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Steve Patterson
Steve Patterson

Communications Systems Engineer
NASA Ames Research Center

I'm Steve Patterson, my primary job on the Spaceward Bound expedition is to set up and operate the satellite and wireless network communications systems that will connect the research site in the Atacama to the outside world.

My career at NASA could be blamed on this guy, who gave a talk about his work while I was in the process of deciding what to do after graduation from Georgia Tech, with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. I was interested in aircraft design and aerodynamics, and the research projects and work atmosphere at NASA-Ames seemed more appealing to me than working at a big aerospace company. When I was offered a job at Ames, it seemed like the optimal opportunity to move to the West coast, since I had lived in the southern US my entire life. So I moved across the country to California, with the expectation of working at ARC for a few years to gain some experience before I settled down and got a real job somewhere.

Now it's 24 years later, and I'm still here. Although my entire post-college career has been at the same place (NASA-Ames), I have worked on many different projects in several different fields, which entailed continually learning new things and working with new people. Ames has many aerospace test facilities, such as wind tunnels, which are used to research, develop, design, and test airplanes, rotorcraft, and spacecraft. There, I worked on more projects than I can remember (or talk about), many of which never materialized as functional flying machines. However, a few did eventually manage to get off the ground.

My next job was as a Mission Director on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a C-141 cargo plane modified to mount a telescope, where I flew around all night at 41,000 feet with a team of astronomers, detecting the infrared radiation emanating from distant stars and galaxies. Airborne astronomy is conducted in order to fly above the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere, which blocks most infrared light. Thus the KAO (and it's successor, SOFIA) can make observations unattainable by ground-based observatories. Also, since the aircraft is mobile, the observatory can be deployed to observe a specific region of interest, such as a supernova or a planetary impact.

After the KAO was grounded, I moved over to the ER-2 airborne science program. Flying at a very high altitude, the ER-2 (a variant of the infamous U-2 "spyplane" ) was used to acquire measurements of the atmosphere's physical and chemical properties, which are influenced by such things as pollution, global warming, and ozone depletion. The ER-2 was also used for remote sensing of the Earth's surface, and many other interesting science projects. My job was to manage the overall development of the various science instruments, integrate them aboard the aircraft, then plan and execute the missions. With a fleet of three ER-2's, and a host of scientists and their specialized instruments, that were deployed all over the world, keeping track of everything and everybody was a monumental task. But we had a great team, who worked long and hard, and managed to have a lot of fun in the process, until mindless bureaucratic ineptitude intervened, and the Ames flight operations were packed up and moved to another NASA center.

Since I wanted to stay at Ames, I had to find a new job. I joined the Space Life Science Division, flying various biology experiments aboard the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS). Although I had worked at NASA for several years, I was an aeronautics guy (the first "A" in NASA, as they say), and working on the manned space program entailed learning a lot of new things. Some of the experiences, such as watching the Shuttle launch and land, with "my" payload on board, were momentous; some other events certainly were not. I also had the chance to conduct a test of some spaceflight hardware onboard NASA's KC-135 "Weightless Wonder" aircraft (also known by its more-popular sobriquet). The lack of gravity must be experienced firsthand in order to comprehend its effects, but the problem of coping with long periods of weightlessness is a major impediment to manned space exploration. Many things, including the human body, don't function properly without the force of gravity.

I've also had some other work assignments doing things like contract management and technical procurements that, while they have to be done in order to accomplish the overall mission, they're no fun at the time. NASA is currently undergoing a period of redirection and major changes, and the near future will be very interesting to see unfold, from both an historical and personal viewpoint.

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Editor: Brian Day
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Last Updated:June, 2006
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