Meet: Dr. Donald Mendoza
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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.
Eventually, I would like to be a university professor. For the present
I am enjoying my career at NASA.
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: