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Online From Jupiter 97

Charlie Sobeck

Probe Deputy Manager

a photo of Charlie Sobeck

My Field Journals

My name is Charlie Sobeck, and I am an engineer for NASA at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. I have been working on the Galileo Project off and on for the last 16 years! I started fresh out of school (in fact, I started working on Galileo before I left school) helping to define the data processing that would be required for the science instruments on the Probe.

After about two years, when the Probe hardware was ready to be assembled, I was sent down to the Los Angeles area where the Probe was being built. My job was to look after the science instruments as they were being installed and tested on the Probe. This meant I had to know what each instrument was supposed to do and how it was supposed to do it. That way the scientists and engineers who designed and built the instruments didn't have to hang around all the time to take care of them, but could keep working on other things while I looked after their precious cargo.

This job was extremely challenging, and a lot of fun! For two years we tested the Probe in all kinds of ways, and sometimes we had problems that needed to be solved. Because of all this testing I got to learn an awful lot about the instruments, the Probe engineering systems (e.g., batteries, on-board computer, etc.), and this knowledge has been very helpful ever since, whenever a surprise comes up. When the Probe was all assembled and tested I came back to Ames Research Center, but continued to work on Galileo by participating in testing the Probe with the JPL Orbiter, and planning the flight operations for the Probe.

In 1986, I went down to the launch site to help get things ready for launch, but unfortunately we had a long delay after the Challenger blew up in January of that year. So for awhile I worked on some other space projects here at Ames, only occasionally helping with Galileo. But I came back to help with some of the important events such as launch (in October of 1989), or the in-flight checkouts. Then, about four years ago, I started to spend a lot more time working on Galileo again, as we began to prepare for our arrival at Jupiter, and I have been very much involved ever since.

Right now, I serve as the deputy manager for the Probe, and as the Probe's chief engineer. Because I have worked on the project for so long I can remember a lot of little details that some of the newer people never got a chance to learn. My job these days is to ensure that everything is being done to make this a successful mission. Along with about a half dozen other engineers I develop the in-flight tests of the Probe, and analyze the results, conduct ground tests and developed contingency plans in case things don't go quite as expected.

I became interested in working for NASA when I was still in high school, when I read an article about a possible manned mission to Mars. The whole idea of such a mission excited me and I wrote to some officials at NASA and to my congressman. Because I was good at math and science in school, and enjoyed them, I decided to pursue electrical engineering in college. I went to Northwestern University near Chicago, and after two years I started looking for a summer job that would help to teach me about engineering. One of the places I went to was Ames Research Center, and they told me they could only hire me if I was attending a west coast school, so I transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where I eventually got my degree. Unfortunately, after I transferred, there were no more jobs at Ames, so I spent some time working for Hughes Aircraft Company, learning more about what professional engineers really do. But by a lucky coincidence, I got a job at Ames just before graduating, and have been here ever since.

The best thing about my job is knowing that I am working on something that is really worthwhile. Although I am not a scientist, I really enjoy science and like the fact that I am working on a project that will teach us so much about Jupiter and the rest of the solar system. It's a lot of fun to solve problems and see your solutions actually work! Of course, it's always best in the business not to have problems in the first place, but that in itself is a problem, and fortunately, on the Probe, we've done a very good job, and have had very few surprises. Sometimes the paperwork can be dull (it's not very exciting to review a command sequence for the 10th time!), but it's all worthwhile because the spacecraft is actually working! Some of the other projects I work on never get off the drawing board, and that's no fun at all.

As a kid, I think the things that most helped to prepare me for this job were puzzles and problems. Engineering is mostly problem solving. And problem solving requires that you be able to logically breakdown a problem, understand it, and solve it piece by piece. As I was growing up I enjoyed all kinds of puzzles, and still do. Word puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, math puzzles. All of these were good for me. I remember solving math puzzles in the sixth grade, where we were given a sequence of numbers and asked what number should come next. Solving a puzzle like that is exactly the kind of skill that comes in useful in engineering. Of course, in sixth grade I didn't even know what engineering was. But when I got to high school, one of my math teachers noticed how good I was with math problems and suggested that if I liked puzzles I should think about a career in engineering. And when I took one of those career aptitude tests, four of the five career recommendations came back as engineering, so my choice became pretty clear.

So, here I am. I'm 38 years old, working for NASA as an engineer. I still live pretty close to where I grew up in Davis, California, so I can visit my parent regularly. I bought my first house just a few years ago and have learned that I enjoy gardening and landscaping. Just like with Galileo, I think it's mostly fun because I can actually see the results of my work. My family has a cabin near Lake Tahoe where I like to spend my vacations hiking and enjoying the outdoors. I play the guitar, live alone with my cat (Matthew), and manage a softball team here at Ames in the summer.

 

 
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