Follow this link to skip to the main content
NASA logo, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech button    
JPL Home button Earth button Stars & Galaxies button Technology button
Genesis Search for Origins banner
Home button
Mission button
Spacecraft button
Science button
News button
Education button
Team button
Pre-Launch button
Flight Team button
Recovery button
Science Team button
Interactive button
Archived Homepage
Interview banner
  Chet Sasaki  

Chester N. Saski
Former Project Manager

View Chet's Resume


The following interview occurred June 29, 1998, between then Project Manager Chet Sasaki, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Senior Consultant Alice Krueger, McREL.

A.K. What is a project manager? What are the job responsibilities?

C.S. In general, the job responsibility of the project manager is to manage the project. That is, he or she manages the resources, schedules, and cost elements to achieve the objectives of the project. Within the NASA community, there are two general kinds of programs: science and technology. The responsibility of the project manager of a science program like Genesis is to focus on achieving the science objectives. The responsibility of a project manager of a technology program is primarily to develop the technology or a proof of concept.

A.K. What kinds of people help you do your job?

C.S. Within the Genesis project structure there are two kinds of support: technical and business. In the technical arena I am assisted by the seven heads of the IPTs (Integrated Product Teams). These IPT heads are responsible for their portion of the project. I mean that, end-to-end, they're responsible for their deliverables, i.e., they are accountable for their product, schedule, and cost. These seven people comprise the Genesis Management Team whose technical work spans science to engineering to outreach.

Organizationally, each IPT is structured a little differently. From the perspective of Lockheed Martin Astronautics (LMA), whose work comprises a large portion of the Genesis project including the spacecraft and the sample return capsule, the substructure is comprised largely of subsystems. The payload group at Los Alamos is comprised of two large groups. They are a smaller organization with a smaller defined piece of work, and they historically work in small, fully contained teams. Within the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory's) portion of the Genesis project, we have hardware elements, such as the canister, the locking ring, and the array.

I am also assisted by the business office. While the business office may have technical personnel, its functions are performance measurement system implementation (schedule and cost performance), mission assurance, information management, and configuration management.

A.K. How were you chosen to be the project manager for Genesis?

C.S. Serendipity. The person who ultimately picked me for the position was Genesis Principal Investigator Don Burnett. I was recommended by the former Project Manager Firouz Naderi, in the preliminary stages of planning the Genesis mission. I also had to be approved by the Director of the Space and Earth Science Program Directorate at JPL.

I had some meetings and interviews with Don Burnett which were fairly informal. He largely accepted Firouz's recommendation. I think he was looking mainly for experience, because it can usually be assumed that if someone has experience, they have the necessary skills. Actually there were also discussions about whether or not I had enough visibility within NASA to win the contract for Genesis. I believe, however, from a performance point of view, that the primary qualification for this job is experience.

A.K. What is the relationship between what you do and what the scientists are trying to discover?

C.S. My primary interest is in implementing the project so that they can accomplish their science objectives. The Genesis team translates the science requirements and produces systems such as the spacecraft, SRC (sample return capsule), payload, mission design, and mission operations to achieve that science. The scientists define their requirements, participate in the approval of the designs, develop the systems necessary for sample analysis, and eventually analyze the samples when they return.

A.K. What is the most fascinating thing about the Genesis mission?

C.S. For me it is the challenge associated with a complex, multifaceted mission. "Faster, better, cheaper" means we have a cost cap and a short schedule. A challenge new to me is the partnership with our commercial partner, Lockheed Martin.

A.K. What is the riskiest part of the Genesis mission?

C.S. There are two different kinds of risk: programmatic and technical. The programmatic risk of this mission is the new partnering approach and the short schedule. The technical risk is that we are a strongly mechanisms-driven project. By that, I mean that as a robotic mission, we have lots of deployments and motion-producing devices. We open the SRC, unlatch the canister, open the canister, rotate the arrays, restore everything for reentry, deploy the SRC, and deploy parachutes. Any failure can halt the mission. To minimize these risks we use early prototyping and early engineering models. We test the heck out of mechanisms. We put in redundant units where we can; where we physically can't or where we can't afford it, we put in factors of safety. That means we put in more than is required.

A.K. What will the science of space be like in 20 years? How will this mission contribute?

C.S. Twenty years from now we will have freer, broader access to space. There will be more launches. We will have been to all the planets and will have landed on several, not just the moon and Mars. We will understand the solar system better by then.

In the future we will have smaller spacecraft, what they call "spacecraft on a chip" that will be not only smaller, but more efficient and can be used more often. We're only a small contributor to "faster, better, cheaper" missions. Genesis is learning how to do things faster, better, and cheaper. The programmatics drive us to "faster and cheaper" and the technology and the people to "better."

A.K. Do you have other responsibilities at JPL? If so, what are they?

C.S. Genesis takes up most of my time. I also serve on review boards for other missions, such as Critical Design Reviews or Pre-Launch Reviews.

A.K. What is your everyday work life like?

C.S. I get in early, about 7ish. The days get long in "faster, better, cheaper." Since we downsized, I often stay until 6 or 7 p.m. I frequently work 4-8 hours on one day of the weekend. About 35% of my time is spent in meetings with people, either face-to-face or on the telephone. Another 35% is spent on electronic communications, e-mail, and telephone. The remainder of the day I am trying to understand the project. This involves reading, analyzing budgets and cost performances, and visiting schedules. I want to make sure that our infrastructure works right. To some degree I act as a systems engineer. I review everything, but I assume the tech guys do the technical work. I usually do a high level review and try not to micromanage.

A.K. What is systems engineering? It doesn't seem to be something you could learn at college.

C.S. Systems engineering is usually learned on the job. Many employers have courses they offer in systems engineering. It doesn't require experience in any particular engineering discipline; actually more general understanding and some in depth knowledge in some engineering discipline is enough. Personal skills are required also. Systems engineering's product is paper and unified designs. The purpose of systems engineering is to achieve a consistent set of requirements and designs across systems and to optimize across system interfaces. So nobody gets exactly what he or she wants, not only because of systems engineering, but also because of cost and schedule constraints. Systems engineers look across the project and make judgments.

A.K. Are there or were there any barriers to your work?

C.S. Lack of experience with certain situations is one. Some situations are outside the scope of my experience. Then I need good input and advice from people. I also have mentors to whom I can go. They have had experience with things I have not had yet.

Institutional barriers are the rules, and regulations sometimes get in the way. The regulations were created to keep people from recreating something someone else worked on and to prevent them from making the same mistakes. In the first order, you try to live with the rules. If it is worth fighting for and spending the silver bullet on, then you try to change the system.

A.K. What kind of career path led you to become an engineer?

C.S. Becoming an engineer was mostly serendipitous for me. I didn't think very hard about what I wanted to be. I was always good at math and science in grade school and high school in Hawaii, so the technical area was a natural to go into. Engineering was available, so I went into that at the University of Hawaii. I had enjoyed working with cars as a teenager, so I chose mechanical engineering.

Because several of my friends were at the University of Illinois, I transferred there, where after two years, I got my Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. I had been through ROTC there as well, so I also received my commission into the Air Force. I got the rest of my education through the Air Force. I got my Master of Science through the Air Force Institute of Technology program. I enrolled in the doctoral program at KSU (Kansas State University) while I was teaching there for the Air Force. It is interesting that during my undergraduate work I was interested in mechanical engineering from the aspect of design. During my master's work, I was interested in fluid mechanics, and my doctoral work was in controls. Now I know that I prefer managing rather than detailed technical work.

A.K. What has been the most surprising thing about your education and career history?

C.S. I've never really been surprised by either my education or my career. I guess the biggest surprise was becoming project manager for Genesis. I had been working as assistant project manager for the Scatterometer projects and the opportunity to do Genesis came out of the blue.

A.K. What is your family life like?

C.S. Well, it's short compared to my work life. I spend a good deal of time at work. I am on my second marriage. My wife, Kathy, and I each have two grown kids who are working. We have two grandchildren in New Jersey who we don't get to see as often as we would like, because work gets in the way.

A.K. What are your leisure time activities?

C.S. I spend time at the gym and do minor home improvements. Kathy and I enjoy going to plays, movies, and concerts when there is time.

A.K. What advice can you give to young engineers?

C.S. Just the age-old thing that never rings true to young people. I didn't believe it when I was younger. "Do something you like."

~~~ button

+ Freedom of Information Act

+ Privacy/Copyright

Curator: Aimee Meyer
Updated: November 2009

go to go to go to