt lies a unique body. It’s an asteroid, which is about 150 miles in diameter. So it’s about the size of Massachusetts. And based on measurements from Earth, we believe it to be made up to 50%, maybe more of metal. And that’s a type of world that we’ve never visited in the solar system before we visited worlds made of rock and made of ice and made of gas. But a world made of metal. That’s something that’s that’s unique. There are really not very many metal asteroids and psyche is by far the largest of them. And that we have questions about where it came from and why it’s out there. And so our whole mission is to go out there and figure out how this body was created, what it looks like, and what his role was in the creation of the solar system.

Aaron Moncur 23:32
I read that it’s about psyche is about 200 kilometers in diameter, which is about 125 miles to put that into perspective. I grew up on Hawaii. And turns out that is about three to four times the size of the island of Oahu in Hawaii. So that’s a pretty big asteroid.

David Oh 23:50
It’s a big one definitely. Yeah. And

Aaron Moncur 23:54
I hear that it’s worth quite a bit of money not that we’d ever be able to extract the cash from the this asteroid but if you were able to mine all of the the metal the ore in there, it would be worth many, many, many. I don’t even remember what it was but it was a huge numbers that

David Oh 24:11
are the head of this mission. Our Principal Investigator Dr. Lindy Elkins TTAN did sit down and calculate the amount of metal that’s in that asteroid based on on metal meteorites that we’ve seen. You can scale it up to the asteroid and then you can calculate the theoretical value of all that metal and I think it was 10,000 quadrillion dollars but

Aaron Moncur 24:30
it was a big number but some ridiculous number but you know,

David Oh 24:33
it’s not if you ever did bring that back to Earth you would crash the metal markets literally so you can never get that money from it. And we can’t bring the metal back right now that technology is not technology that we have we have the technology to visit it and you know, maybe in a future mission to bring back samples but the the technology to go that far out in the solar system and actually mine it is technology that we still need to develop. Yeah.

Aaron Moncur 24:55
Speaking of Lindy Elkins Tanton, who’s the principal investigator and Interestingly enough, is right here at ASU in my backyard, she said that the mission is so complicated that no one person can understand it. But it all has to work together perfectly for decades without fail. Now that if that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is, what are some of the best practices or procedures that you and your team at NASA have developed over the years to mitigate risk,

David Oh 25:27
we actually have a very rigorous risk management process that we run on, on this project on the psyche project. It involves something called a five by five matrix and reading risks by their consequences and their likelihood and, and, and putting them on this red green type of table and whatnot. But really, the most important part of the process is not so much what that table looks like or what the numbers are, but the fact that we meet on a monthly basis as a leadership team, and we spend hours every month discussing what the risks are on the project, how they’re developing over time and communicating the risk to each other. And that’s a very, very important part of the process. And I think something JPL is very good at. Like I said, when we landed on Mars, for instance, we knew that there were some things which could kill the mission, and with a single failure, or if we had a bad weather, super bad weather on that day, or something like that. So given that, you know, the important thing is, is that we communicate those risks before we launch, so that everybody involved understands what risk we’re taking. And then if we see problems, people are not surprised, and they go and they deal with it. This is, I think, one of the strongest features of NASA and JPL, that they understand risk, and that they manage it well, and that they have that very forward looking attitude. Once we’re in flight. If we find a problem, it’s not about it’s not about recriminations. It’s not about going back and trying to find who to blame because all of that conversation has already been had as part of these risk conversations. We all know we’re taking the risks together. And now we got a problem to solve, and we’re going to solve it. And that’s, you know, key I think, in order to really managing risk and making these missions successful.

Aaron Moncur 27:05
Yeah, I love that. Thank you for sharing that. Let me jump back just a little bit to before psyche started the the mission itself is of course, incredibly complicated, fraught with risk fraught, fraught with complications. But the process for for pitching the idea to NASA sounded like it was in itself a formidable challenge and just a huge process. Can you spend just a couple of minutes telling us about what that process looked like to develop the well, I guess, the pitch to do this project?

