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  Bob Axsom  

Bob Axsom
Mission Assurance Manager

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The following interview occurred January 20, 2001 between Genesis Mission Assurance Manager Bob Axsom and Senior Program Associate Jacinta Behne, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

J.B. You work as the mission assurance manager on the Genesis mission. What does this job title mean?

B.A. Basically it means the person holding the title is supposed to manage the things that are done to assure the success of the mission. Traditionally this means planning the hardware quality assurance, reliability engineering, environmental compatibility engineering, electronic parts engineering, software quality assurance, and system safety activities to provide the greatest probability of success within the resource constraints imposed on the project. The Genesis project is based on an "Integrated Product Team" concept where all teams are complete entities that are responsible for all activities necessary for providing their product to the project. This includes the mission assurance activities. This is a departure from the traditional approach, and it presents a challenge to maintain the right level of mission assurance in all disciplines across all teams. I wrote the plan and coordinated its requirements with all teams at various locations around the country. I also got their approval signature very early in the development phase. This locked them into complying with a consistent set of minimum requirements for all teams. The organization of the work is determined by the individual teams, but I evaluated them and verified that each was adequate to satisfy the Genesis Mission Assurance Plan requirements. I visit the facilities and monitor their implementation to make sure the deeds measure up to the promises. I also monitor the results to see that they are producing objective evidence and that the system will complete the mission successfully. When things do not look right, I initiate corrective action.

J.B. Do you have an opportunity to work with other Genesis mission teams? If so, how?

B.A. Yes I work with all of them. I've shared what my work as mission assurance manager means, but there are many other less obvious interactions with the Genesis teams. I attend all of the design reviews and critically evaluate the proposed designs. I evaluated the system engineering work in the requirements and verification areas. I researched "lessons learned" from past mission failures and put together a package for the PCAR team to help make the personnel responsible for mission operations aware of the causes of past failures. I participated in the proof of recovery concept testing. I coordinated with various teams--especially the system engineering manager--and developed the Genesis Mission Fault Tree. I approve all major design changes by all teams. There is daily contact with the Genesis mission teams in many areas affecting the assurance of mission success.

J.B. What have you found to be the most fascinating thing about the Genesis mission? What new science understanding will Genesis provide?

B.A. The concept of the mission itself is the most fascinating thing. Flying a spacecraft to a halo orbit around the L1 point, opening it up, collecting solar wind particles in bulk as well as selectively from three regimes specified by the principle investigator, closing it up, and returning it to earth so the collected samples may be analyzed is a very special mission.

J.B. What do you see as the riskiest part of the Genesis mission?

B.A. Attitude control and navigation.

J.B. You have a rich history in space science, having worked with a number of NASA missions. Can you share your involvement in some of those missions with us?

B.A. My first NASA mission was at the beginning of NASA; it was Project Mercury. I worked for McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis and I was one of the three original radio, electrical & electronic inspectors (Burt Ladd and Jim Duncan were the other two) assigned to the project. I inspected the wiring & electrical installations and witnessed the capsule system testing from the "tube & cable mockup" through capsule 14. I was the person that performed the acceptance test of every orbital timing device used to fire the retrorockets and return the capsule to earth. During the Gemini Project, I had a much less direct involvement as an inspection foreman for the McDonnell Douglas Electronics Company that made the analog to digital converter for the two place capsule. I had no known involvement in the Apollo Project. For Skylab Project, I was back in the mainstream again as the resident quality assurance representative for the McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company-East at the Eagle Picher company in Joplin, Missouri. I worked on the development of the six large NiCad batteries used to supply power while the spacecraft was on the dark side of the Earth. More recently I have been the mission assurance manager for JPL on five space shuttle missions: STS-52, STS-59, STS-68, STS-87 and STS-99. The first two of these were low temperature physics experiments and the last three were cutting-edge RADAR missions. The single mission of STS-99 was called the Shuttle RADAR Topography Mission (SRTM). It collected high-resolution topographic data for most of the populated land mass of the Earth for subsequent creation of a digital earth topography database.

J.B. How did your past work lead you to the Genesis mission?

B.A. My route to the Genesis mission is so convoluted that I have to say it is largely luck that I am working on Genesis--very good luck.

J.B. Can you share an image of your everyday work life with us?

