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  Don Sweetnam  

Don Sweetnam
Project Manager

View Don's Resume


The following interview occurred July 2, 2004 between Genesis Mission Project Manager Don Sweetnam and Jacinta Behne, McREL.

J.B. You have a long history with the Genesis mission, and made the transition from PCAR team lead to project manager following the spacecraft launch. How has the nature of your work changed in that transition?

D.S. Prior to launch I led the Planning, Control, Analysis Integrated Product Team. At launch and after, this job transitioned to mission manager, for which I was responsible for the day-to-day leadership of the Flight Team (people who plan the mission and operate the spacecraft). My main focus was internal-mostly to the people who work on the project. When I took on the role of project manager, my focus became mostly external. While I have overall responsibility for the Genesis project, I spend a lot of time communicating to people outside of the project about how things are going. This includes my NASA sponsors on the one hand and the public on the other.

J.B. The Genesis spacecraft has logged over 1,000 days of flight. Have there been significant milestones and/or great challenges in flight?

D.S. We have completed collecting solar wind samples. Our spacecraft, like a tuna boat with a hold full of albacore headed to port, is loaded with ions from the sun headed for Earth. The biggest challenge is now ongoing—getting the spacecraft back from space, through a little keyhole at the top of Earth's atmosphere, past the blazing heat of reentry, intercepted and hooked by a helicopter over the Utah desert, and safely delivered to an ultra-clean room in Texas. Of course, this pales in comparison to the scientist's task of extracting a few solar atoms from a matrix of silicon wafers....

J.B. The Genesis sample return maneuver, with its mid-air capture by flight crews that include Hollywood stunt pilots, promises edge-of-your-seat suspense for the public. What are some of the challenges in executing a perfect retrieval operation on September 8?

D.S. 'Hardest is going to be to find it. The capsule enters the top of the Earth's atmosphere at 11km/s above the Oregon coastline and within three minutes it is over a 100km target zone in the Utah desert—still another three minutes, it's in a lazy spiral under a 30 foot parafoil with 12 minutes for a helicopter to redezvous with it and a few minutes more to hook it.

J.B. Once the capsule is captured, how will it be contained? When will the science canister be opened?

D.S. The capsule will be towed by the helicopter from the intercept point out on the range back to a nearby airfield where a clean room awaits. We set the capsule down in a fixture with wheels that is waiting nearby the cleanroom and then roll it inside. Then we proceed to saw (think sawzall) through 4 latches releasing the capsule lid and allowing us to see the closed and sealed canister. We connect a pure nitrogen line to the canister to expel any contaminated air inside. And then we "tag and bag" all of the capsule and parafoil parts and ship them to Johnson Space Center (JSC). Once inside the ultra-clean room at JSC, we will start the process to open the canister and expose the solar wind collector arrays. The array wafers will be inventoried and checked with microscopes for cracks and meteorite impacts. Then begins a longer process to cut up some of the array wafers and send small chips to science teams who will search for the ions from the Sun.

The following interview occurred May 29, 2001 between then Genesis Mission Operations Manager and PCAR Team Leader Don Sweetnam and Senior Consultant Jacinta Behne, McREL.

J.B. You work as the PCAR team leader on the Genesis mission. What does PCAR stand for, and what does this job title mean?

D.S. PCAR is an acronym for Planning, Control, Analysis, and Recovery. generally speaking, these are the major tasks of the mission operations team. Our job is to fly the spacecraft (by remote control) from the time of launch until the return to Earth. We do this by planning what events (such as a midcourse maneuver) are supposed to occur and on what dates they are to happen. We control the spacecraft by sending commands. We do analysis of the telemetry from the spacecraft to tell how the spacecraft is doing and what the solar wind is like, and at the end of the mission we perform a recovery of the sample return capsule when it comes back to Earth.

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

D.S. Prior to launch Genesis has several teams, including a science instrument building team and spacecraft building team. The PCAR Team has worked closely with these teams to make sure that we understand how the spacecraft will perform in space and how to operate the science instruments.

J.B. Do you have other responsibilities at JPL? If so, what are they?

D.S. Right now, I am dedicated to the Genesis Discovery Mission.getting it successfully launched and collecting solar wind samples.

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

D.S. The most fascinating thing about Genesis is the trajectory. it is like we are flying around the edge of an enormous potato chip. I am excited that Genesis will provide a new understanding about the composition of our Sun from the solar wind samples we collect, and how that will help us understand why our Earth is different from the Sun and different from the other planets in our solar system.

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

D.S. The two riskiest parts are right at the start and right at the end. At the start we must do a big midcourse correction just 48 hours after launch to make sure the spacecraft gets to the Earth-Sun libration point, L1. At the end we must get the spacecraft to return to a tiny spot in the Utah desert and then snag it with a helicopter before it hits the ground.

J.B. What is your work history in space science? Can you share your involvement in some past NASA mission with us? How did that work lead to your work on Genesis?

D.S. I have done science experiments at Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Io, Saturn, Titan, Uranus, Neptune, and Triton to measure and understand the atmospheres of these solar system bodies. These measurements were done with Mariner 9, Pioneer 10 & 11, Mariner 10, Viking 1 & 2, and Voyager 1 & 2. I want to extend the repertoire to include our Sun.

J.B. Can you capture an image of your everyday work life for us?

D.S. Since I have overall responsibility for the PCAR Operations team, I spend a good part of each day talking with members of my team --here at JPL, at LMA in Denver, and at LANL in Los Alamos. I discuss their work progress (updating the trajectory or developing a command sequence or modeling how a science instrument will work in space) to make sure that things will get done in time for launch and that their work dove-tails with that of other team members.

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

D.S. I have a degree in mathematics.math is used in just about every aspect of the Genesis mission (from designing a trajectory for the spacecraft to fly in space to estimating how large a battery the spacecraft needs to calculating how many electrons are whizzing past). It is even important in the mundane task of keeping track of how much money we are spending and checking that we haven't "overdrawn the checkbook."

J.B. How does someone prepare to be a PCAR team leader? Is there college preparatory work that serves to help in achieving this role?

D.S. At JPL the types of things we do depend heavily on science, engineering and mathematics.these are the basic areas to concentrate on. Advanced course work often involves Systems Engineering - learning what it takes to go from an idea about a space mission to actually doing it.

J.B. What career path led you to your current scope of work at JPL?

D.S. Most of my career at JPL has been conducting science investigations to understand planetary atmospheres. The experience gained about the spacecraft and mission used to conduct these experiments gradually led me to want to lead teams to do the operations.

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

D.S. For me, I found that the on the job experiences at JPL, working with world class scientists and engineers has been continually inspiring, challenging and rewarding.and far beyond what ever could be learned in a classroom.

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

D.S. I have a wife and three nearly grown children. Leisure time is spent visiting them at their colleges or watching my youngest son at a football game. I also enjoy outdoor photography.

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

D.S. Math and engineering classes really do teach you useful things.if you come to work at JPL.

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

D.S. There is always more to learn and there are always interesting people to learn from.

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Curator: Aimee Meyer
Updated: November 2009

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