David Oh 27:36
Yes, the psyche mission is the 13th or 14th missions in NASA, NASA’s Discovery mission program, and actually, we call it the psyche project. Because the program the Discovery Program is made of multiple projects, which include the Lucy project, and the Dawn project and a bunch of other projects, which you may have heard of that go out and explore the solar system. In order to become a part of the Discovery Program. You the head of the mission, the PI needs to put together a mission proposal and propose that to a review board at NASA. And I think in the round that we propose there were 28 mission proposals that went into this process. And there are only two that came out the other end of the process. So the odds of getting selected there are low, and the effort that you need to put together a proposal which shows that you have a viable deep space mission is high. And it’s a two year process, you go through two steps, you go through one round of competition. And in our case, we went from 28 entries to five in the first round. And then those five, were given a few million dollars to go off and round out the design. And then they went down selected to two missions at the end. One is the Lucy mission, which is going to visit Trojan asteroids. And then our mission, the psyche mission, which is going to visit a metal asteroid. That process which takes takes place over that couple of years is a fun one, but a challenging one, because you start with an idea from a scientist, right, and then you’ve got a blank sheet of paper to work with. And you’ve got to take that idea and turn it into a mission architecture and show that it’s viable, and can be done on certain costs and a certain schedule by certain people with certain technologies in order to win that competition. And you have to show that you’ve got better, better science and better viability than the other projects. It’s a it’s a unique process. And it’s a wonderful process. I really enjoy it because you pulled together a team of maybe 20 or 30 people. And you put that whole proposal together. It’s a very small group compared to the hundreds of people that are working on psyche now.

Aaron Moncur 29:30
And the word proposal and certainly the word I use before pitch really doesn’t do it justice. I mean, I think of a proposal, I think of something we spent, I don’t know, five or 10 or 40 hours at the most putting together for a big project. Your team has many years and this is millions of dollars to put this proposal together. Right?

David Oh 29:49
Right because the total value of the psyche mission when you include the launch vehicle and everything is upwards of $900 million. That’s the that’s the cost commitment we’re asking NASA to make in order to fly this mission. And, and so you know, we spend $10 million, just putting together the proposal for it, because they want to know that it’s viable. Nobody wants to commit that kind of money, just to find out at the end, I’m sorry, it doesn’t actually work. So yeah, these are big pitches, the step two proposals are created over a period of about nine months and end with a full a site visit where a review board of 30 or 40, people come and visit you and grill you over the course of eight hours on your design in person. And that’s in addition to the the proposed the written proposal itself, which pushes 1000 pages by the time you’re done. And if you’ve turned down that they’ve given to that review board, so they can read it, and understand it before they come and grill you about it. Yeah, it’s a it’s a, it’s a challenging process. It’s really going through the forge, right, you’re really, you’re really being forged by fire. But I think it does actually make better missions, because when, you know, as you’re putting together a proposal that you’re going to be challenged by a group of experts, you spend a lot of time making sure that you understand the engineering and that you put together a good proposal.

Aaron Moncur 31:04
Sure. I imagine the criteria by which NASA selects the the mission or the projects is based on some balance of risk versus reward, in your opinion, which I assume is the same as JPL, but maybe have your own nuanced, I don’t know, what what’s what’s the best result that you can imagine for the psyche? Project, what what could the project potentially discovered that that would benefit NASA or mankind in general? Well,

David Oh 31:36
our principal investigator has a theory on where on where psyche came from, because it’s mostly metal world. One of the theory, the theory that she’s developed is that all planets have metal cores, and then the Earth has a big iron core inside of it. And one of the explanations for where psyche came from is that it may be it was once the inside of a planet that was forming or planetesimal, a baby planet that was forming in the asteroid belt, and then that baby planet collided with other baby planets that broken apart. And what’s left here is the piece or maybe a partially intact baby planetary core. If that’s the case, then by going and studying psyche, we can learn about not only where the solar system was created, we can learn about our own Earth, we can study the core of our own Earth in a way that we can’t do on the earth itself. Because to get to the Earth’s core, you have to drill through hundreds 1000s of miles of rock, it’s too hot, it’s too hard to get there to actually visit the core. But maybe out here in space, we’ve got a sample of a planetary core that we can look at, look at and actually understand our own planet from it. And I think just advancing the knowledge that we have of the of the solar system of our own planet, the universe would be a great outcome for this mission.

