Meet: Stefan Rosner
Payload Systems Engineer
Photo courtesy of Alan Wood
Who I am and what I do
My name is Stefan Rosner and I am the Payload Systems Engineer for the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) experiments on the Neurolab/STS-90 mission. I work within the Payloads and Facilities Engineering branch in the Life Sciences division of NASA ARC, and am employed by Lockheed Martin Engineering and Sciences Co. (LME&SC). I was one of the first engineers to be assigned to the Neurolab project as it made the transition from the conceptual to the design phase, so I have participated in a wide range of activities towards the goal of transforming the science requirements into technical specifications, design drawings, and finally flightworthy spaceflight hardware.
Role for Neurolab
Neurolab is the last planned Spacelab shuttle mission, and it is a large and very complex life sciences payload. It involves many domestic and international partner agencies from the commercial, government and academic sectors to perform the many diverse scientific and technical engineering tasks needed for such a ground-breaking investigation of this scale. Spacelab is a pressurized module which is flown in the payload bay of the shuttle and provides a "shirtsleeve" environment for performing life and materials sciences experiments. This facility is operated by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).
As Payload Systems Engineer, I work closely with the design engineering teams at ARC and the Mission Management Office (MMO) in Houston. Working together as a team, we ensure that all of the power, data and thermal interface requirements of the ARC Life Sciences payload are properly documented and implemented so that everything works as planned during the precious on-orbit phase of the mission. In addition, I work closely with the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Experiment Engineers throughout the integration process to ensure that each of the rack-mounted experiments is operating correctly and to verify all of the interfaces to Spacelab electrical, data and thermal/environmental control subsystems.
By interfaces, I am referring to the electrical power and signal, air and water fluid line connections which connect the experiments to the Spacelab systems. For this mission, ARC is considered a Payload Element Developer (PED). In this context, "payload" refers to the individual experiments and supporting flight hardware which are flown on a Spacelab mission, while to the Space Shuttle Program (SSP), the Spacelab itself is the payload. For this mission, in addition to the ARC payload in which a variety of animals are test subjects for 15 experiments in 4 experiment groups, the MMO is managing another set of experiments developed by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in which humans (the astronaut crew of Neurolab) are the subjects.
I am also the primary ARC liaison and point-of-contact for our international partners, the German Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, and their technical support contractors for coordination needed for the integration of hardware elements provided by them into the ARC payload in support of two aquatics experiments, and one neurobiology experiment.
Perhaps you're wondering what I do on a daily basis when I get to work in the morning.
* I research the technical requirements for each proposed experiment (power, thermal and data command/acquisition), combine these to determine the requirements for the "integrated" payload, identify and reconcile any differences between needed and available resources.
* I prepare and review documents, such as test and assembly procedures and technical specifications, including those inflight procedures followed by the astronaut crew during the mission.
* I travel frequently, both to the JSC in Houston, Texas, for mission integrated test simulations, joint integrated simulations, and also to KSC at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to support hardware integration into the Spacelab module, and many tests to verify that all experiment hardware is functioning properly and fully compatible with the other experiments and all Spacelab and Orbiter (Space Shuttle) interfaces.
* I spend much time at my computer reading and writing email messages to coordinate activities and schedules with other engineers and project managers.
* I send and receive many FAXes to the other NASA centers and overseas to coordinate teleconferences and test activities.
I have a very exciting and "dynamic" position!
My Career Journey
I didn't exactly "decide" on a career in Spaceflight Payloads. Rather, I "migrated" towards it through a series of jobs and choices which opened the opportunity to work for LME&SC within the Space Life Sciences Payloads and Facilities Engineering branch of NASA/ARC. At the time that I graduated in 1984 from Northwestern University (just north of Chicago, IL) with a BS degree in mechanical engineering, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I had very much enjoyed working in the engineering laboratory environment through high school and in my college years, part-time during the school year and full-time over the summers, and was much more interested in staying in this research environment than going to work in the commercial or industrial "worlds," especially those in the midwest area in the mid-'80s. At one time, I thought that I might parlay a strong interest in automobiles during high school into a Detroit career in the automotive industry, but decided in college that the dependence of our society on personal transportation in favor of public transportation options was at the root of many regional and even global problems to which I did not wish to contribute further.
