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Meet: Darin Foreman

Darin Foreman
Project Systems Engineer (PSE)
LCROSS mission
NASA Ames Research Center


Who I am and what I do
I am the Project Systems Engineer (PSE) for the LCROSS mission that will attempt to answer the question of whether or not there is water in the shadowed craters on the Moon. My role on the project is to lead the technical aspects of the mission and ensure that the spacecraft we develop for the mission will accomplish its goals. This involves writing many of the plans that will guide development, defining the requirements for the mission, developing and analyzing designs,setting and monitoring margins, defining interfaces, monitoring contractors, working with vendors on procurements, testing, etc. In general I ensure that the integrated system will do what it is designed to do and that all the technical aspects of the system will work together as a whole. Any technical issues and problems that come up, I have to decide on the best way to handle them.

Areas of expertise
For a lead systems engineering role like this, you have to know just about everything there is to know about building and flying a spacecraft. From development processes, requirements analysis and design, mechanical, thermal, electrical, environmental, reliability and fault analysis, software design and development, integration and test, sub-contractor management, launch vehicles, mission design aspects, spacecraft navigation, science and instruments, networking, RF environments and communications, mathmatics, some physics and even chemistry! Of course I rely heavily on many talented people I work with that are specialists in each of these areas, but I am ultimately responsible for many of the decisions and directions in all these areas so you have to know what's going on. The proverbial jack of all trades kind of position.

How I first became interested in this profession
Good question! I think I was always fascinated with NASA and distinctly remember as a 6-year-old watching the Apollo 11 mission landing on the moon and Neil Armstrong taking that first step. So I guess I would say as far back as I can remember, I've always been interested in a career that would allow me to work in areas related to space.

The point I actually made the decision to become an engineer was after high school graduation. I was living in Southern Oregon working as a farm hand on Ginger Rogers' ranch, driving tractors, bailing and bucking hay, and putting up miles of fencing to keep in her cattle. Added to that, it was usually a 100 degrees or more, and I quickly decided that ranching was way too hard to be doing for minimum wage! I decided that summer I was going to college and chose Software Engineering since I thought it looked like it had a lot of future potential for job opportunities. I wasn't thinking I'd be able to work with NASA at the time, it was really more about opportunity for the future and the computer world was taking off right around then.

This profession of working in a space related environment kind of fell in my lap when I got offered a job out of college for what I thought was a phone company. I soon learned that the government division of this phone company was anything but a phone company and developed communication and defense systems working with many space-based assets. My space career interest as an adult really began there as I got to know what was really going on in space.

What helped prepare me for this job
25 years ago out of high school, I never thought I would be developing spacecraft for NASA! I was very mechanically oriented from an early age and have always had to know how everything works. I was forever tearing things apart like electrical motors, bikes, motorcycles, lawnmower engines, etc. By the time I was 15 I had already bought a car and had rebuilt the engine and transmission, and wasn't even able to drive yet! Summers during college I took all kinds of odd jobs, as a welder at a wood-stove company, working on high-steel in Houston building a skyscraper, a technician at a disk drive manufacturer, and of course building and rebuilding muscle cars at every opportunity. I think all of this helped in understanding mechanical issues, electronics, testing and troubleshooting, etc. that all have helped in my career. I think a general thirst for knowledge is what is most important, and I learned many things by doing them rather than reading them.

Role Models
As a kid I was always fascinated by the great explorers and inventors and loved to read about them. Basically pioneers that reached out into the unknown and discovered so many things we take for granted now.

My education and training
I went to college at Oregon Institute of Technology and got my B.S. degree in Computer Systems Engineering and Technology minoring in Electrical Engineering. Over the years I've taken many courses from silicon valley area universities, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara University. I've attended many seminars, workshops, and training throughout my career that have also been invaluable. Most of all though, I think the best training is just getting into the thick of it and doing what you have to do to get the job done. I've had a couple of excellent mentors that were often able to help me when I was at a loss of what to do and they helped me learn from their experiences as well.

My career path
I started out of college as a software engineer developing strategic defense systems and quickly advanced into a lead programmer role. Over time I took on more responsibilities and expanded to the system engineering aspects of systems. I took on line-management duties for a team of 20 engineers, but ultimately decided that I would rather stay more technically oriented. I was technical lead on a couple medium-sized projects and ultimately was responsible for a very large program.

After that (13 years) I changed companies and worked as a senior systems engineer for another government contractor develping tactical intel systems where I greatly expanded my knowledge in communications, networking, mechanical and thermal designs. After a few years there, I accepted a position at NASA as a contractor.

I helped NASA Ames setup their software engineering process group to help the center mature its software development practices. A position became available leading the development of the ground data system for an International Space Station science program known as the Biological Research Project (SSBRP) and also developing all the astronaut interfaces for experimental habitats that would be on the station.

This ultimately was cancelled, and I began working on an FAA program developing an archive for capturing all the electronic telemetry for commercial passenger flights so it can be analyzed for safety related issues and trends. I was the lead architect on this and designed the system and requirements, supported implementation, integration and testing, etc. Just after deployment of that FAA system and it going operational, I was offered my present position as Project Systems Engineer on LCROSS.

What I like about my job
It's very challenging and fast paced. It's something new, and I'm always learning new things. I especially enjoy working with this team of very exceptional people.

What I don't like about my job
It is pretty demanding and takes away from family time more than I woud like.

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
Don't be afraid to try new things and get your hands dirty figuring out how and why things work. If you ever catch yourself wondering, "Wow, that was cool, I wonder how they do that?" - figure it out. Learn as much as you can in the hard sciences and engineering. Take educational opportunities seriously, learn everything you can. There is so much information available now to take advantage of. Take responsibility for your path and don't be afraid to make decisions and choices. They may not always be the right ones. We learn as much or more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. Don't be afraid or reluctant to do something the hard way if it is the right way. I'm reminded of line from a song in the '80s by The The - "The path of least resistance, leads to the garbage heap up there"

 
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