How I Got Here
I've never really thought of myself being in a "career" so I can't say I ever
consciously decided on it. I've never done any of the "career planning" that people
sometimes talk about. Instead I've just gone from school to school and job to job always
directing myself to what I thought was interesting and fun. That's probably the key for
me. If I'm doing something fun, I tend to do it well. If that's career planning, then
it's very short-range planning. But it has worked for me (so far).
So any preparation for my job was accidental. Starting with college I got a B.A.
degree in Mathematics from the University of Florida. I worked at U.F. for a while on
various large and microcomputer jobs while working on my M.S. degree in Electrical
Engineering. While at U.F. I did a lot of work on microcomputer applications, including
consulting work on medical research applications.
From there I applied for three things. First was a job at Hughes Aircraft, a space
contractor in Los Angeles; second was admission to the California Institute of Technology,
better known as Caltech, to get a Ph.D. in physics; and third was a Howard Hughes
Fellowship, from Hughes Aircraft, which would pay for the Ph.D. I was accepted to Caltech
and I was offered a job at Hughes. I told them "Well, I plan to go to Caltech, but I've
applied for this fellowship, so if I get that I could still work for you in the summers
and maybe when I graduate." (Working at Hughes in the summers was part of the fellowship.)
So, they made sure I got the fellowship and I accepted the fellowship and the job offer.
Not a bad deal at all.
I got my Ph.D. in Physics from Caltech, where my thesis title was "The Persistence of
Charm in the Relentless Decay of Beauty." It was about the decay of a certain type of
subatomic particle, the Beauty-Charm meson into either a Charm-Charm meson or a
Strange-Beauty meson (sounds like real life, eh?). Since then I haven't done much work on
theoretical particle physics. See, I told you my preparation was accidental. You might
also note that my B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. were all in different areas. Another sign of
wandering. But not all those who wander are lost. (I stole that from Tolkien.) Turns out
that my Ph.D. has proven invaluable in my later work with the very strong physics
background it has given me. This is important to just about everything in the space
program, as well as strong understanding of statistical inference from limited data
(which is how you do science with just a handful of sightings of a new subatomic particle).
While I was working on my Ph.D. I was also working at the Hughes Space and
Communications Group in the summers and sometimes a day a week during the school year.
That work covered a wide range of things, including the effects of X-ray bursts (from
nuclear weapons blasts) on satellite cables and electronics, the development of very
high-speed error-correcting codes for communications, and an automobile antitheft key!
(Hughes was bought by General Motors somewhere in there). After I got my Ph.D. I went on
to work full-time at Hughes, where I did research and development on digital image and
video compression techniques for use in such things as direct broadcast TV.
After about a year and half of that, I noticed what I was actually doing. I was
working on a technology to inexpensively bring hundreds of channels of utter drivel into
every home in the U.S. and beyond (heard of DirecTV? They've since sold millions.) I
decided that wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. What I wanted to do was something a
little more gratifying, like space exploration instead of exploitation (there's nothing
wrong with exploitation--it just wasn't what I wanted to do). Hughes Aircraft had been
involved in space exploration before, but while I was there the work on Galileo probe had
ended, they didn't win Mars Observer, and they stopped bidding on NASA projects. So I