B.A. I get up at 04:15 each morning; fix breakfast; get cleaned up and dressed; drive to the John Wayne Airport; fly to the El Monte Airport; drive to JPL; arrive by 07:30; start the computer; respond to e-mail and voice mail; start on the top-priority task of the day; participate in meetings and telecons, initiate coordination contacts as required, always trying to get back to the top priority task of the day and drive it to completion before the end of the day so I can start the next priority task. All of the tasks are focused on assuring the success of the mission. I respond to problems, I take direction from the project manager, and I try to maintain the right detail insight and global perspective. On a normal day, I reverse the commute process and get home again at 18:00.

J.B. How did your educational background prepare you for this job?

B.A. Well, the start was not very good. Had it not been for a teacher named Mr. Rushworth in the 5th and 6th grades at Bernard Elementary School in San Diego, I doubt that I would have made it at all. Up until that time, I had twice failed to be promoted at the end of the school year. I changed names and gave phony addresses as required to avoid repeating the third and fourth grades. He awakened in me the realization that I could achieve a high degree of success by forcing myself to do the work. He was like a magician with the class exposing us to math, English, poetry, art, dancing, physical fitness, and Hawaiian culture far beyond the usual dull classroom instruction. He took us to see the things he wanted us to learn about where possible. I excelled in that class. I never failed any grade promotions after that, but I settled back to just getting by. The next boost in my education came at Point Loma High School in San Diego, California. Reluctantly, at the urging of a friend, I signed up for ROTC and I excelled once again. At 16 I gave a phony birth date, which my mother signed for, and I enlisted in the 40th Infantry Division of the California National Guard where I learned to drive a jeep, a half-track, and a 2 and a half-ton 6X6 truck. Even more dramatic, I fired four 50 caliber machine guns (called a quad 50) from a turret on the back of the half-track. At 17, in my senior year, I quit high school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force was another turning point in my education. I was forced to use my real name. I passed the GED test for high school equivalency. After surviving basic training I was sent to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois for 37 weeks of intense training in electronics and radio maintenance. I did reasonably well, and I subsequently worked as a radio technician at Hamilton Air Force Base, California, K-2 Air Base, Korea, and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. This Air Force training and experience enabled me to get a job at McDonnell Aircraft Company in St. Louis as a grade 2 radio & electrical inspector on the F-101 Voodoo jet fighter. For eight years I worked my way up through the ranks to inspection foreman, taking courses offered by the company at night. In 1966, the company announced that they were going to share the cost of college education and I recognized this as my chance to pull myself up and achieve this very special goal. I attended Washington University in St. Louis at night and in five years I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration and graduated number 5 in my class. In the last year of that work it became apparent to me that to really help me on the job I needed a technical degree so I used my electives to begin the required courses for it. In 1976 I graduated with a Bachelor of Technology Degree in Computer Electronics. During my last semester I passed the Missouri State Engineering Licensing test and received an Engineer-in-Training (EIT) number. The exposure to programming in the curriculum for the second degree and emerging need for controlling the quality of software resulted in my transfer to McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company - West in Huntington Beach, California, to help with software quality assurance. It was an almost overwhelming assignment. I enrolled at West Coast University to get the education to cope with this work and in 1980 I earned a Master of Science Degree in Computer Science. Later that same year I began taking flying lessons and earned a private pilot's license a year later. In 1984 I earned an instrument rating. These last two items may not seem like they are important educationally but they are.

J.B. How does someone prepare to be a mission assurance manager? Is there college preparatory work that serves to help in achieving this role?

B.A. Some combination of engineering and business with an emphasis on engineering is the best suggestion I can give. You can pick up the business, but the engineering is just too complex to acquire on the job. I do not believe there is an "ideal" curriculum that one can follow to prepare for this work.

J.B. Have there been surprises in your education and career history?

B.A. Mostly I find that hard work pays off in achievement and self-actualization. Surprises do occur but they are rare.

J.B. What is your family life like? What leisure time activities do you do for fun?

B.A. My wife and I like to travel both in our airplane around this continent and on commercial tours elsewhere. I have been building an airplane in our garage for the past four years, which I hope to complete by December. Occasionally we fly in a cross-country air race and the design is being modified to be compatible with that activity. We like to go to the theater several times a year. There really isn't any time for much more than a long talk over breakfast on Sunday mornings.

J.B. What advice can you offer to young scientists and engineers?

B.A. Always strive for excellence, accept reasonable risk and never give up.

J.B. Are there keys to success that you would like to share?

B.A. Education is the key.

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Curator: Aimee Meyer
Updated: November 2009

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