Aaron Moncur 32:51
So the theory is that the composition of psyche may be similar enough to the composition of our own Earth’s core that the studies and results that you get from it will be applicable to to the earth,

David Oh 33:05
right, or to and to other planets, Venus and modern planets, Jupiter, it plates, it gives us a critical piece and in our knowledge and understanding of how the solar system was created.

Aaron Moncur 33:15
I see. Well, I’m going to jump off onto a tangent here, which is just a second. While working at NASA, you spent about a guest about four years from 2013 to 2017, as a lecturer, and guest speaker, what what was your message during that time? And how did you come to the conclusion that, that sharing this message was something you needed to do?

David Oh 33:37
I’ve been blessed, I think as part of the Mars program and getting to do a lot of outreach, a lot of outreach work, where we get to talk about the work that NASA does, you know, NASA’s core mission, NASA was formed by the US government, we work for the taxpayer, we’re here to advance knowledge for the nation. And ultimately, for all of mankind, it’s, it’s important that we share the knowledge that we get. And I think it’s also important that we share and talk about the missions that we do, and that we use these missions to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, because these are inspiring missions. These are the types of things that we can get to encourage kids to study science and math and build things and just show what we can do with ingenuity. And with innovation, and the things that we can create. You know, I hope that out of the work we do we inspire the next Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and the next, Moon landing the next missions, the things that advance the frontiers of knowledge and the frontiers of what we do in space.

Aaron Moncur 34:42
Well, going back to the missions at NASA, can you talk a little bit about some of the tools that you use to break down a project as big as psyche so you can get organized and make progress towards your objectives as A large team, how do you organize all that information.

David Oh 35:03
So the main discipline in which I work and continue to work have worked and continue to work is what we call systems engineering. And Systems Engineering is a discipline that’s about taking all the different pieces of a spacecraft, the electrical, the mechanical, the aerodynamics, in the case of entry, descent, and landing, as well as pulling in the scientists pulling in the operations team. And making all of those pieces work together, you need multidisciplinary people who can see the big picture, and can understand how all the pieces go together to pull these big, super complicated things together to make something like a spacecraft work and systems engineering is one of these things that was really, I think it was invented in the US in the 1950s. And 60s, as people were trying to build launch vehicles, and they were having trouble getting you may, you’ve seen videos, I’m sure from the 50s or 60s, launch vehicles exploding when people tried to launch them, the disciplines that needed to be developed in order to manage all of the different pieces when you have hundreds of 1000s of pieces, all of which that have to work. Well simultaneously, you need the systems engineers who are looking over the whole system and making sure that everything will work together and that the risk is balanced across the system. And that ultimately, when time comes to launch, that the thing is going to work.

Aaron Moncur 36:23
Well, let’s talk a little bit more about communication in any profession. Communication is really important to the success of the projects. And that’s certainly the case with engineering as well, I find that the difficulty with which communication is achieved is is correlated to some extent anyway, with the size of the team. Now you’ve had experience leading large teams of engineers and scientists, what are some of the granular strategies that you’ve used to do so? In in a large team environment, how do you ensure that the right people are communicating with each other?

