An Interview with Keyur Patel

Meet Dawn's Project Manager, Keyur Patel
The following interview took place at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California on May 22, 2006 between Keyur Patel, Project Manager of the Dawn Mission (JPL), and Education and Public Outreach team member John Ristvey from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
Keyur Patel

JR: What is your role in the Dawn mission?

KP: I’m the Dawn Project Manager. Basically, what the project manager does is he or she is responsible for the engineering and management of the project. And, in our case, Chris Russell is the PI [Principal Investigator], and he usually takes care of the science portion of the mission.

JR: Sound like it’s a big job, being a project manager. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that involves on your end?

KP: It is a big job, but I can’t do it without the rest of the team. We have the rest of the project team who are essential in making this mission happen. And, with all of us and coordination, we go work the different aspects of the project and get things done to achieve a launch.

JR: Is there something like a typical workday for you—something that you can describe for our audience about what a typical workday might look like? Or are they so very different from each other?

KP: There is no such typical workday, but I can guarantee you, 95% of my time is spent in meetings. You’re looking outwards and inwards: outwards, in the sense, where you have to keep JPL management, NASA management, program office management up to speed on what’s going on; and inwards, in the sense of if there are key technical decisions that have to be made or budgetary decisions or schedule decisions that have to be made, you have to be involved with that. And, then, there’s the overall statusing and keeping your pulse on the day-to-day goings-on of the project.

JR: With Dawn, you have international partners. You have a science team all over the country. And, certainly, we’ve had challenges with the mission itself, but are there any challenges that come with the job?

KP: In our case, actually, our international interface has actually been pretty clean, at least in my administration. The instruments are actually delivered and sitting there. So, our international partners have actually fulfilled their commitment of getting their deliveries in. The issue now is getting the spacecraft hardware and the ion propulsion system all integrated and moving forward, so we can achieve a launch on June 20th.

JR: Any other challenges with the job? Personnel? You have a wonderful staff to work with. Communications?

KP: No. Everything else is just business as usual. This is my—how would you put it—this is my third job in a row where I’ve showed up 12 months before launch, so I’m kind of getting old at this.

JR: Tell me a little bit more about your work history. You’ve been at JPL for 20 years now—can you share some of that history?

KP: I actually started at JPL when I was a junior in college. When I graduated, I was actually the AACS  or the Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem Cognizant Engineer for Voyager Spacecraft for Neptune Encounter. Then, I moved on from there onto Mars Observer and spent time on Mars Observer until it failed. After it failed, [I] led a team of people who were responsible for doing all the testing and analysis for the three different standing review boards that were established to find out what caused the failure. After that, I went into line management for a number of years. Then, [I]came out of line management and was the product engineer and flight system manager on a project called Starlight, which was the first, formation-flying, space interferometer—after that, SIRTF, Deep Impact , and now Dawn.

JR: Correct me if I’m wrong on this, Mars Observer was functioning really well right up until insertion.

KP: Right up until the tank was pressurized just before orbit insertion. I get the phone call at home saying, ‘Did you guys see anything in the analysis and testing you were doing in the test bed?’ ‘No, why?’ ‘We haven’t heard from it.’ Functioning was beautiful.

JR: Tell me a little bit more about working at JPL. Seems like an exciting place to work—what do you find interesting about working there?

KP: What I find most interesting is [that] no two jobs are the same. The history I just went through with the flight projects I worked on—it’s not the third version of the same thing. Every one is a unique challenge on its own—unique technical challenge on its own. That just keeps you excited and motivated on doing what you do.

JR: You said this is the third mission that you’ve come in 12 months prior to launch, and each one is unique with its own works and challenges about it; but are there certain things that have to happen?

KP: There are certain things that have to happen—you kind of build up a set of approaches on solving the problem. If it’s worked for you in the past, you want to use it because it’s going to work for you in the future. But the technical problem each mission throws at you is quite different, and you have to use all your tools and wits to get through them.

JR: Share with us some unique aspects of the Dawn mission. You mentioned that each one is a little bit unique. Are there any specific things that you are seeing as part of the Dawn mission that make it unique?

