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Meet: Christopher Salvo

Flight Engineer
Jet Propulsion Laboratory


My Current Job

I am a systems engineer on the Mars Pathfinder Project. "Systems engineer" is a generic term for an engineer who works on problems at the "overall" level (like the whole spacecraft system) as opposed to a more specialized subsystem level (like the propulsion subsystem). My expertise is in unmanned spacecraft system development and implementation. To that end, I am always trying to learn as much as I can about all aspects of space mission design, implementation, and operation. Specifically on Mars Pathfinder, I am called the flight system operability engineer, which means that I am involved in determining how the spacecraft is going to be operated. All during the design phase (which took about three years) I and others have been asking a number of questions about the spacecraft that we were designing. What can we do with it? How do we make it do what we want? What will it do when we don't tell it what to do? How will we know what it is doing? Thinking about what it would be like to operate the spacecraft has helped us all to design a spacecraft that is easy to operate.

As we get closer to launch, my position is expanding as I am becoming one of the flight engineers. This means that I will be operating the spacecraft; telling it what to do and looking at the telemetry that it sends back to determine what it is actually doing in response. I will also be looking for indications of any faults that may occur (if something breaks or doesn't operate as expected). There are about eight flight engineers, and we will take turns being in charge of the various activities through the mission. We are teamed in this task with several other subsystem engineers, each with their own specialty. There are some who are experts in power subsystems, some who know about propulsion subsystems, others who work on spacecraft attitude control. Most of the time, some or all of the other engineers will be monitoring the spacecraft at the same time as I am. Some of the time, especially when we are monitoring the spacecraft late at night, I will be the only one watching what the spacecraft is doing.

My Past Career Experiences

I have been working on spacecraft in general for about eight years. I have led teams of subsystem experts in the early concept phase of many spacecraft designs, starting with a blank sheet of paper and forming a spacecraft to accomplish a specific mission. I have also been involved in developing spacecraft technology during some of these design activities, contracting to different companies to try to build a better "widget"; lighter structures, smaller and more efficient radios, better power-generation devices. I like designing spacecraft and I hope to continue to do so for a long time. Operating them (like I am about to do on Pathfinder) should also be fun, but I don't think I would want to only operate them as my career. I like to design and build things. Hopefully I can continue to do both as I have done on Pathfinder.

Developing My Interests & Choosing My Career

I have been interested in how things work for as long as I can remember. I have always enjoyed taking things apart and learning about what makes them function (or not function when I was through with them!). I also liked to build things like models, wooden furniture, computers, stereos, rock walls, houses, cars (well, maybe not build from scratch but "rebuild")... you name it. My parents are big do-it-yourselfers, so I got the chance to help them build, rebuild, paint, refinish, remodel, assemble, fix, and break (it happens sometimes) lots of things. All of this is to say that I had an engineering and scientific interest that was nurtured by an environment that allowed me to experiment and experience things directly.

I was also (still am) interested in all manner of vehicles, especially aircraft and spacecraft. My parents were also very encouraging in this regard. My mom started to teach me to read before I went to school and I've been reading about all sorts of new things ever since. The first book I read on aviation was about early airplanes and pilots in Alaska (the book was titled "Alaska Bush Pilot." I can't remember the author, my apologies). I must have been in about the fourth grade. I always loved to read so I reached out for more, and I read about the Wright brothers and about warplanes from WWI and WWII and more modern aircraft. I read about Apollo and the other manned space missions, and I read about future concepts for air travel and space travel. I subscribed to the Smithsonian's "Air and Space" magazine, "Science," many others that I can't remember. I read everything I could get my hands on related to airplanes and space. I even ordered Time/Life Books' "The Epic of Flight" series, which consisted of about 20 books with great writing, photos, and drawings on various historical aircraft topics. I read every stitch in every one of those books, examined every picture: I remember being so excited when a new one would arrive. Science fascinated me, too, for the same sort of"how does it work?" reasons. I read Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" cover to cover. I highly recommend it. Science fiction also peaked my interest. Authors like Isaac Asimov (who managed to brilliantly move from real science to science fiction and back again), Larry Niven (both alone and with Jerry Pournelle), Arthur C. Clark, Carl Sagan again (with "Contact"), and L. Ron Hubbard (his "Battlefield Earth" is one of my all-time favorites) presented me with images of greatly advanced space-faring civilizations which further inspired me.

