Interview with a Rocket Scientist

in Indoor Jobs, Jobs in Science, Salaried Jobs

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Read as Joseph Williams talks about his career as a Rocket Scientist with NASA.  Find Joe at http://leadingspace.wordpress.com and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I’m a “rocket scientist” with NASA, supporting human spaceflight from Houston, TX.

How would you describe what you do?

Nowadays I’m “playing in the intersection of Government and business.” With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and continuing pressures to reduce federal government spending, I’m involved in finding new ways for NASA to continue human space exploration through innovative business arrangements with our contractor partners and with the emerging commercial space industry.

What does your work entail?

Right now it entails forecasting – trying to predict where Presidential and Congressional direction will take NASA – to develop strategies for purchasing the goods and services needed for operating Mission Control in Houston, to do astronaut training, support mission planning work for new and existing Government-led human spaceflight programs such as the International Space Station, and to develop partnerships with commercial space.  The heavy lifting is done with a dedicated team that is brought together for this purpose, then once we’ve completed the work, we disband.

What’s a typical work week like?

Right now it’s hard to say that there is a “typical work week.”  The situation is rather dynamic at the present.  However, what I can say is that in a few weeks, I will be sequestered with a dedicated team, for which a typical work week will involve the following: mapping out strategy elements for our contracts, conversing with leaders within the organization on expected outcomes, developing the strategic details for the business case to be pursued, then defending that case with NASA executives in Houston and in Washington, DC.

How did you get started?

I certainly did not intend on landing in the business and strategy world at NASA, and it’s not where I started.  My background is in physics.  I have BS and MS degrees in physics, and started my career developing software for one of NASA’s mission planning simulations used in support of the Space Shuttle Program.  That led to a new assignment developing trajectory software for Mission Control itself, which eventually led to a job as a Shuttle flight controller in one of the trajectory specializations in Mission Control.  After a few years, I stepped away from console work to assume a leadership role over teams of flight controllers, which put me on the path for where I am today.

What do you like about what you do?

There is a lot I can say about this!  First of all, we’re talking about space exploration, and how cool is that?  Second, in my current role I can see the tangible results of what I do – teams of people working together under the contracts we establish to get the job done, as well as maintaining and upgrading beautiful facilities such as Mission Control and the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (the huge pool where astronauts do “weightless training”).  I can point to tangible results on saving American taxpayers dollars, which is extremely important to me, and do so without cutting corners or compromising the safety of our astronauts.  I love every day I come here and look out my window at Mission Control, and can say, “I have a hand in that!”

What do you dislike?

One of the realities we deal with is the political aspect of human spaceflight.  We are answerable to the President and Congress, and sometimes the direction or funding priorities either get a particular kind of unwanted focus, or suffer from a lack of proper focus, that frustrates many of us ( as well as space enthusiasts).  I spent a year on a development assignment in Washington, DC to get first-hand exposure to the political realities in decision-making inside the “Beltway.”  Sure, it’s not as efficient as it could be, yet in one respect, it is part of the price we pay for the kind of unique freedoms we have as Americans.  My job is to make the most of it and to do the kind of forecasting that can react to changes in the way the political winds might be blowing.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

It’s a full-time salaried job.

How much money do you make? 

The salary tables for federal employees are publicly available on the U.S. Office of Personnel Website, http://www.opm.gov/.  The kind of work that I do is more senior level, so I’m on the GS-14 row for the Houston area which ranges from $109,000 to $142,000 per year.  Different areas of the country make different salaries with the federal government due to something called “locality pay”, which is an attempt to make Government wages comparable with wages in the private industry of that area.  Houston has a lot of high-paying technical jobs in the oil and gas industry, which tends to make Government wages higher here than in other parts of the country.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

I started 25 years ago, so what I made back then won’t translate well to today’s world.  However, engineers and people with degrees in the technical arenas such as math or science tend to start in the middle of the salary table (usually GS-7 with a bachelor’s degree and GS-9 with a master’s degree).  Translated to today’s world with a technical master’s degree, my starting salary would be in the $50,000 to $70,000 range.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

My background in physics prepared me very well for the kinds of technical problem solving that I did earlier in my career.  Practical experience in leading teams over time also helped tremendously, and there is no substitute for time in many cases.  Because so much of what I do is more business-oriented presently, I’m currently pursing an Executive MBA that NASA is paying for me to do.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Right now it is balancing home, work, and school.  Although I’m given one workday off for the Executive MBA studies, the other four days of the week I’m doing my regular day job.  I have two very active daughters involved in a number of activities, so it becomes a juggling act to get my job and schoolwork done while keeping family a priority.  Work-life balance is an important yet not often emphasized point about transition from school to the working world, so I had to develop my own solutions by starting with my priorities, which have changed as a function of time.  Early, it was all about career (and being done with school).  Now it is family, yet my work at NASA and the Executive MBA program are clearly important to me too.

What is most rewarding?

To me, the most rewarding aspect is seeing the tangible results from the forecasting and strategy efforts, and being thanked for a job well done.  During my flight controller days, it was sitting on console during a mission, listening to the “air-to-ground” conversations between Mission Control and the astronauts while monitoring data, and knowing that I was participating in pushing the boundaries of human space exploration.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

A background in one of the STEM areas – science, technology, engineering, or mathematics – is a must.  It’s important to do well in school, yet it is just as important to have life experiences beyond classes that demonstrate leadership, and ability to think and react to unexpected situations, and a demonstrated ability to work well on teams.

How much time off do you get/take?

With the number of years of federal service I have, I get four weeks of vacation per year.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

It’s not so much about what I do, but instead it’s more about NASA.  NASA is distributed across the country in ten field centers and headquarters in Washington, DC.  In Houston, we have Mission Control, the astronaut corps, and the International Space Station Program.  We don’t launch rockets from here – that is done from other NASA facilities.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

For NASA, my dreams are that we do our part to turn humankind into a multi-planet species in my lifetime.  As for me, I see transitioning into a teaching role once my NASA career is over.  One of my values is rooted in something I call LAS – for Learn, Apply, and Share.  I want to take everything that I’ve learned and applied over the years, and give back to our youth so that they might benefit.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

With the recent emergence and promising future of commercial space, the kinds of opportunities available in “rocket science” is expanding beyond the traditional Government domain and into the private realm.  Despite some of the near-term challenges in focus and funding in Washington, DC, the future for space exploration is limitless.  In some ways, it resembles other kinds of exploration that humankind has done throughout history, whether it is the discovery of the New World, expansion to the West in America, or any other endeavor that entails uncertainty, discovery, and pushing people to their limits.  It’s exciting.

 


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