Live From...the Stratosphere
Nans Kunz Biography


Name: Nans Kunz

Position: SOFIA Aircraft System Manager, Mechanical Engineer

I work in the Systems Engineering Division at Ames Research Center as a Mechanical Engineer. In this division we support many diversified activities and projects here at Ames Research Center, from modifying and re-building the world's largest wind tunnel, to building specialized cages for carrying monkeys or rats into space. Our organization provides engineering support for the many scientific activities that go on here at NASA Ames Research Center. We design and build specialized facilities and equipment for wide variety of scientific disciplines including astronomy, aeronautics, biology, earth sciences, materials, life sciences, etc. For the past 10 years I personally have been working almost full time on SOFIA which will be the successor to the KAO.

The SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) project is an international collaborative effort between NASA and the German Space Agency, DARA. SOFIA will be a high sensitivity 3-meter class optical and infrared telescope, mounted in an open-port cavity in a highly modified Boeing 747 aircraft. SOFIA replaces the KAO while providing a 3 times larger telescope in an appropriately larger aircraft. SOFIA is being designed to have an operational lifetime in excess of 20 years. It is expected that fiscal year 1996 will be the new start year for SOFIA development with operations commencing in the year 2001.

The Systems Engineering Division,in which I work, has been delegated the Aircraft System Portion of the SOFIA Project by the Space Research Directorate which has the overall responsibility for the SOFIA Project. My personal role as the SOFIA Aircraft System Manager is to manage the team of engineers from the Systems Engineering Division that comprise the Aircraft System Project Team. Our team is part of the Total SOFIA Integrated Project Team.

I became an engineer almost by accident. I grew up and went to school in Coos Bay, Oregon where the primary industries were logging and fishing. So I didn't know any engineers nor what they did. In school I was always good in math and science, and I was told that engineering was applied math and science. So I went to Oregon State University and selected Mechanical Engineering as my major. As I started taking the engineering classes it was clear that engineering was the correct choice for me. I always liked trying to figure out how things worked, buildings things and tinkering. Engineering is the bridge between theoretical science and it's practical application. It provides the tools necessary to use basic physics and science principals to solve problems. When I got my degree I went to work for NASA Ames Research Center even though it was the lowest paying offer I had received because the work looked the most interesting. I have not had any regrets. The diversity and number of projects that I have worked on has always kept my job interesting. Concurrent with working I completed enough classes at Stanford University and earned a Masters in Mechanical Engineering.

The thing I enjoy most about my job is solving problems that require creative solutions and watching them work. For example, it's fun to have a machine shop or equivalent build a design that you created and watch the design turn into hardware and then assemble the hardware into a mechanism that does the job that you designed it for. The things I like least about my job is the red tape that is involved in getting things done sometimes. The government is constrained in the way it can do things and sometimes this can be very frustrating.

The things I did as a kid to prepare me for this career were:
1) in school I was always taking math and science even when I didn't have too and most of the time I actually enjoyed these classes.
2) I liked to figure out or have explained to me how things worked.
The advice I have for students for any career is to select a field that you enjoy. Don't just use the current demand and expected salaries to make your career choices. The market demands and corresponding salaries can change.

I think it was primarily two different people that led me to mechanical engineering. The first was the high school counselor that directed me towards engineering. And the second was a Mechanical Engineering Professor that helped me select mechanical engineering over other types of engineering by pointing out the mechanical engineering provides the most breadth for a choice of industries. I.e. every industry needs mechanical engineers. Whether you are building cars, airplanes, oil refineries or computers you need mechanical engineers.

Work is not the only thing that I do. I am married and have two kids, my daughter is 2 and a half years old and I have a brand new son that was born in August. For recreation I play volleyball in a league one night a week and soccer at lunch time on a regular basis, I also mountain bike ride and go alpine skiing as often as possible. Sometimes I ride my bicycle from home to work and back (40 miles round trip). Another hobby I have at home is wood working which allows me to design AND build not just design. My wife thinks I am a lot like Tim on Home Improvement because I like tools and I like to go around and improve things (but I'm not nearly as accident prone as Tim, and I have a higher success rate in actually improving things). .

I am looking forward to solving the many challenges during the development of SOFIA and watching ideas turn into reality.

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