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Meet: Paul Tompkins

Photo of Paul Tompkins in the mountains

Mission Operations System Team Lead &
Flight Director
LCROSS Mission
NASA, Ames Research Center

Who I am and what I do
I have two primary roles on the LCROSS project.  In preparation for the mission, I am leading the development and training of the team that will operate LCROSS from the ground – the Mission Operations System Team Lead.  This combines the technical work of defining the mission plan and concept of operations – how we plan to “fly” LCROSS after launch – as well as management work – defining the training plan and conducting tests of the team and operations facilities as we build towards full mission readiness.  On LCROSS, we aren’t starting with a full team of highly-experienced people, or with a pre-existing Mission Control Center.  We’re developing both largely from scratch, and this means I have to think of almost every aspect of mission operations to make sure we’ll be ready for launch day.

During the flight, I will act as the lead Flight Director, basically the person in charge of all nominal decisions during flight.  I will sit in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) and oversee all critical operations the team conducts with the LCROSS spacecraft.  Definitely an exciting position, and one I’m very much looking forward to.

My Career Path?
My path to this career has been a winding and circuitous one.  Each and every experience has been useful.  From my earliest years I have been thrilled with space exploration.  All through elementary school and high school I studied as much math and science as I could, and dreamt of one day becoming an astronaut.  As I prepared for college, I researched all the schools that had strong aerospace engineering departments (and admittedly, those that had graduated the most astronauts!).  I had the fortune of being accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

At MIT, I earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  Wherever possible, I chose courses that would prepare me for designing space vehicles.  I discovered that my passion was seeing the “big picture” – I preferred thinking about an entire spacecraft and mission rather than focusing on one small piece.  The experience at MIT was occasionally overwhelming, but always fascinating and challenging. 

After my undergrad days, I was tired of school and wanted to get into industry to gather some “real-world” experience.  I joined Hughes Space and Communications (now a part of Boeing Company) in the Mission Analysis and Operations group, a team tasked with planning the mission profiles for communications satellites and then “flying” the missions from a ground control facility.  The job gave me a tremendous amount of responsibility – I was the youngest Orbital Operations Team Lead in Hughes history at the time – but that was incredibly rewarding, and taught me so much about how spacecraft are designed and how space operations are conducted.  After five years at Hughes, I got the bug to return to school. 

On academic leave, I attended Stanford University, where I pursed a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering.  I sought to gain as much experience as possible in robotics – a new and exciting field.  Spacecraft are fundamentally robots, and computation, control theory, electronics and artificial intelligence are (or soon will be) aspects of modern spacecraft design that I hadn’t yet studied.  It was my first real experience building things and programming a machine to do something “intelligent”, and it was incredible, and I was hooked.  After Stanford, I returned to Hughes for another year or so, but realized that my thirst for academics hadn’t yet been satisfied.  Mars Pathfinder had recently roved the Martian surface, and it was clear that robots would become a very important part of planetary exploration.  I had to be a part of it.

I was accepted to the doctoral program at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.  There I spent nearly seven years researching automated planetary surface navigation for robots.  My advisor, William “Red” Whittaker, was as passionate about space exploration as I was, and pushed me in many new directions to pursue that dream.  I was part of several teams that built and tested prototype rovers in places like the Canadian Arctic and the Atacama Desert in Chile.  There’s nothing like a realistic, challenging environment to discover which designs work and which don’t!  Red and I also developed and proposed mission concepts to NASA for lunar polar exploration, using a surface rover to search for water in permanently shadowed craters, years before I joined the LCROSS project.  It was an exciting time, and changed my entire perspective – was I now a roboticist with an interest in space, or a spacecraft engineer with an interest in robotics?

After completing my Ph.D., I joined NASA Ames Research Center as a contractor to work in the Intelligent Systems Division, developing autonomous systems (think robots and software that acts intelligently) for space applications.  After 1 ½ years, I heard about the LCROSS mission, and that the team needed more people to help with mission operations.  I sat in on some LCROSS meetings with the intent of helping for a few hours each week.  A year later, I was working full-time on the mission and now have more work than I have time for! 

My advice to anyone interested in this occupation
There are so many ways to achieve your dreams.  On one hand, I’d recommend that you try to position yourself in places “where the action is” for your intended career.  Look for schools and jobs where people are doing what you’d like to do and then get involved.  However, one must not over-strategize for career.  Take surprise opportunities and allow yourself and your dreams to evolve.  The less obvious path can sometimes lead you more directly to where you want to go, or to places that are equally or more exciting.  Always follow your passions, because that is where you’ll do your best work, and where tremendous effort will feel like a joy.  If you work hard, you’re sure to end up doing something very interesting.  Also, never let convention or comfort dictate what you can and cannot do – throw yourself into new situations that challenge you in new ways and fall outside your comfort level.  This will keep you growing.  I left a comfortable, well-paying job after six years to pursue my Ph.D.  It was a difficult transition to return to school (no money, starting at the bottom again, huge amount of work), and I was one of the oldest students there, but the exposure to the incredible experiences, knowledge, people and places was easily worth all the effort.

What I love about my job
I really enjoy working with a bunch of people to accomplish a goal whose payoff is tremendous, but that at the outset seems nearly impossible.  The LCROSS project has the potential to discover water on the moon that could one day enable extended human habitation there.  The work of getting from where the mission is just a collection of ideas on paper to where we actually launch and operate the spacecraft is enormous, but our small team is inspired to make it happen.  During times like these, one builds really strong bonds with team members, because you share so closely in achieving the goal. 

Aside from that, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to spend each day thinking about space exploration.  How many people in the world get to do this stuff for real?

What I dislike about my job
Though I love the work, there is often too much of a good thing.  I work very long hours, and have very little time to spend doing the other things I love to do.  This is a very demanding time, and I’ve had to sacrifice a great deal of my weekends and other dreams to make sure LCROSS is a success.

Personal Information
I grew up first near Chicago, Illinois and then moved to Mill Valley, California where I went to school from third grade through high school.  I am married to another lover of space, Vandana, whom I met at Carnegie Mellon.  We were married both in the US and in India, her home country.  She works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a research scientist in robotics.  Aside from my space interests, I love the exploration of Earth, and spend as much time as possible in the outdoors.  My wife and I are rock climbers, ice climbers and mountaineers.  During my doctoral program, I spent my free time climbing in places like New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Alaska, British Columbia and Ecuador, and my wife and I have climbed in the Sierra Nevada, other locations in the US, as well as in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.   I also practice martial arts, listen to music and play the drums, and study ancient and medieval history.


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