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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 Research Center. Systems management is the integration of systems engineering, system safety, 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 project including the software, hardware, and personnel. My responsibility is to insure that the projects 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 project's budget, schedule and purpose.

Many NASA projects 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 project leaving gaps in their risk reduction efforts. Therefore, they may be exposing themselves and others to unnecessary risks. The key word is unnecessary. If a project's purpose is to shoot 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 project's purpose is to shoot 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 project's plans by using a systems approach.

An example project I worked on involved a group of scientists that were trying to synthesize a new material by putting a jelly-like substance inside a pressure cooker under very high pressure and temperature. The high temperature/pressure caused the jelly to transform into a gas/liquid combination and release certain chemicals. Upon decreasing the temperature/pressure back to room values, the gas/liquid combination (now free of the released chemicals) hardened to a new material which would hopefully have the properties being sought after; the ability to protect people from extreme temperatures. This type of material could then be used on things like the space shuttle or even your favorite ski jacket.

My contribution to this project was a systems analysis that involved multiple disciplines including chemistry, physics and fluid and structural mechanics. This analysis showed that the main hazards were a fire and explosion and also gave recommendations on how to prevent them. Additionally, the analysis showed that an original concern of gas poisoning was not possible so the project didn't have to waste money addressing it.

I enjoy my job and here are a few reasons why. It is multi-disciplinary and hardly ever gets boring. I use fundamental skills learned in school (pencil, eraser and calculator type skills). It is very educational (we can't know everything so hopefully we have enough education to be able to learn something new). 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 a hindrance and not an asset to their work. Also, in a very economically constrained environment, projects may be tempted to cut corners and leave out critical steps in their processes. In this case my role turns into more of a policing role than that of a consultants. However, I see it as a challenge and use my experience as a researcher to relate to their points of view. It is very rewarding when people realize that I help them work more efficiently and 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 was captivated by the hawks swooping down to the ground and dreamt of the freedom flight must bring. By six years old my interest in flight followed the seemingly boundless skies the hawks played in. I read many books about airplanes and rockets and started to build my own models. Most of my models ended 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 whom because of timing and location had unique opportunities, which he made the best of 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 it possible to 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 high school 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 actually discouraged me from applying.

However, I was admitted to Cal Poly but chose to attend the San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton so that I could work and save money to afford Cal Poly in the future. This disappointed many of my teachers because they thought I was wasting an opportunity that was not easy to come by for a minority with a farming background. They expected me to drop out of the community college and end my academic studies, 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 real 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 7 people saved by proper system management) and 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, which was a cultural shock for me, 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 whom 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 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-doctorate 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 what influences are affecting the decisions you make and prioritize those 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 do not discriminate against others. Instead, treat people with the same respect with which you wish to be treated. 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, value yourself and forgive yourself and others when they stumble.

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. For the present I am enjoying my career at NASA.

Personal Interests
I enjoy bicycling, weightlifting (I used to compete every weekend) and other forms of exercising/sports. I would rather read a book than watch TV but do like to watch sports like Formula One and bicycle racing in addition to the major American sports. 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 reading, drawing, painting, playing with cars, trucks, dinosaurs, sports and pretending we are superheroes.

Learn more from my archived webcasts and webchats:

 
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