An Interview with Michael Mook

An interview with Michael Mook, Dawn Program Manager at Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, VA. May, 2008
Mike Mook

What excites you most about the Dawn mission?

MM: That the spacecraft I worked on is on its way to the asteroid belt.  And I'm pretty psyched about how well it’s working. It is very special to work on something as hard as we all did and see that it works as intended and that there is an excellent chance that we'll learn something new about our solar system. It makes me even more excited about the prospects of discovery at Ceres and Vesta.

Among the network of international partners, which team are you a member of and what is your team’s role in the Dawn mission?

MM: I am a member of the spacecraft team. Our role was to build, design, and test the spacecraft. We also supported Dawn launch operations and performed initial in-flight operations. The spacecraft team is composed of folks from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Orbital Sciences Corporation. I am an employee of Orbital.

What is your specific job description as it relates to the Dawn mission?
MM: I am the Orbital program director. That means I lead the Orbital part of the Dawn team.

Now, what is it that you really do?

MM: It really takes a huge team working well together to accomplish something as challenging and complex as Dawn. My job is to keep this team focused and headed in the same direction, make sure they know what their roles are, that they have the resources they need, and that they keep talking to one another. If I succeed, they will be able to do their jobs well.  I also guide decisions on how much risk to take, how much to spend, or how much time should be allotted to a particular activity. These decisions have an impact on mission success and team morale, so I consider it an important aspect of my job. In the end, it is very rewarding—especially when it all comes together and you’re flying in space again.

What are some of the challenges that accompany your job?
MM: There are plenty of challenges. Some are technical, like integrating two completely different power systems on Dawn (one for the ion propulsion system, and the other for the rest of the spacecraft). Others are schedule-related, such as recovering from a late part delivery or a test failure. Nevertheless, you feel pretty good when you've been able to pull it off.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
MM: Seeing everything come together—the structure, propulsion system, electronics, science instruments, the solar arrays—and then seeing how it all works on the ground. I think I enjoy that even more than the launch.

I also enjoy knowing that what I do has an impact. Whether it is for science, weather, or defense, every spacecraft I've worked on has added an important capability or increased knowledge. It keeps me energized.

Describe your feelings during and after the launch of the Dawn spacecraft?
MM: After liftoff, I always get this feeling that means “OK, that’s done, now let’s get back to work.”  It’s fantastic to see the liftoff, because it means you made it. You’re part of a team that made some big sacrifices to make sure the launch happened when it needed to and went smoothly. But, now, everything must work as planned and if there's a problem, recovery will be more complicated. So, for me, launch is exciting because of what comes next. We get to fly the spacecraft and prove to ourselves, once again, that we can build one of the world’s most sophisticated spacecrafts.

What are your leisure time activities?

MM: I’m pretty focused on my family right now. I wouldn't exactly call that a leisure activity, though.  When I get the time, I like to hike, bike, kayak, read, and travel/explore. Mostly though, for now, I play games suitable for 2 – 8 years of age.

Do you have a yet-to-be-achieved life goal?
MM: No, not really a single goal, more of an ever-evolving goal. I think you need to go where your curiosity takes you. So, my goal is to keep exploring.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
MM: I didn't think about it much, though I was infatuated with space and space travel. I spent a lot of time reading about and drawing up plans for space colonies and such. I guess it figures.
At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in space science? Talk about the path that led you to this field.
MM: In high school, when I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to be an astronaut, he suggested aerospace engineering. After undergrad, I landed a job at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in DC working in their Spacecraft Engineering department. There, I was able to pursue control systems, design, management, and advanced degrees in parallel with exposure to some of the most advanced space technologies. Ultimately, I left NRL for the Orbital Sciences Corporation and worked on Dawn.

Who inspired you?

MM: I can't say I was inspired by anyone in particular, though I was influenced by many. This includes teachers who encouraged me to go beyond the normal curriculum, news media coverage (about travel to the moon and eventually beyond), and the uniquely capable people I've worked with over the last 20+  years.

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

MM: The Hobbit—what a great adventure.

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers or scientists?
MM: In school, and in everything, try to do a little extra, and always explore and have fun. You’re going to learn much more if you really dig in, and you'll have more fun if you do it as a team.  Set directions, make mistakes, get perspective on what you learn, persevere. Let your mind wander and be inspired. Don't hesitate to ask questions and don't be afraid to expose your errors or inexperience. Try to have diverse interests and make good use of your spare time.

I think that pretty much covers it.

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