I left Chicago in the summer of 1984 with all my worldly possessions strapped to my bicycle (I liquidated anything that wouldn't fit)! I did not have a job opportunity lined up at the time, a move which many would consider "risky," but I felt that moving somewhere simply because that is where a particular job site happened to be located seemed a bit like putting the "cart before the horse," and so I set out to find a place where I wanted to live before putting down any "roots."
After extensively touring the beautiful Pacific Northwest region on my bicycle, I lived with friends in a cabin in the Coast Range of Oregon for several months. During this time, I interviewed for and considered working in several positions ranging from a large chemical and material manufacturing corporation to what was then a small "cottage industry" which designed and manufactured bicycle components and accessories. In the mid-'80s there really were not many jobs in the Pacific Northwest except for a handful of engineering positions with Boeing and Tektronix, and those within the timber industry.
In October of 1984, I came to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit some college friends that had found very rewarding jobs in and around the fabled "Silicon Valley." I had very fond memories of the area from 1968 when as a child I lived in Palo Alto for a year while my father spent his sabbatical as a visiting scholar at Stanford University. During this visit, I was amazed at the quantity and diversity of engineering positions available, indicated by Professional Careers sections in local newspapers which were thicker than most entire newspapers in the Pacific Northwest! Not only was the employment "climate" much more favorable in the Bay Area, but so was the actual climate. I decided to stick around the area and investigate further.
Within a few weeks, I heard about a very interesting position at the NASA Ames Research Center. A Principal Investigator (PI) working for a university within the Atmospheric Experiments Branch had been funded to design and build an automated radon gas sampler to fly aboard the high altitude Lockheed ER-2 airplane (this is a larger, civilian "cousin" to the famous U-2 spy plane that NASA uses for Earth Resources remote sensing and in situ science missions). The investigator had been forced to look outside the NASA engineering and technical services organization for engineering support, and when he did, he found me! This was the beginning of a very educational and fascinating stint as the engineering and technical half of a small, two-person university team which lasted well over ten years, and involved flying atmospheric sampling instrumentation aboard six aircraft (I got to fly as the operator on all but the single crew U-2/ER-2!) and traveling to many remote and exotic locations, including Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, France, the Azores and Portugal!
In the late '80s and early '90s the funding climate within the atmospheric sciences was not particularly favorable, and I took refuge for two years as a consultant/subcontractor to the NASA Electronic Systems Branch. During this time, I had the opportunity to work on several projects, including some design and testing for two very successful experiments which were flown on the Spacelab-J mission, the Frog Embryology Experiment and the Autogenic Feedback Training Experiment.
Following this remarkable opportunity, I returned to the employ of the university for several more years of work in atmospheric sciences when two of our earlier proposals "hit paydirt," but in 1995 when the funding in Earth Sciences once again got "tight," I was eager to pursue opportunities within the Space Life Sciences at NASA Ames Research Center. This was exactly when the ARC Neurolab Payload was leaving the definition phase and entering the design phase, and I was hired by Lockheed Martin to support this project, first as the lead for the Stowage and Experiment Unique Equipment (EUE) design group, and then as the Payload Systems Engineer.
As you can see, the "road" leading to my chosen career was not direct, but had many twists and turns, relied on "networking" and on the strength of professional and personal contacts made while working in other organizations on a variety of both related and unrelated projects. By being flexible, continuing to learn throughout my working years, and by keeping my eyes and ears open to other opportunities in and around the Ames Research Center, I was able to transition gracefully to other opportunities when circumstances required me to make such career changes.
Preparation for Career
As a child, I remember always being fascinated by how things worked; by mechanisms, tools, appliances, cars and engines, etc. My father is an engineering professor at a university, and was certainly a big factor in this interest and encouraged my explorations. When I was very young, he built a "toy" called the "busy box" for my sister and me which consisted of a console cabinet with all sorts of switches, levers, light bulbs that lit, gears and such, all of which operated and did something! This of course became one of my favorite things to play with. (Interestingly, my sister has also pursued a degree in engineering, though her field is electrical engineering and computer science.)
When I grew older and started reading books, he bought me a book called "How Things Work" which contained wonderful illustrations and descriptions about how everyday items such as typewriters, internal combustion engines and televisions worked. As time went on, I went through an awkward time when I started disassembling things like lawn mower engines, cameras and watches to see how they worked or to fix them, but hadn't yet developed the skills needed to put them back together in operational condition! Even during this period, I remember my parents being quite supportive of my interest, though fortunately, I became proficient at actually fixing things before I did too much "damage."
