Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
Program Manager for Deep Impact
Tony Ebaugh interviews John Marriott - 4/11/01
TE: I'd like to start out with a little about your background, your education, where you grew up.
JM: O.K. I actually grew up in a small town in central New York - Savannah. I went into the U.S. Air Force for a stint there, and then went to work for a company called Air Research. I've spent most of my life in aerospace of one type or another. I went back to New York and took classes at Syracuse. And then I made the decision to go back to Arizona. I got as far as Boulder, Colorado and decided it was a pretty nice place. Basically, I just decided to stay there. I went the University of Colorado, Denver, got my degree there, and have been working at Ball Aerospace. This is my nineteenth year.
TE: What did you get your degree in?
JM: I have a degree in pre-engineering, and I have a degree in finance. I also have a degree in management: business administration.
TE: How long were you in the Air Force?
JM: I was in the Air Force just about two years. I had shortened duty because I was on special assignment. I was responsible for some special equipment. It was classified and we ended up having to stay on top of mountains in these real remote places for forty-five to sixty days. It was survival kind of stuff.
TE: Would you recommend the Air Force to engineers or anyone wanting to get into the aerospace field?
JM: Engineering today is such a specialized place. For some functions of engineering, it's a good thing to do. Some other areas of engineering are so specialized; really the university is the only way to go. And then it's constant education after that to keep up with things - computer science for instance, computer engineering, some of the electronics areas. It's just amazing out there. It's so fast moving that you need the best education as quickly as possible. And then you have to be the type of person who wants to build on that education, to really stay on the leading edge because of a lot of the work we do.
TE: When you were growing up, was there any inherent interest in Astronomy that sort of lead you to space engineering?
JM: I think I was 16 years old. I worked real hard and saved my money. I bought a used VW bug and it didn't work. My mother came home from work, took a look at it, got a coat hanger, bent it all up and hooked it up to the choke system and the car ran beautifully after that. Somehow in my mind, I associate the fact that she fixed the car with "If she can fix this car, then I want to work where she does." So that was how I decided that aerospace and management was something that I ought to get into. The funny part was that I actually did get a job at her company.
TE: How did you get involved in the Deep Impact Mission?
JM: I was called one day to look at the Deep Impact mission in terms of how best to get it done at Ball. So I made some inputs to it and then I went and did an analysis on how to structure the program. We lost that round of proposals, so we went back to the drawing board and rethought our approach. In the meantime, I was the program manager responsible for the SIRTF IRS instruments. SIRTF is the space infrared telescope facility, the fourth in the line of Great Observatories. Ball went through another round of proposals on Deep Impact, and the program was selected. The proposal was selected, basically without my involvement. I've been with Deep Impact for two years now directly.
TE: What do you think about the Deep Impact mission?
JM: I think this mission has the potential, if it comes off the way it does on the drawing board, to be the most exciting science mission that we've ever been involved in? That's my feeling.
Ball does a lot of Hubble Space Telescope work. I think after the next servicing mission that every instrument up there on the space telescope is a Ball instrument. We do a lot of new science and a lot of exciting things. But this clearly is really something, if you just step back and look at the engineering feat! Here a comet is moving at ~40 km/s through space and here comes a spacecraft that's largely made of copper, that's going to impact this comet. Well actually, its going to be like a bug on a windshield because the spacecraft is moving at 10 km/sec trying to hit this thing doing all the science that we're doing. So when you look at the challenge of it, that's enough to get me in there every day. Most of the people at Ball are like that.
This stuff is so great. Working with the principal investigators at the universities and the scientists, you'd be surprised at what these guys can dream up. So it's pretty exciting. I think when you remember how it was in the Pathfinder days when you could get on the web; this is looking like it might be even more public. The reason I say this is by the number of times my phone rings during the day. It will be a public event - there's no question about it.
TE: So what exactly do you do?
JM: I'm responsible for the whole program at Ball. I'm responsible for the day-to-day activities of everything that goes on there, so I have a hundred and fifty people that report to me. My daily activity is pretty much scheduled around meetings and different types of interfaces that have to go on from the sub-systems and other folks that are involved in the program. I'm also the person that's responsible for all the external interfaces with the Principal Investigator, Mike A'Hearn and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA Headquarters for that matter.
TE: Do you still get to do any engineering or are you all management?
JM: No it's all management now.
TE: Do you like that better?
JM: Hmm, it's a big difference. To be a good engineer today you need to know something about management. You need to know something about business. You need to know what the reality is. It's not all engineering, for sure. What happens is, you get so specialized and the work that we're doing and these instruments and this mission itself is so specialized that you just can't be an expert in all those areas. So you depend on these folks to do their engineering and you evaluate the process all the time and make sure things are being done. I'll sit in on meetings and I'll kind of referee sometimes, ask a lot of questions, make sure people are thinking through the whole process. You need that approach with that many people to make sure you're getting things done as cost-effectively as possible. There's quite a bit of planning and implementation that has to go on to make a project like this happen. It's every bit as challenging as any engineering problem that you'll ever have. And there's no question, you should never assume for a moment that the business part of it isn't as important.
Engineering is now systems engineering. Systems engineering is responsible for the overall environment of engineering. That says now you need to know something about computers. You need to know mechanical. You need to know the electronics. You need to know the orbits. You need to know the spacecraft and how it performs. You need to know the integration and test sequences. You need to know where the requirements come from, how the data's going to be taken, and what to do with it, why you're doing it, and how you relate data to science. Basically, you've got photons coming in and you have electrons coming out and that's a pretty complex system. O.K, now you're the guy who's responsible for all of that. You're the guy whose office I walk into and say "Why are these requirements the way they are?" How's that for a pretty overwhelming job?