I went to NASA's JPL (which is run by Caltech) where they do almost nothing but space
exploration. Can't go wrong there. So here I am.
Most of my time at JPL has been working on the Cassini mission to Saturn. When I was
offered the job, it was actually a job on the CRAF/Cassini mission, which was to be two
very similar spacecraft built at the same time to save money and go on two rather
different missions (CRAF stands for Comet Rendezvous/Asteroid Flyby). However between the
time I was offered the job and the time I started, CRAF was cancelled. In fact I was
lucky that they still honored my job offer after that! (I found out a few years later
that they actually had a meeting to decide if they were going to honor job offers made
before the cancellation.)
My work on the Cassini mission was project engineering, which is solving problems that
cut across the entire project, such as issues between the spacecraft and the ground
system, or between science and the spacecraft, or between the mission design and science.
That job included planning the activities of the 11-year mission, in which I led the
Mission Engineering team. I also worked on several aspects of a detailed analysis to show
that there is no credible way for Cassini's nuclear material (it's nuclear powered) to
accidentally hit the Earth when we fly Cassini around the inner solar system for gravity
assists on the way to Saturn. That work is one part of the information the U.S. President
will need in order to sign the authorization to launch Cassini. Turns out that only the
President can authorize a launch of nuclear material. Makes sense.
As the planning work was completed and actual assembly of the Cassini spacecraft began,
my function on Cassini began to wane so I looked around for new work at JPL. I was lucky
enough to hook up with the Mars project office when they were just beginning to tackle
the problem of how to bring stuff back from Mars, around February (1996).