I built my own bicycle from parts that I scrounged at the town dump and took an interest in bicycle repair which has continued to this day! For a time in my teen years I was given the nickname "Mr. Fixit," though I don't always remember liking it when others called me that! In high school I became interested in automobiles, purchased a 1968 Oldsmobile 442 convertible "fixer-upper" and spent a considerable amount of time under the hood learning how it ran and how to make it run better (which of course to an adolescent boy means "faster")! As a young adult, my girlfriend's housemates in San Francisco took to calling me "M.U.G." which stood for "Most Useful Guy," because I would bring over tools and perform repairs in their apartment.
Certainly my father was and continues to be an enormous influence on my interest in science, math and engineering as a child, young adult/student, and ultimately in my choice of career. I also can think of several teachers who were very successful at "sparking" my curiosity and interest in math, science and engineering subjects.
In high school, Mr. Paul Fossett was a real inspiration as a math teacher. I studied algebra, geometry and calculus (differential and integral) with Mr. Fossett, a quiet fly fisherman with a great love for nature and the outdoors, and he had a knack for using "word problems" to demonstrate how mathematics could be and routinely was used for the practical solution of everyday problems.
In college, Dr. Schmittendorff, my professor for dynamics and control systems courses, really stands out as an exceptional educator who was able to transcend the barriers to understanding tricky, counterintuitive subject matters, such as how the use of "complex" and "imaginary" numbers (those involving the square root of negative numbers) are essential in the analysis of real-world phenomena, such as heat flow and vibration.
Likes/Dislikes about career
Positive aspects: It is very invigorating and exciting to work in the aerospace/human spaceflight field. It is something that gives me pride and humility to know that I am a small, but nonetheless important "cog" in a huge and complex "wheel" which empowers humans to escape our own planet's gravitational field in order to better understand its profound effects on the physiological and neural development of many life forms, including ourselves! Many of the people that work in this environment do so because of a true passion for the program; a desire to be involved in something as big and important as our nation's space program.
One of my most unusual and wonderful experiences was when I had the opportunity to ride aboard NASA's KC-135, the airplane used in the Apollo 13 movie to film the "Zero-g" sequences.
I was also very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to Kobe, Japan, in April, 1997 for a two-week visit to the design and test facilities of the Electronic & Space Systems Engineering Department of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to support some power and thermal testing of their Vestibular Function Experiment Unit, a spaceflight-qualified aquarium habitat for four toadfish which will fly on the Neurolab mission.
I feel privileged to be able to interact directly with astronauts, both professionally and personally; they are very interesting and engaging individuals.
Negative aspects: There is a certain amount of stress, both professional and personal, that "comes with the territory." In general, budgets and schedules are critical and very "tight," projects tend to be underfunded and understaffed, and therefore the hours can be long. Some sacrifices to one's family and social life are inevitable. Sometimes I feel frustration that while I was trained as an engineer, many of the problems that must be solved on a daily basis are not technical in nature, but involve schedule and budget constraints, or even "people problems."
Often I feel overwhelmed by the difficulties inherent in coordinating the many activities needed to accomplish such a large and complex project. When so many interdependent activities are being "worked" by so many organizations and people in different time zones, countries (including one on the other side of the International Date Line), languages and cultures, it is very difficult to make sure that everyone is "on the same page," as schedules and requirements shift. The best metaphor that I can think of for this frustration is that it is like many people trying to catch a train at many stations where the train doesn't stop! Sometimes it seems that it is a struggle to get the correct information into the hands of the right people, while misinformation apparently spreads quickly, requiring additional time for "damage control."
I feel that the program is underfunded, despite the very large amounts of money involved in safely launching humans into Earth orbit and returning them. Also, like all large, federally funded programs, funding is uncertain and subject to the whims of the political process and public opinion. While the public and the media were captivated during the infancy of the space program, through the Mercury and Apollo years, sometimes it seems as though now that the "honeymoon" is over, they don't really pay much attention until something goes wrong, such as the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, or the recent damage to the Mir space station.
I would encourage anyone interested in pursuing any career to foster a healthy fascination with math and science; to consider them as crucial tools with which to observe and explain the world and universe around us, rather than difficult "subjects" which must be studied and mastered. My own interest in science and engineering was and continues to be fueled by an intense curiosity about how things work (or don't work), and I encourage you to question things that you don't understand, and even those things that you think that you do understand, rather than take things for granted.
