An Interview with Ed Miller
Meet Dawn's Payload Manager, Ed Miller.The following interview took place in Dulles, VA on December 14, 2004, between Dawn mission Payload Manager Ed Miller, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Education and Public Outreach team member Jacinta Behne (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning—McREL)
EM: My name is Ed Miller and I work at JPL. I am the Payload manager for Dawn. What that means is I’m responsible to make sure that all of the instruments—that is what the payload is—work properly and arrive on time and within budget on this mission. But since this payload comes primarily from Italy, Germany and New Mexico, I have to go to wherever they’re making the instruments to help make sure that everything is going OK.
JB: What was it about the Dawn mission that initially caught your interest?
EM: Dawn caught my interest for several reasons. First, it’s an unprecedented kind of spacecraft because of its ion propulsion system; no other spacecraft has had the capability to go to two asteroids like this one. Second, it is a personal opportunity to become a payload manager, which means managing more than one instrument. I have worked only on individual instruments before, so this is spreading my wings a bit. And third, even though I probably must spend 20% of my time on travel, I enjoy working with our international partners. In fact, I’ve worked with some of them before and they are really great people. It’s just a lot of fun.
JB: Missions often refer to the term “payload.” What is it and what is its significance?
EM: A payload means different things in different contexts. From our rocket’s point of view, the payload is the whole spacecraft. The payload is what you’re carrying; it is the reason you’re going somewhere. So for a rocket, its payload is a spacecraft. The rocket goes up into orbit, ejects the spacecraft, and its job is done. The spacecraft has as its payload a collection of instruments, so it takes them to wherever they’re going, and the mission is up to the instruments at that point.
JB: What are the main instruments on the Dawn spacecraft?
EM: On this mission there are three instruments. One is called the Framing Camera; another is called VIR; and the other is called GRaND. The Framing Cameras (there are two of them) are considered mission critical. We cannot do the mission without them. They are “simply” cameras, but they are very high quality, scientific-grade cameras. They are being built by the German space agency and the Max Planck Institute. They will take the fabulously detailed pictures of the asteroids that we will see in the press. The VIR instrument is being provided by the Italian Space Agency. VIR is an acronym for Visible and InfraRed mapping spectrometer. It’s a camera that simultaneously takes several hundred pictures of the same object. Each picture is in a different, very narrow waveband, or part of the spectrum. What that does for the scientists is allow them to put all of that information in a computer, and then look at an image of whatever the instrument was viewing at that moment. The scientist can point to an object in the image and the computer will indicate the spectrum reflected from that object. What that then tells us is what it’s made of. This makes the VIR a very interesting instrument. It creates maps of the composition of the object that it’s viewing. The GRaND instrument which is being built by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico does something similar but it doesn’t do that by looking at light. It does it by looking at gamma rays and neutrons. GRaND stands for gamma ray and neutron detector. It has detectors that measure neutrons and gamma rays that are coming in from the object--in this case Ceres and Vesta. After collecting all of these gamma rays and neutrons, the GRaND builds up a map of the elemental composition. The VIR instrument looks at minerals (which are elaborate compounds of elements), and the GRaND looks at the distribution of elements. The elements are the basic chemicals you see on those chemistry charts you saw in school.
So, we take very high quality, detailed images with the Framing Cameras, we create maps of the mineral distributions with the VIR instrument, and we create maps of the elemental composition of the asteroids with the GRaND instrument.
JB: What are the challenges and benefits to working with teams from other countries?
EM: There are technical challenges in working with other countries as well. It is actually one of the reasons why I enjoy the job so much because I enjoy working with people from different cultures. We actually conduct most of our business using telecons—we have a weekly telecon where several people from all over the world dial in. It’s a regular mission meeting, except we can’t see each other. We use telecons and e-mail to exchange information. That works pretty well, but there really is nothing like sitting face to face, and that is why we have to travel. Some people are leery of working with international partners. They see it as an obstacle for various reasons, including technical or logistic, but in my experience, it’s really not any different than working with a company here in the United States. In the end, the obstacles that you have to overcome are equivalent.
