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Meet: Dr. Donald Mendoza

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Aerospace Engineer
Ames Research Center

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What I Do
I currently work in the Systems Management Office (SMO), which was recently formed to improve the quality and consistency of systems management at the NASA Ames Center. Systems management is the integration of Systems Engineering, system safety and risk assessment, cost estimation and analysis, such that a system's risks are minimized, and it's probability of success maximized. The system encompasses all elements of a program including the software, hardware, and personnel. My responsibility is to insure that the programs undertaken by NASA Ames incorporate effective and efficient systems management practices, meaning that risks (amount of harm a hazard can cause and the chances of it happening) are minimized within the constraints of a program's budget, schedule, and purpose.

Many NASA programs are inherently risky, which is to be expected, since NASA explores the frontiers of science and technology. However, often times the research scientists/engineers are focused on the science, while managers are focused on the administrative issues of a program, leaving gaps in both their risk reduction efforts. Consequently, they may be exposing themselves and others to unnecessary risks. The key word is unnecessary.

If a program's purpose is to send a person into space, and this mission may result in a significant benefit to mankind, then the risks may be necessary. However, the risks must still be minimized to be acceptable. If a program's purpose is to send a person into space to see how far they can go, and this mission offers no benefit to mankind, then the risks are unnecessary. In this case no amount of risk reduction would work, and the dangers would be unacceptable.

My job is to determine and minimize the risks associated with a program, by using a systems approach. An example project I worked on involved a group of scientists that were synthesizing a new material by putting a jelly-like substance inside a pressure cooker under very high pressure and temperature. The extreme conditions caused the jelly to transform into a gas/liquid combination and release harmful chemicals. Upon decreasing the temperature and pressure back to room values, the gas/liquid combination hardened to a new material with the properties being sought, i.e. the ability to protect people from extreme temperatures. A material with this properties can clearly be used in the space shuttle, or even your favorite ski jacket.

My contribution to this project was to perform a systems analysis that involved multiple disciplines, including chemistry, physics and fluid and structural mechanics. I showed that the main hazards were an explosion and fire; In my recommendations, I also indicated how these risks could be prevented. Additionally, my analysis showed that the risk of poisoning by the released gases was negligible, so the project managers did not have to address this concern in planning their budget.

I enjoy my job, and here are a few reasons why. It is multi-disciplinary and it hardly ever gets boring. I use fundamental skills I learned in school (pencil, eraser and calculator type skills). It is very educational (one can't know everything, but a good education prepares you to continue learning new things as you need them to solve problems in novel ways). It requires the use of many resources: books, calculators, computers, experience and other people; and I do get to work with some very good people. Finally, when I was primarily conducting research, I felt the impact of my work might not be realized for years, but in this job I feel I make a difference now. The one thing I do not like about my job is dealing with people's erroneous view that systems management is an obstacle, and not an asset to their work. However, I see it as a challenge, and I use my experience as an investigator to relate to their points of view. I find it very rewarding when people realize that I help them do their work more efficiently, and to improve their chances of success.

Who I am and the Career Path I Took
I grew up on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley, and while working there, I was captivated by the hawks swooping down to the ground, and dreamt of the freedom flight must bring. By six years of age, my interest in flight followed the seemingly boundless skies the hawks played in. I read a lot about airplanes and rockets, and started to build models of them. Most of my models would end up crashing (no doubt the victim of unsound system management practices). I started to read about people in the aerospace industry, like test pilots and scientists (Chuck Yeager and Theodore Von Karmen). They became my role models, equal to my sports heroes.

One book I especially enjoyed was "Carrying the Fire" by astronaut Michael Collins. I admired his self-assessment as a regular guy who, because of timing and location, had unique opportunities. He made the best of these opportunities by becoming the first person to orbit the moon alone. While I did not think I could attain the same levels as my sports heroes, I thought that I could possibly reach the same levels as my heroes in aerospace. I started to take a very high interest in science, and in junior high realized the need to plan my goals, that of earning a degree in aerospace engineering and becoming an Air Force pilot. To attain these goals I had to study and do well in and out of class (not to say I did not have troubles). I participated (almost religiously) in sports and was also a bookworm. I played basketball and football and worked out in the gym constantly. My friends had lots of time to do things other than studying and sometimes teased me about being uncool but my priorities remained schoolwork and weightlifting.

I was one of the few athletes taking college preparatory classes, and competing with kids that only concentrated on academics. As a freshman, I wanted to go to the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly). It was difficult to gain admission there, and counselors told me that I would not be admitted. I was accepted to Cal Poly, but I went to the San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton instead, so that I could work and save money to afford Cal Poly in the future. This disappointed some of my teachers because they thought I was wasting the opportunity, especially since I was a minority with a farming background. They thought I would drop out, but they didn't know me or people like the ones reading this lengthy bio. I started out badly, failing my first calculus exam but I improved, earned a two-year engineering degree, and graduated with honors. I was re-accepted into Cal Poly. Going away to school was a big deal for me; I had never lived off the farm. I had a good time, too good, and started out badly again getting a "D" on my first exam. I reclaimed my priorities, found my confidence, and was able to complete my Aeronautical Engineering degree in two years, again with honors. Upon graduation, I planned to join the Air Force, but my eyesight betrayed me, ending my dream of becoming a military pilot.

I accepted a job with the company that made the space shuttle solid rocket motor boosters, but then the Challenger accident occurred (ironically this tragedy could have been prevented and seven people saved by proper system management), and I changed my mind. Instead, I accepted an engineering job with the Air Force at the Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the same place most of the astronauts train. I worked on and flew in F-15, T-38 and F-16 jets. I left the Air Force to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. It was a cultural shock for me there, socially, economically, and academically. Previously, I had only been in conservative institutions. Berkeley had riots the first week I was there, and many people wore clothing I had never seen before, talked many different languages, painted, tattooed and pierced various parts of their bodies. I was intimidated by my fellow students, many of who were real geniuses! I had to maintain an "A" average to remain in the doctoral program (I couldn't start badly here)! I used my prior experiences, family, and new friends as foundations of courage when I felt overwhelmed. My confidence grew and eventually I was the first in my class to graduate (1996), and did so with honors. I have been at NASA Ames since 1992, first as a graduate student on a NASA fellowship, then as a post-doctoral fellow conducting research in aerodynamics for the National Research Council. Finally, in 1998 I had the opportunity to accept a NASA civil servant position.

Advice
Everyone's views are different, but it is important to think about the influences that are affecting the decisions you make, and to give priority to the feelings that come from within yourself, as opposed to those that don't. No matter who you are, you can be discriminated against or put down (I know, I am an ethnic minority and grew up with a severe stutter), and not get your fair share or opportunity. Remember this, so you treat people with the same respect with which you wish to be treated, and you do not discriminate against others. Dismiss people who put you down, and give your energy to good people. See obstacles and difficulties as opportunities to grow stronger. Do good things, and value yourself.

Early Influences
My parents encouraged and supported me in everything I did, but most importantly, they showed me how to value and respect knowledge, people and the environment.

Future Goals
Eventually, I would like to be a university professor. In the near term, I look forward to my career at NASA.

Personal Interests
I enjoy bicycling, weightlifting (I used to compete every weekend), and other forms of exercising and sports. I don't watch much TV, except sports, and I read a lot. For relaxation I like to read comics: my favorites are Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. I have an elementary school age son. He and I spend a lot of time drawing, painting, playing with cars, trucks,and dinosaurs, doing sports, and pretending we are superheroes.

Learn more from my archived webcasts and webchats:

 
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