I also found the science subjects in school very interesting. Biology, math, physical science, these were all interesting, but my high school physics class was the big eye opener. It really made things come together for me. In this class I felt like I was discovering how the whole world worked. The math was stuff that I had done before or was currently doing (algebra, trigonometry, and basic calculus), but the application just blew me away. There were logical explanations and equations that described why a spinning wheel slows down eventually, or why a baseball follows the path that it does after you hit it, or how you can predict the path of two cars that crash together based on how massive they are and how fast they are going. It also taught me a little about energy and temperature (melting, boiling, and freezing of things), light, electricity, and optics, just a taste of lots of stuff, but really amazing stuff.

So, intrigued by my new knowledge of the world I went off to college (Texas A&M University) to learn more. I entered as an Electrical Engineering student. Why? Well, my dad worked at IBM, my sister was a recent EE graduate from the University of Texas, I liked computers and electronics and stuff. It was a logical choice. After the first semester, I decided that what I really liked was everything and that EE was too specific for me. I would prefer to learn how to design and build whole aircraft or spacecraft systems. So, I switched to Aerospace Engineering. This was a much better fit for me. I learned a lot about aerodynamics, as well as more of the foundation of all engineering, the physics. My experience from high school with physics and basic engineering mechanics was repeated and expanded upon. Now I began to understand in much more depth how to design things based on the physical laws that rule the universe.

While I was doing all of this discovering in college (which I so fondly remember, conveniently forgetting that it was a lot of hard work!), I had the opportunity to participate in the Cooperative Education Program. This program allows a student to alternate regular schooling with real professional work experience. So the summer before my junior year I went to California to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the same place I work now). I would return two more times over the last part of my college schooling. It was during this experience that I discovered a distinct fascination for spacecraft. Not only were they complex and intriguing machines, but they performed such profound missions as landing on Mars, flying past Jupiter and Saturn, and observing the Earth from orbit. This was truly unusual stuff and I wanted to be a part of it.

The Best and Worst of My Job

The best thing about my job is the nature of the missions that are accomplished by the things that I help design and build. I really believe in exploration and scientific research, so I have a personal stake in the things that I do. It is certainly not just a 9-to-5 grindstone-type job for me.

The two worst things about my job are the time it takes to get things to happen, and the amount of stuff that I actually get to do. I am impatient and I am interested in everything. I want missions to be decided upon, funded, and implemented much more quickly than they currently are, and I want to be a part of all of the designing, building, and operating from the initial concept formation to the bolting of things together to pushing the button on launch day. My ideal job would be a very small team on a very short schedule. Pathfinder is a significant step in that direction, but I think there is farther to go.

More About Me

I grew up in a small town (~10,000 people) near Austin, Texas. It was quite different than living in Los Angeles like I do now (well, actually I live in Pasadena which is broadly included when referring to Los Angeles). There were far fewer people and much more open space in Texas. I went to a great school that offered a lot of activities outside of the main subjects of study. I played French horn in the school band for seven years, all the way through high school, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was one of the most important things in my life at the time. I did not keep up with it after high school, but I still feel that it is a part of me and I would like to take it up again someday.

I have been married for almost five years to a bright and wonderful woman. My wife, Leticia (Lety for short), has a Masters of Public Administration and works in redevelopment (that is where communities work to improve the quality of life in run-down urban areas by tearing down unkept and abandoned buildings and replacing them with new things like shopping centers, hospitals, and parks). We do not have any kids, yet, but we think we will adopt a cat soon. Lety has introduced me to a number of things that I now enjoy, like spicy Mexican food, basketball, and running. We are both interested in sports and the outdoors and we do all sorts of things together. We like to mountain bike, hike, snow ski, and take trips to far away places (where we can then mountain bike, hike, and enjoy the sights). Some of our best trips have been to Hawaii, Seattle, Washington DC and neighboring states, and all over Arizona and southern Utah. We also like to go to basketball games, hockey games, baseball games, symphonies and movies.


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