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Meet: Peter Gage

a fetching photo of the debonaire

Design Engineer
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California

My Journals

My Chats

Who I Am
I am an onsite contractor at NASA Ames Research Center. I work on design systems for thermal protection of atmospheric entry vehicles. This means that I work with NASA engineers to predict how hot a Space Shuttle or a Mars probe will get. I use computers and the internet to share this information with other design team members around the country. By doing a good job of sharing information in the team, we can design the best and safest vehicles.

Career Path
I did not really do any special activities that prepared me for my career. In high school, I did not specifically take classes geared towards engineering, but I took a lot of math and physics classes which prepared me somewhat. I thought about studying history at college but decided that I wanted to make things instead of just writing about them. Now that I do research, I have a good combination of learning about interesting science, designing, and writing papers about my work.

In college, I studied engineering. Sometimes in the first couple of years it seemed that we would never get to build anything and lots of the coursework was tedious. Sometimes educators would do a better job of explaining how a lot of difficult mathematics will be useful "in the real world". But several times in the last few years I have wished that I had listened a little better as a freshman. Lots of that stuff really helps!

Straight out of college, I designed little engines to go in unmanned aircrafts. I loved the experiments but was often frustrated when the engines kept breaking. I did a lot of analysis to figure out why these problems occurred and decided that I still had more to learn so I left Australia to attend graduate school in the United States. I obtained a masters and doctorate at Stanford with my major in aircraft design.

After graduate school, I decided to go back to Australia where I taught mechanical and aeronautical design at a university. We have young children, and we wanted them to know their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. I really liked teaching, but felt I could do a better job if I had more design experience (there is ALWAYS more to learn!). I was happy to accept an offer to work on spacecraft design at NASA Ames. I have been doing this for about three years now.

Pros and Cons of My Job
It is fascinating to study vehicles and how they work. It is difficult to decide how to build spacecraft because we don't know precisely what conditions they will have to endure (because we haven't been there before!). This is hard work so it is exciting when a design works.

The negative aspect of my job is that designs sometimes don't work perfectly. This is quite frustrating, but it increases the excitement when our predictions turn out to be right.

I was interested in airplanes as a teenager and made several balsa wood model airplanes. I also became interested in boats and sailing in my late teens. Odd jobs around the house also gave me some familiarity with tools and how things work and break. As a teenager, I was not really interested in computers. Back then, I thought they were mainly for games and for typing (there was no internet). But I still remember how excited I was when I realized a computer would save me hours of calculations after one of my college experiments. Suddenly I was ready to learn programming!

I did a lot of reading as a kid. I read anything from science to history to novels. I remember one summer when I picked up one of my sister's biology books and started reading it. My sisters thought I was crazy to read a textbook that wasn't required for a course. But ten years later some of my design research used biological ideas. Don't stop doing something that interests you just because it is not obviously relevant to your work.

If you are interested in a career in engineering, people always recommend math and science classes. They are certainly important, but liberal arts classes are important too. Most engineering employers list communication skills as a top priority. Engineers are involved in all high technology, and they help to shape our lives. If you are fascinated by how things work and are put together, then engineering may be for you. It may not be the best financial choice, but it can be very rewarding.

There was an assumption with my family that everyone would go to college. We were expected to do homework every night. I did not really have anyone encouraging me to go into engineering specifically. My father did medical research, and he seemed to always have interesting work to do. That helped me to consider a research related career. My mother encouraged me to stick with aerospace engineering even when it took me a long way from Australia. I am incredibly lucky that my wife likes learning and understanding, so she is enthusiastic about the work I do.

Personal Information
I have the good fortune to do work that I like. Some days it is tedious, of course, but other days it feels more like fun than work! Five to ten years from now I expect to be teaching at a university again. I will have the opportunity to combine teaching and research--two things I really love, and I can also consult on real-world design projects in industry.

I occasionally play tennis and basketball, but I spend most of my free time with my family. My wife, Mary, does some internet development and technical writing, and she studies philosophy. Our biggest responsibility and joy is looking after our two children. Sarah is seven and James is five, and they get along very well with each other. Sometimes we walk to the park, ride on the bouncy tree, play Pooh Sticks and go to the library. They both love music and stories. I have lots of their pictures in my office. I am very proud of them.


My Chats

May 18-23 forum, Design a Mars Plane

November 21, 2000


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