I once remember thinking that people shouldn't be allowed the privilege of operating motor vehicles unless they understood the engineering principles which make automobiles work and were themselves able to perform routine maintenance. Since that time, I have decided that this opinion was extreme. Still, I am amazed that so many are content to utilize and enjoy the benefits of our increasingly technological society while they have little or no comprehension of the underlying principles, and are unsupportive of the essential investments in basic research and development that contribute to these technologies!
Like my parents, I am also very interested in the arts. My father attended Music and Art High School in New York City as a young adult, considered pursuing a career in commercial graphic arts, and continues to create etchings and woodcuts as a hobby. My mother, who studied psychology in college and has been a researcher in medical school epidemiology programs, is also involved in the arts and practices pottery, stained-glass and jewelry making. Likewise, I also became interested in arts, and pursued a "minor" in graphic arts while I studied engineering, taking courses in photography, lithography and serigraphy (silk-screen). My father and I built a darkroom in our basement while I was in middle school, and I developed and printed my own photographs.
Music was always present in my household as I grew up, and perhaps as a result, I became very interested in both listening and playing music. At various times, I have studied and played piano, tenor saxophone and cello, but now play acoustic/electric guitar when I can find the time. I started playing guitar during my college years in Chicago, learning by listening to and playing along with my favorite band's recordings, and eventually played in a band. We never had any hopes of being successful or professional musicians, but we had a lot of fun playing at friends parties, at the University Coffee Shop, or even occasionally at "open mike nights" at local Chicago blues clubs. Several of the folks that I used to "jam" with have gone on to receive national recognition as professional musicians! I enjoy almost all types of music, but particularly enjoy bebop jazz, R&B, bluegrass, salsa and reggae. Some of my favorite musical "heroes" are the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (N.R.B.Q.), Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Al Green, Ruben Blades, and Thelonious Monk.
I am very fond of a sport called "Ultimate." This is a highly competitive team field sport that is quickly growing and achieving international recognition. The game is fast moving like basketball or soccer, but is played with a Frisbee*-like flying disc and has American football style end-zones. I started playing this game "just for fun" with friends in San Francisco, but soon found myself getting involved in competitive league play, and have even played in international tournaments in Versailles, France (with a Paris team which won the tournament), and in Prague, Czech Republic (with a team from Budapest, Hungary)! While now "semi-retired," I continue to play Ultimate regularly, at Stanford University and at NASA/Ames Research Center, where we have a group of people that plays twice a week at lunchtime in front of the world's largest wind tunnel! I also have discovered a group of people that play Ultimate in Melbourne, Florida, very near KSC, so that I can get some exercise during my sometimes lengthy travel stays!
I have remained very interested and involved in bicycling over the years. I continue to commute to work by bicycle on a daily basis, rain or shine, and have also become very fond of "mountain biking" or trail riding, and go on a lot of rides in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains in the Coast Range of California where there is access to beautiful and very undeveloped regions filled with streams, ferns, redwood, chaparral and manzanita trees, and lots of wildlife, including foxes, bobcats, deer and even the occasional mountain lion! Over the years I have always enjoyed bicycle touring and camping, though I haven't had the time to go very far in the past two years. I feel strongly that bicycle is the best way to get to know the countryside and people, and have toured many wonderful places including Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, France, Belgium, Holland and many parts of the USA by bicycle.
Final comments and visions for the future
Sometimes people ask me how we as a nation can justify such large expenditures for pure scientific research endeavors in space when we have so many large societal problems that require attention and money: poverty, illiteracy, human rights violations, war, natural disasters, etc. I like to remind such people that many of the benefits of our modern society that are commonly taken for granted are "spinoffs" of space technology which have been "commercialized" (weather forecasting, Global Positioning System [GPS]), that a large number of people are gainfully employed within the space program and related aerospace industries, and that we individually and collectively spend many more dollars on entertainment (professional athletics, movies, theater, etc.) than we spend on federally funded scientific and engineering endeavors, including the entire space program.
Perhaps most importantly, the space program has the ability to captivate the collective imagination of the public, particularly the youngsters, and can play an important role in getting students excited about math and science education with the help of "outreach" programs such as Quest and NeurOn. At a time when it seems that taxpayers are unclear about whether it makes more dollars and sense to invest in schools or prisons, this is a priceless benefit of the program, though one which is hard to quantify in an immediately tangible way. I feel that our society needs to "step back" and recognize such long-horizon benefits, even those that don't immediately impact the corporate quarterly profit statement!