Nerds In Real Life Science & Tech

Nerd Profile: The Space Explorer (Part I)

David during environmental testing of New Horizons spacecraft at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), October 3, 2005. APL uses GSFC’s large thermal vacuum chamber to simulate the space environment, and its acoustic testing chamber to subject spacecraft to sound levels experienced during launch, which cause mechanical vibrations in the spacecraft. David during environmental testing of New Horizons spacecraft at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), October 3, 2005. APL uses GSFC’s large thermal vacuum chamber to simulate the space environment, and its acoustic testing chamber to subject spacecraft to sound levels experienced during launch, which cause mechanical vibrations in the spacecraft.

David Kusnierkiewicz is the Chief Engineer of the Space Exploration Sector of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab (APL), where he’s worked for more than 33 years. David studied Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan, earning his B.S in 1976 and M.S. in 1982.  Since then, he’s taken a number of short courses in very specialized areas, but says his job is a constant learning experience.

“Most days, I come home feeling like I’ve spent the entire day in a graduate level classroom.”

Last week, days after NASA Juno entered its orbit around Jupiter (July 4) and just before the first anniversary of NASA New Horizons historic flyby of Pluto (July 14, 2015), David was kind enough to spend some of his “down time” answering a battery of probing (pun intended) questions from Raising Nerd. During our interview, he offered valuable insights into how he got started on his career path, his inspirations, and the mission planning expertise he developed as a space exploration systems engineer.

With so much fascinating information to share about David’s background and the historic missions in which he’s been involved, Raising Nerd had to split the interview into two posts. Here’s Part I:

RN: Did you always want to be involved in aerospace ventures? What were your hobbies growing up and who were/are your inspirations?

DAVID KUSNIERKIEWICZ (DK): As I grew up, teachers used to wheel TVs into our classrooms so we could watch the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft launches. I was always fascinated by these but thought the engineers and scientists behind these projects must be geniuses, and I never thought I would be “smart enough” to get a job like that.

I was always good at math and science. My father was my biggest inspiration. He was also an Electrical Engineer; he also graduated from the University of Michigan (in 1929). His parents emigrated to the U.S. from Poland around 1900, and he was the first one in his family to go to college. He grew up in the country in northern Michigan and, like his brothers, he understood how to build things, how machines worked, and how to fix or build just about anything around the house. I often helped him, and so I learned a lot about how things worked.

I grew up developing an interest in electronics, mostly radio and TV, as there weren’t any computers around until I got into high school. I built a number of radios from scratch (with my Dad’s help, at first) and from kits, and I fixed a lot of TVs. Being good at math and science, I just naturally fell into electrical engineering. My father never pushed me into engineering at all, but if I showed an interest in something, he would encourage it.

Space continued to fascinate me and, over the years, I also developed an interest in astronomy – especially when pictures of Saturn and other planets from the Voyager spacecraft became public. I also enjoyed photography and playing the guitar – I still do.

RN: How did you get your start with the Johns Hopkins APL and working with NASA?

DK: I spent the first 12 years of my career designing, building, and testing power supplies and other electronics for spacecraft for both NASA and Department of Defense space missions. Then I moved into systems engineering, and was the lead system engineer for two NASA missions:

  1. TIMED – A low-Earth orbiting, atmospheric sciences mission, launched in December 2001, and still operating today; and
  2. New Horizons (NH) – I was the lead system engineer from the start of the project in 2002 until we finished commissioning the spacecraft after launch in January 2006.

I’ve been the Chief Engineer at APL since 2004. As Chief Engineer, I perform technical oversight over all the projects we have in the Space Exploration Sector. We’ve executed a number of planetary space missions for NASA, including the NEAR, MESSENGER, STEREO, and Van Allen Probes. In addition to building and operating spacecraft, we also build instruments that fly on spacecraft built by other organizations for NASA, like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Goddard Space Flight Center.

RN: How long have you been involved with NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter?

DK: I got involved with Juno in 2007, as a member of the NASA Standing Review Board for the mission. NASA places great emphasis on reviews by subject matter experts independent of the project, and even independent of the organizations executing the project. There are literally thousands of details in these projects, and it can be easy to overlook something important, or become so focused on the details that you miss the big picture. So it can be valuable to bring in other experienced people with fresh and/or different perspectives to review the project team’s work.

RN: Tell me about your work on Juno, both leading up to the launch in 2011 and now that the spacecraft has entered Jupiter’s orbit.

DK: As a member of the Standing Review Board, I attended a number of the major reviews between 2007 and launch. Over the course of three to five long days, we review a lot of material, listen to a lot of presentations, and ask a lot of questions. We hold side meetings that go into greater detail in specific subject areas, make suggestions to the project team, and “grade” them on progress and readiness for launch on the planned date. We make independent assessments of technical risks, and whether there’s sufficient staffing, schedule, and budget for the mission to succeed.

At APL we were developing the Van Allen Probes mission at the same time JPL was developing Juno. Our Van Allen Probes mission, which has environmental similarities to the Juno environment at Jupiter, flies two spacecraft in the Earth’s radiation belts. I made sure the right people on both projects communicated, shared results about needed tests on various materials and design techniques, and that they didn’t duplicate efforts.

I was also a member of the Juno project Radiation Advisory Board. Since Jupiter’s radiation environment was expected to be so harsh, and there were aspects of the environment of Juno’s orbit that were still unknown, a special board of experts convened to review and advise the project specifically on radiation. I’m not a radiation expert, but NASA sought my advice because of my experience and for my “systems” perspective. All this is part of NASA’s emphasis on getting independent points of view.

RN: What instruments does your team have on board Juno, what information are they collecting, and why is that data important?

DK: APL has an instrument known as JEDI, which stands for Juno Energetic Particle Detector Instrument. There are actually three of these instruments on the spacecraft. These instruments detect energetic charged particles, specifically electrons and different ions like hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. The instruments are all “looking” in different directions. The data they collect will help scientists map the distribution of these particles around Jupiter and how they are accelerated, giving insight into auroral processes (just like Earth’s Northern Lights), currents, and waves. So they contribute to part of the total science picture.

RN: What have been your team’s main concerns as Juno has proceeded? What are your contingency plans if something goes wrong?

DK: There are literally thousands of details that go into these projects; any one of which can bring disaster if you get it wrong. That said, it’s not usually one thing that causes a mission to fail. It’s a string of events. The things we’ve thought of, we usually get right. It’s the things we don’t think of – or know – that usually get us. So, we put a lot of time and effort into thinking about the things that can go wrong, and we put a lot of smarts into the spacecraft so it can take care of itself, since we aren’t always in contact with it. Even when we are in contact, it takes so long for a radio transmission to get between Juno and the Earth, we can’t react in real-time. But we have a long list of contingency plans, if, for instance, we don’t hear from the spacecraft when we expect to. I often say, “NOTHING we do in this business is easy.”

Be sure to check out Part 2 of this Nerd Profile: The Space Explorer.

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