A career path less often travelled

written by Ronald Boain, B.S. and M.S. Physics, University of Missouri

This essay is a recounting of my life's path, beginning from when I was a student at the University of Missouri to working in the aerospace industry and eventually at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; this path was not a straight line but had many twists, turns and decisions.  However, in the end, everything worked out well for me, because I had a good foundation provided by my university education.

As a graduate student in 1965-67, it seemed to me that the majority of physics majors saw their futures as university teachers and/or professors.  Few, if any, seemed to be interested in non-academic fields or industry careers.  I wasn't much different in that I aspired to becoming a professional astronomer doing teaching or research.  In my mind by studying physics and taking every astronomy course offered by the department, I could finish my PhD degree and become an astronomy instructor at a college or university.  But external factors affecting my life made me rethink this midway through my second year of graduate studies.  Among these factors were my financial situation (desperately poor and not wanting to take loans) and the fact that my wife and I were expecting a child.  On top of that, my draft board was threatening me with military service by reviewing my status as a student every semester (one must remember that 1967 was the height of the Vietnam war).  Also, I was keenly aware, as possible opportunities for me, of the ongoing "space race" to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union and NASA's incipient ventures in planetary space exploration. 

Although I had passed my qualifying exams allowing me to continue working for a PhD, I decided to end my academic career after finishing my M.S. degree.  Fortunately for me, jobs were plentiful at that time for anyone with a technical degree.  In the spring of 1967, I accepted a job offer at Boeing's aerospace company in Seattle working on their space defense efforts.  The defense work had the side benefit of guaranteeing me a deferment from the draft.

So it was that I moved to Renton, Washington in the suburbs of Seattle that summer.  Ironically, my time at Boeing was to be short because soon after I arrived, Boeing's fortunes immediately began to decline due to the loss of several major contracts.  This opened my eyes to the vagaries of working in the aerospace industry as it was in 1967.  I immediately began searching for another, more secure job which ultimately landed me in Houston, Texas working for TRW (a now defunct aerospace company) on the Apollo Program's manned moon mission.

At this point, I should make clear that my time at the Boeing company was not a waste.  In addition to learning the technical details of launch vehicles and rocket propulsion, I also enrolled in Boeing sponsored night classes (celestial mechanics and astrodynamics) taught by well-respected and very knowledgeable instructors from Boeing's Advanced Research Center.  (I had the good fortune to be taught by Andre Deprit.)  These courses meshed well with my one and only class in celestial mechanics taken at the University of Missouri and taught by Dr. Terry Edwards.

So, in January of 1969, I moved to Houston to work as a NASA contractor on the Apollo Program doing trajectory contingency analyses.  In a word, my job, along with the group I worked with, was to analyze all possible trajectory contingency situations that might occur during the Apollo spacecraft's near moon trajectory and to identify possible recoveries.

Soon after the Apollo 11 moon mission completed its successful flight, it became clear that workforce downsizing was coming to Houston as the future of lunar exploration by NASA was being curtailed due to federal budget trimming.  Once the race to the moon was won by the USA, the government turned its attention to other pressing matters.  What was left of the Apollo flights to the moon would have pre-flight analysis done by government employees with the remaining contractor workforce significantly reduced.  The Apollo Program was entering its operational phase and no longer needed the type of trajectory analysis I was performing. 

Once again I began to look for new employment and this time ended up at Martin Marietta Aerospace (now Lockheed Martin) near Denver, Colorado in the summer of 1970.  I spent five years at Martin Marietta mostly working on proposal efforts for planetary missions to Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.  During this time, I also became knowledgeable about optimum trajectory design for electric propulsion spacecraft.

Perhaps it should be noted that the ten years spent bouncing around between aerospace companies and gaining experience and expertise provided me with a launching pad for the rest of my career.  One thing is clear to me, I worked hard and studied long at every chance to keep my skills finely honed.  I have no doubt that this was key to my eventually landing a career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

My employment at JPL was the result of a technical paper that I had written and presented at an aerospace engineering conference.  After presenting my paper to the conference participants, I was approached by a technical manager at JPL asking if I might be interested in a position there.  After some negotiations, I accepted JPL's offer and launched a 40+ years career there.

I started out at JPL as a Staff Engineer, i.e., a member of the Technical Staff at large, in the Advanced Projects Group.  Within about eighteen months, I was promoted to Group Supervisor of the Advanced Projects Group managing about twelve engineers.  Our group's by-line was: "Anybody (planetary or otherwise), anytime."  In a word, we were responsible for preliminary mission analyses and designs for all future JPL deep space missions that could be contemplated by upper management.  We developed designs for a myriad of missions: Solar Probe, Jupiter Orbiter, Halley Comet Rendezvous, Orbiting Venus Radar, Mercury Flyby and/or Orbiter, and a Saturn/Titan Orbiter among them.  This was an exciting time for me and my group because we were at the forefront of the vision for deep space exploration and in great demand by upper management.  More important, we responded well to the many requests for analysis support.