David Oh 37:01
Well, that’s partially art and partially science, I think, within systems engineering, we have a rigorous system that we use, that’s the science part where you write requirements, and you break down the system into individual requirements that can be tested and verified. And then you send those down to the subsystems that verify them, and then they send the data back up, and you verify that data is correct. And then you put it all together, and you verify at a higher level that all of the requirements work together. And you verify that the next level of requirements and eventually you build up the whole ladder, so that when you get to the end, you know that the whole spacecraft will work together. That’s the basic idea. And there is a science to it on ways to write write requirements, ways to break apart the system in ways that makes sense so that you can test each piece separately. And as part of the design, you build in the ability to test the system, you can build you can these systems are so complicated, you could build a system that literally can’t be tested. And so part of what you do is at the beginning, you think I’ve got this super complicated thing, I can test this piece over here, I can test the parachute here, I can test this computer separately, as long as I don’t attach the computer to this other mechanical thing, you make all those decisions up front to try and break it, decompose the design into these pieces. Now there’s a part of this, which is art, too. I mean, when we were doing the psyche proposal, we were working with a team at Space Systems around now maxar, which is located in Palo Alto, so they’re located in San Francisco, in the San Francisco, the Silicon Valley area, whereas we’re located in Pasadena and LA area. You know, we spent a lot of time getting on the plane flying up there, they’re flying down to us, I think over the course of nine months, we had 2526 face to face meetings, because there is a part of this, which is you just gotta get the people in the room and make sure that everybody is understanding and comprehends what’s going on, get on the whiteboard and draw things and make sure that everybody understands their part that the interfaces are clear that the specifications are clear. There is a part of this, which is just that human element. And I think that’s one of the things I enjoy about systems engineering, it’s part art and part science. And it’s a combination of the technical and the human to make it all work together.

Aaron Moncur 39:11
I’m curious, do you have an estimate of what percentage of your team’s time is spent just communicating with each other versus doing the actual development work?

David Oh 39:21
Well, it varies by the level of people, right. And in my, in the job that I have, which is managing the team, I spend 90% of the time doing communication. Now there are people on the team who spend much more of their time right 5060 70% of the time doing the work. And part of my job as manager is to make sure that we communicate clearly enough that they can do the work and do it right without having to spend all their time communicating. So we really divide up the process like that.

Aaron Moncur 39:51
Interesting. Well, you’ve worked with a lot of engineers over the years. What are some of the traits that you consistently see in in the best engineers what are the specific skills or talents that they have that make them great?

David Oh 40:05
Well, first, I’ll say that, you know, there’s a diversity of skills and a diversity of answers to that, because there’s so many different roles on the project that an engineer who’s good at one thing will be good at one part of it, engineers good and nothing will be another part of it. So let me answer that question for systems engineers specifically, which is different than the electrical engineers and mechanical engineers are the folks building the systems engineers have the ability to see the big picture, and to drill down and deal with problems in detail. And most importantly, they have the judgment to understand when they need to drill down in a problem. And when they can just let the problem go. Because there are other people who will deal with it. Because if you spend, it’s what Lindy was saying, these systems are too complicated for any single person to understand all aspects of the system. So the good system engineers have the judgment, to be able to understand which parts of the system they need to understand, and which parts of the system they can leave to other people to understand. So that when it all comes together, it goes, it goes. That’s a lot of good communication skills. It’s a lot of good judgment. And it’s involves technical depth as well. So it’s it’s a lot of skills that come together to make a really good systems engineer.

Aaron Moncur 41:21
Yeah, it sounds like that role requires more much more than just the engineering education, it’s almost a separate additional education on top of engineering.

David Oh 41:32
Yes. And historically, a lot of what’s happened is we get people get engineering education, and then they learn the communication parts of it the soft skills via experience. I mean, that’s where a lot of that comes from. Now that’s changing. Now people have created universities have started to create systems engineering programs, there are people who come out with system engineering degrees. But still, there’s a bit of this, which is art and experience, which is hard to get at the university level, because you don’t see it in action until you’re dealing with a group of say, 100 people, right? Some of this, some of these things, these giant personal dynamics, they change as you go from 10 people to 30 people to 100 people to 500 people. So until you’ve been in a program that has 200 300 people in it, you don’t really understand what those dynamics look like and what you got to do.