KP: Dawn is unique in the sense [that] it’s the first major use of an ion propulsion system for a deep space mission, and it is that system that had some of the technical challenges that caused the mission to be stood-down and looked at by the independent assessment team. Because of that, we have to pay very special attention to make sure we technically answer all the questions regarding the ion propulsion system, and do what’s right before we deliver that hardware for integration.

JR: Since reinstatement, you’ve been re-establishing your teams and pulling people back on. How has that been going as far as getting back up from a ‘stand-down’ to a ‘cancel’ to a ‘reinstatement’ and then back up again?

KP: It’s actually going quite smoothly because both institutions, JPL and Orbital, are both committed to making this happen—in fact, more than trying. They are in full support of bringing back the people that were on the project to begin with and then, they are letting the project handpick individuals for certain jobs and reassigning them from other jobs to make this mission successful.

JR: Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do when you’re not managing the Dawn mission? Do you have other responsibilities at JPL?

KP: This is my primary mission; I have no other responsibilities at JPL. Dawn is it.

JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your career path that led you to become a project manager? Tell us a little about your background prior to coming to JPL as a project manager.

KP: I was in college. I have no background. This is the only place I have ever worked. In fact, it is by sheer accident I got into the space business, because my entire college history and study history is airplanes—aerodynamics. I started working here in the summer, and I’ve never looked back at an airplane yet.

JR: So you say it’s an accident—you had some interest in aeronautics.

KP: I had a huge interest in aerospace engineering, but it was more geared toward airplanes than spacecraft or astrodynamics-type stuff.

JR: If we go back further in time—high school, college—what subjects interested you most when you were in school?

KP: Math and Science have always interested me when I was in school—both grade school and high school. Being in this field, that’s a given for most engineers, in the sense that there was always some interest or something that was the ‘great attractor’ that brought you to math and science. And, you just carried it forward from there.

JR: Within the fields of math and science, were there any particular disciplines that captured your interest?

KP: In science, it was physics. In math, it was just math, in general—it was just very interesting.

JR: When you were younger, did you have any favorite books as a child, or what did you enjoy doing as hobbies?

KP: I don’t think I had favorite books as a child, but I had favorite genres, which I loved to read. One thing, somehow or another, I got so addicted on World War II history books, in the sense of the great battles—sea battles and land battles. And then, of course, science fiction—that was like anything that was science fiction I was reading, pretty much.

JR: Did you have a favorite teacher or mentor who maybe inspired you to get into the math and science fields? Is there anybody along the way who made a difference in your life? That made you think ‘this is what I want to do’?

KP: If you look back, my family, on my father’s side—it was a large family—and all of the brothers in his family were all engineers, So, it pretty much starts at home with my parents, in the sense of them guiding me and letting me do what I wanted to do. I ended up doing the same thing that my dad was doing.

JR: Tell me a little bit more about that.

KP: Sorry, I should be a little more precise. I ended up doing similar to what my dad was doing. My dad was an engineer, also, but he wasn’t an aerospace engineer.

JR: Are any of your family members still in the field?

KP: They’re in the field. My uncle was a civil engineer, and my brother is actually a physician. In fact, I started out as a physician in school. Then, I got bored with the rote memorization that I had to do, so I decided to switch to something that didn’t require a lot of memorizing.

JR: Do you have any ‘yet to be achieved’ life goals?

KP: Well, one, I think just about everybody aims for—probably to retire early and do a whole lot more traveling than quite possible in the business we’re in—traveling at a personal level, not traveling for business.

JR: Are you able to do any leisure travel?

KP: Not in the last few years, you know, it is very little. It’s whatever one- or two-week vacation you can take here or there, but nothing of an extended period of time.

JR: Favorite locations that you’d like to see?

KP: I’m pretty much open to just about anything. When we go, we have a planned set of events that we go through, but we also like to ad lib once we’re there, in the sense of just doing things off-the-cuff.

JR: What advice would you give to an aspiring young engineer or young scientist that might be interested in doing your kind of work?

KP: Be very inquisitive. Just keep asking questions. Make sure you keep asking the right questions until you are satisfied with the answer you get.

JR: Did I miss anything? Are there any questions that you’d like to respond to, or is there anything you’d like to add to being a project manager? About the Dawn mission? About your team?

KP: It’s a great team. It’s a great project. And we’re going to launch next June.

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