Because of my success with the Advanced Projects Group, after about two years as the Group Leader, I was asked to consider relocating to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. for a one-year assignment detailed to Headquarter providing direction to JPL's advanced planetary mission studies.  After considerable thought, I decided that this would be a career growth assignment, so I accepted and in September of 1979 I relocated to D.C.  This was an interesting position in that, besides my usual duties which were bureaucratic and rather mundane, I found myself interacting with JPL's senior managers whenever they came to Washington for meetings with NASA management.

My one-year assignment was completed in a flash, and I was eager to return to JPL's campus in Pasadena, California.  Despite the awe and excitement of working in the nation's capital, I found the work too much on the bureaucratic side where I was reporting on someone else's technical results as opposed to actually doing the technical work.  I wanted to get back into the routine of technical analysis and problem solving.

Interestingly, when I returned to JPL, the Lab was in a state of disarray.  NASA's budgetary projections for future planetary missions was not an optimistic picture.  Nationally, there was a greater interest on matters related to national defense than interest in the exploration of the planets.  It was the "Star Wars" era.  That was okay by me, so long as the work was technical in nature, and I signed up to help JPL capture a defense related project instead of one of the usual NASA missions.  Even though some would say that the project we secured for JPL from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was a pursuit in war-making fantasy, i.e., hundreds of space-based warfighting lasers, the class of technology and the technical content was off scale compared to anything at NASA.  I was so engrossed in this effort, that after a year and a half, JPL management selected me to succeed the first project manager.  Once again it was exciting times in my career, but the excitement ended when the Space Shuttle exploded during lift-off in 1986.  This was because the DARPA project at JPL was a space experiment intended to fly on the Space Shuttle.  That explosion effectively ended JPL involvement with "Star Wars" space experiments.

As a consequence, I drifted around from one temporary assignment to another for several years primarily supporting earth science space missions while looking for a technical assignment which met my interests and was compatible with my expertise.  In 1999 I was asked to support an effort writing a proposal for an earth orbiting science mission: CloudSat.  This effort was to formulate a concept for a science satellite to investigate clouds, i.e, water in clouds using a space-based radar.  The written proposal would be submitted to NASA wherein we described how we would meet the stated mission objective and the supporting technical requirements, plus cost and schedule information.

The whole proposal process took about eighteen months to get through the writing, the submittal, the review, the selection, and the award.  CloudSat along with a complementary aerosol/cloud mission called CALIPSO were selected by NASA to be funded with flight project status and were to be launched together on the same launch vehicle.  The simultaneous launch of two satellites made for a complicated start to our missions.  After separation from the launch vehicle, the two satellites then needed to join up in an on-orbit configuration called "formation flying", i.e., with one satellite closely orbiting behind the other on essentially the same orbit.  An additional complication was that CloudSat and CALIPSO were to be embedded midway between four other satellites forming the Afternoon Constellation (A-Train).

For me, CloudSat was exactly what I had been looking for in terms of project management responsibility, at the same time with significant technical complexity.  I was selected to be the Project System Engineer as a member of the Project's top level Management Staff.  My responsibilities were to ensure that all the project's top-level performance and interface requirements were satisfied during the mission.  This included oversight of the verification and validation processes for all the project's major systems: science, mission design, spacecraft, launch vehicle, and operations.

CloudSat and CALIPSO were launched on a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc California on 28 April 2006.  One of the unique characteristics about the CloudSat and CALIPSO missions was their complementarity of measurements (radar and lidar); therefore, by design, the two satellites after release from the launch vehicle proceeded to establish a formation flying orbital configuration with CALIPSO tailgating CloudSat separated by just 15 second of orbital distance.  This was a first for an earth science mission because it required CloudSat to be responsive to orbital perturbations (principally atmospheric drag) and to maneuver periodically to compensate in order to maintain the formation.

After one operational year on-orbit with all mission and science requirements being met, NASA saw fit to award me an Exceptional Achievement Medal "for outstanding systems engineering, development of the concept for formation flying with CALIPSO, and technical leadership of the A-Train contingency planning".  As of September 2021, the CloudSat spacecraft is still functioning on-orbit (however, no longer in the A-Train due to spacecraft parts aging and deterioration).

In conclusion, I am convinced that my education in physics and astronomy at MU was a significant factor contributing to my success.  To be clear, my continuing to supplement my education after graduation and my hard work at assigned tasks also contributed.  And, no doubt, a little luck in finding and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me along the way also helped.  All in all, these things allowed me to successfully pursue and navigate an exciting and rewarding career, even without my PhD.


September 2021