Aaron Moncur 42:22
It’s just like, testing for a Mars landing, you can only do so much. But there are aspects of it that you just can’t test until you actually get to Mars.

David Oh 42:31
That’s right. So you depend, you build a pyramid of tests, right, a whole bunch of low level tests, then some higher level tests and some higher level tests and the best testing you can do. And then you go to Mars, and you do it. And so you, you are dependent on all the work done by all the members of the team. And that’s, you know, that’s very important to be able to pull all those people together.

Aaron Moncur 42:52
Well, we’re getting close to being out of time. So I just, I’m going to ask just a couple more questions, and then I’ll let you go. What should we be looking forward to seeing from NASA over the next 20 years?

David Oh 43:03
20 years? Wow, there’s a lot of great missions that are out there, potentially, let’s psyche of course, we’ll fly that mission in a couple of years, we launched in 2022. Everybody should look for news of that, in August of 2022 is when our launch period opens. We have the perseverance rover, which is going to be landing in February, we have a Mars sample return mission, which is in work now. And you know, hopefully, we’ll be actually taking samples that that perseverance, rover collects and bring them back to Earth so they can be examined by scientists. And of course, we have commercial crew, which is going so we have new launch vehicles, American launch vehicles, taking American astronauts into space. And eventually, the goal is to land astronauts back on the moon, I think we’re trying to get to the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon will hopefully come out of NASA and the space program. So it’s an exciting time. For NASA. There’s tons and tons of work going and tons of great missions out there.

Aaron Moncur 43:59
What are some of the biggest challenges that you run into at work?

David Oh 44:03
Well, that’s a very interesting question. I’ll you know, they’re, I mean, they’re the technical challenges. Half of the spacecraft, which was sent to Mars fail historically. So it’s, it’s just a tough, tough environment to operate in. And then there’s just the communications challenges, right, because you’re pulling together these diverse people in all these different disciplines and all these different backgrounds. And you’re trying to get people to work towards a common goal. And so there’s all the challenges associated with that. The reason I hesitated at the beginning is because I admit that I kind of take these challenges for granted now. So I don’t think of them. When you say challenges. That sounds negative, right? And this is the part that makes the job fun. These challenges. So I almost I mean, they’re challenges, but they’re also the job and they’re the fun part

Aaron Moncur 44:52
of it. So yeah, that’s the puzzle that you get to put together, right. Yeah,

David Oh 44:57
I mean, we get to solve some of the most complex engineering problems out there. And that is, that’s the fun of it. Yeah, lots of challenges,

Aaron Moncur 45:06
you know, listening to you talk about communication. And so many of the guests on our show have talked about the importance of communication. Within engineering teams, it almost seems like engineering teams should bring on, I don’t know, a social worker, or a therapist or someone just to facilitate communication between people, that would be a really interesting experiment to, I think, see how how much more efficient a team can operate if they had someone whose role was just dedicated to helping people communicate? Well, we

David Oh 45:37
have people like that at JPL. Actually, we do when we, when we are first putting missions together when we’re bringing these, these blank sheets of paper. And we’re bringing all the different disciplines into the room, we have an area of JPL called the innovation foundry that is dedicated to trying to take these ideas and turn them into things we can build. And within the innovation foundry, we have a team, which we call the A Team, which is a team for doing brainstorming, and for doing rapid idea generation. And that team has trained facilitators in it. The facilitators aren’t people who are facilitators by career there, they are generally senior engineers who have been gotten facilitation training, I’ve gotten a little bit of that we do like to Bono method, I think is one of the methods that we use in our facilitation. And the job of those facilitators in that room is to get these diverse people, people, and over the course of just four or five hours, rapidly integrate the knowledge that they have, and turn that into designs. And then and then after that, we have T max, which takes them and turn them into technical designs, which are also facilitated jobs. But again, most of the people who do that are people who started as engineers, or were trained as engineers, and then picked up the facilitation training later. That’s a very important part of the job, particularly when we’re creating new missions from scratch.

