The following interview occurred September 8, 1999 between Payload Thermal Engineer Virgil Mireles, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Senior Associate Alice Krueger, Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory:
A.K. You work for the Genesis mission at JPL as the payload thermal engineer. What does this job title mean?
V.M. Actually I have two other job titles. Payload thermal engineer is one of my titles under the Genesis project. My official JPL title is senior technical staff.
I am responsible for the thermal design of the Genesis payload, which is the science instruments. Thermal design assures that any components of the payload don't get too hot or too cold. To implement the thermal design I might put on a heater or a radiator or a blanket of some kind.
I do my analysis by computer modeling. People [other Genesis engineers] tell me the temperature requirements of the components. Based on the environment, whether the spacecraft is pointing at the sun or not, I make a computer model of the payload. The computer model results aid me in specifying the required thermal implementation (heaters, special coatings, blankets, radiators, etc.).
A.K. How does your work support the Genesis mission? Why is it important?
V.M. All disciplines are important on the design of the spacecraft. We're all kind of linked, all equally important, all pieces to one giant puzzle. If one element has a failure, it could be a catastrophic [mission] failure.
Thermal design is important. If things are not maintained within certain temperatures, they will fail. For example, the latest theory of why the Galileo high gain antenna didn't deploy is because of thermal expansion at an interface that was not designed properly. Two pieces expanded and got stuck. Another example is on the Magellan mission. The thrusters [rockets] were running too hot, so they had to redesign the trajectories [of the spacecraft]. If I don't do my job right, the mission will fail.
A.K. You work with many people in the Genesis mission who do not share your educational background and work experience. How do you work with people who do not think as you do?
V.M. In any technical field, many people say the most important thing is technical knowledge. I don't agree. The most important is communication.
I communicate with many other disciplines. They give me their knowledge of their subsystem, and I give information back about my subsystem. It's an interactive system. I could say, "I want you to put a strip of aluminum here for thermal purposes." Then the mechanisms guy would say, "No, you can't do that. I can't close the cover." And the electronics guy would say, "I need to run a cable there." The design process involves interaction because it is a team effort.
A.K. What is your everyday work life like?
V.M. I come in to work and respond to telephone and e-mail messages. This helps me plan my goals for the day. In the morning, I have meetings, discuss issues, and prioritize what needs to be done. I work at my computer, write at my computer, write code to update my models.
In the afternoon, I have one or two meetings each day, either big forums or individually, sometimes on the phone. Or I may work on individual tasks. My work environment is more my office. I talk with LANL [Los Alamos National Laboratory] and LMA [Lockheed Martin Astronautics] regularly.
A.K. What's the most enjoyable work you have done lately?
V.M. Recently we did thermal balance testing in a 25-foot simulator at JPL. I got to play with the hardware and see results. I get to do this about once a year as part of the design process. You analyze, design, then verify. I did the test to verify my model. If there is a difference between the model and the test, then I have to find out if I did the test and the model correctly.
Every engineer gets that feeling. We always like to verify our work. The structural guys do dynamic testing, they shake their models. Every engineer enjoys hands-on stuff. The greatest benefit of this is the interfacing between people and the final product.
A.K. Are there any barriers to your work at the present time?
V.M. In every job there is the problem of dealing with difficult people. It is the most stressful part of the job. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the people I work with are great. But because people are human, there are a few people that are more difficult.
Also, typing. In junior high I thought I was the cool guy. "I'm not taking that typing class." Now I spend all day with my computer, and I do the one-finger push.
A.K. What kind of education and career path led you to this job?
V.M. I got interested in engineering in high school physics. In college, I was studying mechanical engineering with a specialization in control systems. I was in a co-op program at JPL as a sophomore to see what it was like in an engineering field. When I was at JPL I saw I wanted to get my engineering degree. I graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a bachelor's degree.
I worked for about a year, then I noticed the benefits of an advanced degree to be competitive from the knowledge perspective. If you're the only one with a bachelor's in a group of all guys with master's, you notice. What I saw at work got me interested in specializing in thermal and fluids. So I got my master's from Cal State LA at night while working full time. It was four long painful years. I'd say it was a mistake to not do it right after the bachelor's. My advice would be to get your master's right away. After you get married and have a house, it is painful to work full time and do part time school. As long as you know what you want, it only takes one to one and a half years to get that next degree.
A.K. What is your family life like?
V.M. I recently re-married about a year ago. My wife is a nurse. I have three stepdaughters, ages 7, 12, and 14, who are driving me gray and bald.
A.K. What are your leisure time activities?
V.M. I enjoy my spare time. I like playing basketball. I used to play for an adult league. I also work around the house. As a family we enjoy vacations. Those are our escape out of the real world.
A.K. What kind of advice would you give to young students interested in space science?
V.M. When I visit schools for Engineers Week, I tell the kids, "I'm so miserable at writing reports." Junior high kids who want to be engineers enjoy math, but they often hate English or language arts. They think because you're going to be an engineer you don't need language arts. At that age, I said, "Who cares if I don't do language arts? I'm good in math and physics."
It came back to haunt me. I write e-mails, I write reports, I talk on the phone. My technical skills are a smaller part of the job than you would think, less than half. If I were still working at the gas company, it would be probably 5% technical. Those engineers mainly do marketing. They dealt with the technical stuff when working with customers.
Lots of engineering these days involves communication, not calculation.