I’m a big proponent of international collaboration. The benefits of working with foreign partners are many. The planetary science community is not by any means limited to the United States. Some of the world’s leading planetary scientists are in European countries, so one of the benefits--aside from the cost point of view--is that it expands our scientific base for the mission. We work with colleagues from other countries for a variety of reasons. One of the big reasons is money. We have a limited budget. Our foreign colleagues provide a significant contribution by building and providing these instruments. In exchange, they are allowed to participate in the mission. It is a win-win situation for both countries involved. Therefore, the Germans get to be on the science team, share the data, share the images, and help make the discoveries with those cameras. It is the same with the Italian team. This a very complicated and exciting spacecraft and mission, and the reason that we’re bound for the asteroid belt is to fly these instruments there and make the planned measurements. Having international partners makes it a better mission.
JB: Is there a language barrier between these colleagues?
EM: Luckily, our European colleagues speak English very well, but I try to learn what I can because I think it is important to do that.
JB: What career path did you choose that led to becoming a Payload Manager?
EM: Well, I was always interested in space as a child. I followed all of the Apollo missions and everything after that. I think everyone wanted to be an astronaut but then that faded after Apollo. But the whole business of space exploration really excited me. I went to school and studied physics and applied physics. While I was at school I managed to get into JPL to work as an academic part-time. At JPL, of course, the goal is the science, and I wanted to get as close to that as possible. So I wound up working with the scientific instruments. I started in a group that builds optics—the lenses and mirrors part of the instruments—and gradually became a systems engineer, which is an engineer that basically knows a little about all of the different disciplines and coordinates them. To put it better, an instrument systems engineer first meets with the scientists who are the end users and figures out what they need. Then, I translate that into requirements for each of the different disciplines that are needed to build these instruments, including optics, electronics, software, and thermal engineering. As you can imagine, there are a lot of aspects to building an instrument.
JB: How would you convey to young people who are good in math that engineering might be a career choice for them?
EM: If you’re good in math, you should think about becoming an engineer because math is really at the core of all of the different studies that are required of engineering applications. What is an engineer? Somebody who makes dreams come true. An engineer will take an idea and figure out how to make it happen. A mechanical engineer will think about a problem and build a machine to do that, and you need math to figure out how to do that so it won’t break and how to do it so it will succeed. A thermal engineer will look at the object to be built, consider the temperature regime that it’s going to function in, and figure out how to build it so that it will survive. In space, we send some things into some pretty wild temperature zones. Electronic engineers figure out how to take a concept and make it happen electronically. It takes a lot of math to calculate which components fit together in what way in order to take electric current and turn it into a decision or a motion. The electronics will sometimes interact with the mechanisms. Actually, that is what a systems engineer does. He balances what the mechanical pieces need to do with what they need from the electronic pieces, along with what the optical pieces (which bring the light in) need to do. They all have to work together.
JB: When did you realize that space science was your calling?
EM: Well, when I was a kid, I never really thought of it as being possible for me. Space exploration was very exciting. Back then, I just assumed that we would all be living on the moon and flying around in spaceships by now, so I’m a little disappointed. When I got older and went to college, if not for a particularly good counselor, I don’t really think that I would be here today. He said, “Oh! You’re interested in space, why don’t you try it?” I was shocked. He called some people that he knew at NASA, and I chatted with someone who encouraged me to consider a career with them. He showed me that this "Big Thing" called" NASA" was really just a group of people you can talk to. Somehow that made it seem more approachable. After that I went into engineering school. I was not super good at math and it took a lot of work to get through all of the courses.
JB: Are there any aspects of your personal life that you would share with us?
EM: Well, I married a very beautiful woman whom I met while I was traveling for my work. We have a beautiful daughter, Georgia, who is five. These days I spend most of my time outside of work with my family and with Georgia. That is one of the most incredible experiences that I have ever had. I spend time with her at her school. I’ve done presentations to her school several times on space and the kids really seem to like that. I like to ski and I like the outdoors. I like gardening, and have a great Japanese garden at home. I like music.
EM: I think that I would tell people in college or high school that space is really an exciting field to go into and that you can do it. If you don’t consider yourself a genius, and if you don’t consider yourself at the top of your class, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. It does require application and you have to go through that. It’s an educational process; you have to go through college, but you can do it. It really is exciting. One thing about my job that is very interesting is that day-to-day, even though I work on space missions, it seems like just a regular job. When I walk outside my office and go to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee, I often have to stop in my tracks, because the Mars Rover is driving up a pile of sand between our buildings. They are practicing some commands that they will send up to Mars the next day, and there is nothing really quite like that.