Aaron Moncur 46:50
That’s fantastic. You mentioned that was it Debono method?

David Oh 46:54
Yes. That’s one of the management methods. Yeah, it’s there’s a whole slew of different management methods out there. Okay. And that’s one of them. That’s the one I happen to have gotten training.

Aaron Moncur 47:02
Interesting off to check that out. Well, last question for you here. I saw a picture of you and your family. In the article, we talked about this earlier, where you guys were all on Mars time. And I’m making a little bit of an assumption here. But I’m, it seems like, in addition to being a rocket scientist, you’re also a family man. With all the demands placed on you owing to you know, the high level of importance role that you have at NASA, how how do you balance your your personal life and your professional life?

David Oh 47:33
That’s a great question. And it’s a challenge for everybody. But I think it’s very important to have that balance, I will go back to what I said about one of the important skills that system engineers have is the ability to know when to penetrate into a problem and when to let other people solve it. That kind of same judgment applies to your personal life versus your work life, you need to set boundaries and understand when problems need to be solved. And when you need to spend time with your family and make all these things work. So I specifically dedicate time to the family over the weekends in particular, the other great thing about being part of NASA, is that unlike in some positions, you know, we are what we do is public. I’ve taken my kids to the lab and shown them the things that we work on the spacecraft that we build, they understand what I do, and they understand the importance of what I do. And so I think when, when I’m off working on Mars time, or third shift, or whatever, right, they are part of the adventure that we do. And I think that’s invaluable, as well. So, so yeah, it’s balance, but it’s also integrating them and kind of making sure that they understand what the work life is and that, and they understand that I appreciate them. And then I’m going to show up at soccer, games and school and do all of those things. And my wife, of course, is absolutely critical to making all that happen, too, right? Just like just like building a spacecraft, managing a family’s team got to do it together.

Aaron Moncur 49:00
Now, that’s an interesting way to think about it that there really has to be kind of a manager in the family, right? Someone who’s putting all those pieces together and making sure it works correctly. Well, David, thank you so much for for spending this time today and sharing some of your experiences. It’s been just fascinating. And I’m deeply grateful that you’re willing to take some time and just share it today. So thank you so much for doing that. How can how can people get a hold of you?

David Oh 49:31
You can find me on LinkedIn or you can find me on Twitter. We do a lot of actually Facebook also we do a lot of social outreach. You can also look for on Twitter, at SM at Mission to psyche I think is the psyche Twitter handle. You can also go to the JPL website jpl.nasa.gov. And you can find it search for the psyche mission Google the psyche mission, and you’ll find information about the psyche mission at well. And as an honor Wherever you can follow me i Mars time or dad, but it’s spelled strangely, Ma, r s t i m r, da D. So, there’s a story behind that, but we’ll leave that story for another day

Aaron Moncur 50:13
or two. Okay. All right, David. Oh, I do have one more. My wife meter made me promise to ask any sightings of little green men out there.

David Oh 50:22
Not yet know. If we find any, we’ll be sure to let you know, trust me that would take care of our funding problems for a long time if we found

Aaron Moncur 50:32
Alright, David, thank you so much.

David Oh 50:34
Thank you very much. Thanks. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

Aaron Moncur 50:38
Hey, everyone, David asked me to include this quick correction to something he said during the interview. When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012. It actually took 14 minutes for the signal from the rover to reach the Earth, not seven minutes. The seven minute event he mentioned has its own significance. And you can read more about that in the show notes. I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please leave us a positive review. It really helps other people find the show. To learn how your engineering team can leverage our team’s expertise in developing turnkey custom test fixtures, automated equipment and product design, visit us at test fixture design.com Thanks for listening

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